Getting Action From Your Team: COLLABORATION

Tom Peter’s book, “In Search of Excellence,” recognized Hewlett Packard Co for emphasizing teamwork, delegation, and collaboration. HP created a brand synonymous with quality by requiring product teams to understand and exceed all expectations a customer might have regarding product performance. HP introduced an acronym to their employees, called FLURPS (functionality, localization, use-ability, reliability, performance, and supportability), to aid evaluation and review of requirements documents for their robustness and completeness.

For HP to obtain these robust designs, multiple departments in the organization had to lend their expertise. Collaboration is the cooperation among multiple parties with diverse perspectives to achieve a common goal. Product development, process design, and Kanban quality improvement are business examples where collaboration can deliver a solution greater than the sum of the parts. Achieving collaboration requires a manager to master the management skills that create a culture with a high value on leadership and accountability.

The greatest inhibitors to collaboration are inadequate communication and lack of trust. A “smokestack” organization is one where the departments or functional areas are managed independently with communication channeled through management or data structures. These organizations develop by managers limiting the interactions between departments to reduce the complexity of management. Significant performance improvements can be made by these managers ceasing to manage complexity alone and starting to involve their teams. Clear communication of expectations and status will sustain trust and allow collaboration to flourish.

Clear goals, willingness to share data and recognition, and the ability to negotiate timely decisions that self-direct a team are other key elements that encourage collaboration. Goals need to be clear, tangible, results-oriented, and preferably SMART. Teams that do not share a common view of the end goal tend to generate more meetings and distraction than results. A perceived scarcity of opportunity and confusion about their value can cause workers to hide information and knowledge. A possible solution is deploying technology that improves access to information while keeping data secure. Technology is no replacement, however, for making employees feel valued. One caution: imposing security barriers that separate people from information they need is just another way to hide information.

Achieving effective negotiation within a team is perhaps management’s greatest challenge.  It’s rare that a corporate culture emerges that is truly egalitarian. During my years in information technology, designers held disproportionate power over production engineers, field support, and technical writers. Teaching appreciation of other players’ roles and structuring incentives and performance measures to reward cooperation will boost collaboration. I observe when designers have too much sway, the product usually flops.

Developing a collaborative culture is a complex topic. If you want to learn more, let’s talk and get your questions answered.

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Making Resolutions: Passion or Procrastination?

As 2012 comes to a close, we brace ourselves for the media highlight reels and the perfunctory New Year’s Resolutions. So often when I talk to people about resolutions, I see rolling eyeballs and shaking heads.  At least one of the reasons that resolutions are abandoned so quickly is that people don’t know how to make them. The same can be said for business executives and how they set annual goals.

Have–Do–Be or Be–Do–Have? The first question to ask when setting a goal is, “Is this goal about having something or doing something?” The New Year’s crowd will often say they want weight loss or more money. Businesses will report they want more revenue, more customers, and better quality. The problem is that these goals do not identify any action. My experience is that the New Age axiom of “Be-Do-Have” is the progression that leads to personal and organizational transformation.  Statements like “I will be fit” or “I will be more visible in the market” or “I will be more competitive” provide clarity and open possibilities for innovative action.

Is it your passion? Passionless goals and resolutions dissolve quickly. Ask yourself what are the aspects about your vocation and your life that REALLY get you excited. On the personal side, it might be travel, quality time with the family, access to education, or creative expression. For a business it might be surprising a customer by exceeding their expectations, innovation breakthroughs, or growing a more participatory culture. Successful executives are mindful of both personal and organizational passions and are certain to feature them in vision statements.

Is it specific and obtainable? It’s fine to “think big” and challenge an organization. But if you leave it up to the organization to find the way forward, you won’t find the cooperation to get the job done. I suggest taking a lofty goal and break it up into identifiable milestones. Above all, be certain who are responsible, what will be done, and when will it be complete.

What’s in the way? I’ve observed that the “secret sauce” for goal success is how obstacles are handled. There is enormous value in clarifying obstacles as long as it is handled with the understanding it cannot impact the commitment to the goal. In toxic cultures, discussing obstacles can be interpreted as weakness, complaining, or even bring into question one’s competence. In a healthy organization, managers identify discussions about obstacles as an opportunity to coax the organization to try something it’s never tried before. As an aside, guiding the transformation of a culture to tackle this issue is one of my passions. 

How to Foster Innovation ?

In a sluggish economy with industries achieving uneven growth, many organizations are scrambling to discover strategies that will beat the competition. Although innovation can be elusive, managers can create an environment that is more conducive to innovation. As we prepare for the 2013 planning cycle, here are some suggestions.

It is a myth that innovative ideas come out of unconstrained, “out-of-the-box” brainstorming.  Most of these processes yield a myriad of ideas that are not relevant to the organization’s business model.  Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it, they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while.” The challenge for managers is to focus the possibility space to the business model and add a diversity of perspectives, or what Jobs called dots. Start with a factual analysis that describes the company and the problems that your market is worried about. Activities could include:

  • Interview key customers with open questions that draw out perceived possibilities and concerns. Get a picture of the role customers would like to see your company play.
  • If your company keeps a scorecard or performance metrics, collect current and historical data for review. Refrain from any interpretation of why the numbers are what they are.
  • Perform secondary research on industry performance and collect short and long-term perspectives from thought leaders in your industry.

The next step is to select the team that will brainstorm ideas to be investigated. The only qualification for a team member is that they are engaged in the success of the company. Give your team time to study the data above and set necessary boundaries for the exercise. Possibilities for the brainstorming include:

  • Construct brainstorming venues that include both large groups and small, diverse teams.
  • Encourage audacity. Stimulate thinking by asking how to achieve highly-aggressive growth goals where the only constraint is technical feasibility. Then ask the team to work within the boundaries.
  • Bring in outsiders. A trap for managers is a belief that a team member needs a decade of industry experience to make meaningful contributions. In Jobs’ words, industry experts have fewer “dots.”
  • Show sincere gratitude and detailed feedback on every idea offered! Participants need to feel listened to in order to remain engaged.