Alliance Management Consulting and Training, Partnering Frameworks and Tools, Collaborative Leadership

Five Skills for Collaborating Across Boundaries
1. Partnering Guide / December 26th, 2019     A+ | a-
In our post Collaboration: Easier Said Than Done we said that leadership systems had to evolve to break the collaboration paradox—the barriers that impede collaboration, but enabled success in a prior business environment. That’s one part of the puzzle of making collaboration—a strategic and purposeful way of behaving and working— an organizational capability. There are also operational and execution skills to collaboration between entities in addition to the psychological skills and values such as openness, empathy, and delegation that are typically present when individuals behave collaboratively. [1]
Behaviors are ways of conducting oneself or how a group acts in response to its environment. On a psychological level, collaboration is a natural response to an environment of trust, transparency and respect. In that nurturing environment, one is more likely to be open to other’s ideas, empathetic to their concerns, and willing to give up some level of control and credit.
Organizations agree to collaborate to leverage and align the resources of each party for customer benefit which should result in mutual benefit for the collaborators. This requires uniting two or more entities that each have their own strategies, structures, cultures, goals, and processes, crossing organizational boundaries to access those resources. This adds complexity, risk, and challenge to the endeavor.
The Role of Trust
Trust is essential but insufficient for collaboration to produce results. It is developed by experiencing trustworthiness, which is demonstrated through accountability and accepting the other party’s rights and interests as valid.[2] When there is a lack of trust in a partnership, motives are questioned and actions second-guessed. The party that believes it cannot trust its partner wants more and more information and tends to duplicate its partner’s work, losing the resource leverage that is the purpose of collaborating. Lack of trust is akin to a metastasizing cancer on a partnership, as one person’s expressions of mistrust spreads to the next person. Soon the partner gets frustrated and people start to believe there is an ulterior motive to the behavior they are experiencing.

As a partnership develops, trust starts low, building as the partners engage with one another and experience trustworthiness. That experience can come through human interactions or it can come through systematic and programmatic interactions that are unbiased and make it easy for partners to conduct their business together. Because many companies have yet to fully integrate a collaborative way of working into their processes, policies, and procedures, the ease of interaction is not always present, creating friction and inefficiency. This drag on partnering reduces the benefits of the resource leverage partnering is intended to produce and makes people less willing to believe or to trust that partnering is the appropriate behavior.

Trust is the stage on which collaborative skills are executed.

Operationalizing and Executing Collaboration
Skills are an ability to do something well. The something rises from a casual activity to a skill through practice, which implies a learning mindset. The skills that follow all require learning in every interaction with partners and customers. This means that one cannot collaborate well until and unless one has the ability to learn fast—to recognize one’s current level of understanding about the situation at hand and the participants’ needs, wants, obligations, and barriers; to make assumptions about how together you might achieve a desired outcome; to put those assumptions into practice; learn if it works and if not, why not, and to iterate your assumptions and try again. (Figure 1 – Learn Fast). Think of the ability to learn fast as the uber skill of collaboration.
The skills of collaboration that certainly take practice and result in an ability to respond individually and as an organization to the current business environment include the five that follow (Figure 2 – Collaborative Skills). We don’t claim these to be exhaustive, but rather core skills without which collaborative behavior is not possible.
 The give and get of reciprocity
At its essence, collaboration is a continual negotiation in which I’ll help you achieve what you are trying to do so that you are more willing to help me do what I am trying to do. In collaboration, one gets what one wants and influences outcomes by helping others achieve their desired outcomes. This is true between individuals and when those individuals are acting in their role as representatives of organizations.
The fuel for this exchange of value is “relationship currencies;” the insight, access, knowledge, and physical resources of one party, which another can only tap into because a collaborative relationship exists. Relationship currencies, such as access to a thought leader or decision maker, knowledge of a company’s management strategy, or technology roadmap, are only available within the context of a relationship built on trust, transparency, and respect.
We often have to influence others to engage in or refrain from certain activities or behaviors to advance the strategic intent of the collaboration over parochial interests. Often, we have no authority over the individuals we are attempting to influence. Relationship currencies both provide and facilitate the exchange of value. The receipt of something of value can influence an individual’s behavior.[3] In order to influence an organization’s view, negotiating position, or actions, individuals must be influenced.
Listening to Understand; Speaking to be Understood
As noted by Stephen Covey, “most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”[4]
Whether you are the initiator or recipient of communication, the key to communication in collaboration is to create “common language with shared meaning.” To use an example we frequently use in training sessions, when one party says “tree,” they picture the oak at the end of their street. Their listener is thinking about the redwood forest he drives through on the way to Santa Cruz, California! Clearly, they don’t have the same mental picture, which means they aren’t well aligned and are talking past each other creating misunderstandings that impede collaboration.
Creating common language with shared meaning also requires appreciating communication styles and being able to understand what is unsaid. Given corporate politics, posturing, and those legacy organizational barriers to collaboration that keep surfacing, it is often essential to parse words and how they are said to get to actual meaning.
When there is trust, it is much easier to communicate more transparently. The job of the collaborator is to speak plainly, listen actively, and ensure all parties see not only the same tree, but the same forest.
Bridging and aligning
Differences are the strength of collaborations, building upon diverse sources of value to accomplish something the partners could not do on their own. Yet sometimes diversity leads to a collision course before finding an aligned path forward. This is true within a single function of an organization, across functions within an organization, and among partners. A critical element that enables collaboration is the ability to bridge differences and align diverse views and resources. Until that occurs, decisions don’t get made and the work of the collaboration doesn’t move forward.
It is important to distinguish collaboration from compromise. In collaboration, the intent is to create greater value. In compromise, the parties find a middle ground, usually leaving value behind and often creating the risk of future disagreement because no one is satisfied. Bridging differences and aligning stakeholders requires that the parties are willing to be creative and consider options, making liberal use of the relationship currencies that are valuable to each party.
This often requires finding a third way. It isn’t the way any of the partners would do something if acting on their own, but it is a new way that allows each to satisfy their individual requirements. The third way may turn out to be an innovation that saves time and money for all.
Uncovering interests and motivations
Motivations matter when collaborating. They facilitate or prevent achieving alignment with decisions. They can be a cause of problems and conflict. Equally, understanding each party’s motivations opens avenues for finding innovative resolution to problems. Understanding both your partners’ motivations as well as yours is essential for getting to each party’s underlying interests—what really matters or what they are trying to accomplish. The what may be very different from the how when you can get beyond stated positions which are simply one way of achieving an objective and get to interests.
It takes astute observation to get at a core understanding of interests. A facility at inquiry—the art of the question—is also essential. Asking good questions requires an ability to listen and advance the understanding by formulating the next interaction. We often refer to the five-whys methodology, also known as the fishbone diagram, to get to a sufficient understanding of motivations to form creative solutions.   
Entrepreneurial thinking and creativity
Collaboration is a value creation strategy – creating something new that one company could not achieve on its own. That makes it an entrepreneurial activity. Indeed, like an entrepreneur, collaborators have to set a North Star—the purpose of the collaboration stated from the perspective of the value customers and the partners receive. It should also define the experience they have in participating in the collaboration.
And just as an entrepreneur rallies people around the vision for his or her venture, creating an environment where they are comfortable making their resources and relationship currencies available to achieve the North Star, the leaders of any partnering venture must do the same. This brings us back to trust. Without a sufficient level of trust, people won’t rally and make their resources available and the collaboration will not succeed.
Collaborating Across Boundaries
In Collaboration: Easier Said Than Done we said that the leadership system had to evolve to break the collaboration paradox. That’s part of the puzzle. The other element is that the skills of collaborating between entities need to create an environment where the partners can leverage and align resources across boundaries, uniting two or more distinct entities in the common purpose of delivering benefit to the customer, and thereby the collaborators. Collaboration is conceptually simple, but operationally very challenging.
[1] See for example: Francesca Gino, “Cracking the Code on Sustained Collaboration,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019.
[2] Jeffrey Shuman and Janice Twombly, Collaborative Communities: Partnering for Profit in the Networked Economy, Dearborn Trade, 2001 
[3] Robert Cialdini, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Harper Collins, 1984, 1994, 2007, 2016
[4] Stephen Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change, Simon and Schuster 1989
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