Why Collaboration Matters

 

I’ve yet to meet a CEO who didn’t want his or her company to move faster.  But how many times have you ever heard a CEO say – “My organization moves as fast as our markets do” or “I’m confident my company can adapt to any unforeseen market shift”?  Moore’s Law states the speed of a semiconductor chip doubles every 18-24 months; what if your people’s ability to change moved as fast?

Of all the strategies available to leaders to create speed in their organizations, none is more important than the behaviors of the leaders themselves. Ultimately executive behavior creates the culture of your organization; your organization’s culture is almost certainly a reflection of your CEO’s personality.

Nothing slows an organization down more than a culture of internal competition and the executive behaviors that encourage it.  We all know the challenges of organizational silos and the incentives that encourage myopic thinking. As leaders, we’ve experienced some form of passive-aggressive behavior from our peers. We all know the symptoms:  Teams protect information and assets to compete with other teams for budget resources; knowledge gets trapped in pockets that others in the company could benefit from but cannot reach. Budget gets wasted. All the while, markets move and new opportunities emerge.

I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with hundreds of CEOs, and here is what they want:  a culture of shared goals. A culture of shared goals minimizes hoarding and competition by creating an environment that shares information, diagnoses problems, raises concerns, coordinates efforts and identifies possible initiatives and transition points – all of which ratchets up the pace of an organization’s ability to execute.

In The Collaboration Imperative, my co-author and Cisco colleague Carl Wiese and I identify four executive behaviors of the collaborative leader.  These behaviors are the necessary ingredients to create a culture of shared goals, and eliminate or mitigate the types of human behaviors that slow organizations down.  The four behaviors are:

  1. Focus on authentic leadership and eschew passive-aggressiveness. For collaboration to succeed, leaders need to be authentic. Cisco studied which characteristics of leaders on collaborative teams are most important, and we found that the most critical attribute was a leader’s willingness to follow through on commitments. Being authentic involves two elements. First, as a leader of a team, department or business unit with people, budgets and resources under your control, you must follow through on organizational commitments.  Second, when there is disagreement about a decision, fight the instinct to make it personal.
  2. Relentlessly pursue transparent decision making In our experience, there’s a direct relationship between the agility and resilience of a team and the transparency of its decision-making processes. When you’re open and transparent about the answers to three questions — who made the decision, who is accountable for the outcomes of the decision, and is that accountability real—people in organizations spend far less time questioning how or why a decision was made. Think of how much time is wasted ferreting out details when a decision is made and communicated because the people who are affected don’t know who made the decision or who is accountable for its consequences.
  3. View resources as instruments of action, not as possessions. It’s hardly a new observation that people sometimes stockpile resources around their business unit or department, or are slow—perhaps even hesitant—to share those resources with other departments. There may even be incentives in place that discourage sharing. It’s easier, although never truly easy, to move resources around an organization when leaders tell their teams the process they used to make a decision about resources, the data and facts used to support the decision, and the tradeoffs they considered.  Fact-based decision making is your goal; it’s hard to keep resources squirreled away when the facts suggest otherwise.
  4. Codify the relationship between decision rights, accountability and rewards. Modeling the desired collaborative behaviors—showing your employees that you walk the talk—is the goal. But what happens when you’re not around? The more these behaviors are codified into an end-to-end system across your organization, the greater the odds of collaboration succeeding when you’re not there to reinforce cultural norms. The most important enabler of an accountability system?  Decision rights.  Who gets to make decisions in your organization is the center of gravity for accountability.  If you don’t have published decision rights, then accountability is problematic – everyone can point fingers at someone else.

The ability to create speed, flexibility and adaptability is the foundation of the modern competitive organization.  The enemy is internal competition and the denial and nostalgia that perpetuate it.  A culture of shared goals should be the mission.  There’s only one answer:  how you and your team of leaders behave.

 Q1: What mechanisms do you use to measure how adaptable your team is?

Q2:  Does your organization use a common vocabulary for decision-making?  If so, what is it?

Q3: Does your organization have a definition of a transparent decision?  If so, what is it?

Q4: What effective ways have you found to thwart passive-aggressive behavior?

Q5: What effective ways have you found to help people overcome nostalgia for the past?

Q6: How is your organizational culture a reflection of your CEO’s personality?

Employee Engagement Needs a Little Clarity

 

Leaders have a lot on their plates, but nothing is more important than clarity. What’s important to your organization? Why? How are we getting the work done? When do we start? At each stage in the chain of decision making, ambiguity looms as the enemy of clarity; as leaders we’ve all experienced dis-engagement when things simply aren’t clear to our team. What can a leader do – especially in a world where hyper-connected employees can question and second-guess decisions instantly?

Leaders have to understand that decisions are like best-selling novels; the greater the ambiguity around a decision, the faster it moves up the New York Times best-seller list. People’s natural curiosities and ambiguity seem to feed on each other. In worst cases, ambiguity leads to conspiracy theories and people actually work against each other. In most cases, work simply slows down while people seek out answers.

What if you could eliminate ambiguity? A lot is at stake. There’s more than enough evidence to demonstrate that teams produce higher results when they can align their individual work to the greater mission and strategy of the organization. When all goes right, organizations can produce discretionary effort – that amazing, hard-to-bottle effort people give when ambiguity is replaced by a sense of shared purpose.

Here are three things you can do bring clarity to your organization – and increase the odds of producing discretionary effort on your team:

1. Define what success looks like with one single-source of truth – an organization-wide taxonomy

People laughed when I first said “taxonomy” inside Cisco, but taxonomy is the fundamental building block to any organization looking to speak a common operating language. Taxonomy classifies and defines things; in this case, what success looks like. Focus on defining your operating model metrics like profitability, revenue growth, share gains and productivity; emphasize the specific, written definition of success; and show the outcomes and sources of data used in your organization to gauge success.

Try as hard as you can to tie these metrics to the performance management and accountability system of your organization. Publish this taxonomy on your intranet and push it to your internal communities.

2. Scale how you communicate decisions with a common vocabulary

Here’s a simple question: does strategy mean the same thing to everyone in your organization? What if the answer is no? That’s highly likely, because we’ve all gone to different colleges and had diverse work experiences. A common vocabulary provides a single context for decision-making. In Cisco, our common vocabulary is called Vision-Strategy-Execution-Metrics. Each decision element is defined and includes guiding principles to give people guardrails. It’s mandatory for leaders to communicate their priorities – that is, the decisions they have made – to their teams using this vocabulary. You can achieve transparency when you tell people three things about a decision: who made it? Who’s accountable for it? What does the accountability system look like? It’s hard to sacrifice around one vocabulary; imagine, though, the power of a single decision language across a global organization.

3. Engage your team on the “story behind the decision”

Taxonomy and common vocabulary tell your team what’s important; engagement is more driven by the human need to understand why decisions matter and how it is expected to be executed – what I call the “story behind the decision”. When you engage your team on decisions you’ve made (hopefully using a taxonomy and common vocabulary!), you have to answer three questions to satisfy “why” something is important: First, what process was used to make the decision? Second, what facts or data were used to support the decision? Third, what trade-offs were considered? The more your team knows this “story,” the faster teams move to execution.

I’m convinced that most people don’t wake up in the morning trying to second-guess decisions. Ambiguity is your enemy as the leader of a team. You can transform your team’s natural curiosity into a powerful source of discretionary effort – all it takes is a little clarity.

P.S. There is one final thing you can do as a leader to increase clarity on your team – tell your team how you make decisions. We all naturally make decisions differently. By sharing our authentic style of communicating and making decisions, you can diffuse a lot of unnecessary friction and built trust faster.