How to make collaboration and social business work

Social business collaboration cultureAt the heart of most notions of social business is collaboration: helping people work together better with social technologies. This is a reductive definition, social business is much more than that…but that is for another blog post.

I have been thinking a lot recently about collaboration and organisational culture, and why social business will fail if we leave it to the software providers. No piece of software is going to fix a culture that isn’t committed to collaborating.

On a personal level, since we all prize team-work, many people think collaboration comes naturally to them. And when it works well, we think we’re doing a good job naturally. In easy situations, where we all like each other and we’ve collaborated before and it’s been a success this is the case. But to assume this is all an involuntary behaviour is wrong. True collaboration is actually hard work and a bit painful at times.

So what happens when collaboration goes bad. And what we can do to fix it?

Great collaboration

A couple of weeks ago Brazilian Terezinha Guilhermina won gold in the womens’ 100m sprint. One of the reasons this was remarkable is she is blind. She ran the race alongside her guide Gilhermay Soares de Santana.

Seeing Terezinha and Gilhermay storm down the track was awesome, in its most literal sense. To train to win a 100m sprint is an incredible endeavour. To do it blind is unimaginable. To be the guide that trains just as hard to get someone else down that track to win…. that is amazing collaboration.

It reminded me of a quote from Group Genius by Keith Sawyer who describes the Wright brothers who are credited with inventing the first plane. He says:

The Wrights drew on the power of collaboration. They allowed their innovation to unfold from constant conversation and side-by-side work.

In other words great communication and proximity.

Sawyer is a Professor of Education and Psychology at Washington University and has studied creativity and innovation. He’s also a jazz musician.

He believes that true creativity is not a singular process – an individual having a light bulb moment and inventing a car. Rather it is an iterative additive collaborative thing. So he set to work studying the ultimate collaborators: improv artists – in the theatre and jazz bands.

I don’t have time to do his work justice. So I shall play fast and loose with his work and focus on three attributes of great collaboration according to Sawyer and then flip them to see if we can learn anything about why it can be so problematic.

One: “Successful collaborative teams practice deep listening”

Do we spend enough time listening to and observing others? Are we truly open to someone else’s input? This might require subordinating our egos. This requires confidence.

Two: “Team members build on their collaborators’ ideas”

Are we wrongly dogged in pursuing a different agenda? We might need to admit that our idea needs more work or is even wrong. This requires bravery.

Three: “Innovation emerges from the bottom up”

Improv performances are self organising – no director and no script. The best collaborative teams form spontaneously. So if we get hung up about our status or others – “it’s not my job to do that,” or “I’m too senior to play a supporting role” – we will not succeed. This requires flexibility.

Think about culture before software

So if collaboration isn’t effective in your business, before reviewing the many collaboration software options out there, it’s worth considering whether there are five cultural issues that need addressing.

  • Communication – are your teams in regular effective conversation?
  • Proximity – are they working together closely?
  • Confidence – are they self assured enough to listen to others and subordinate their own opinions?
  • Bravery – will they admit they’re wrong?
  • Flexibility – will they make a contribution based on their talents in spite of corporate hierarchies?

Photo credit: wired witch on Flickr