The promises of collaboration entices many organizations, but it's not always the holy grail that it seems. Investments end up simply being written off and the initial enthusiasm fades to just a whimper. Having worked with many organizations to understand why this happens, I've found that there are some key tricks to avoiding this risk, and some really common mistakes that organizations make.

Plan For an Initiative, Not a Project

My first piece of advice: recognize the scale of what you're asking, and plan accordingly. Companies often treat improving collaboration as a typical IT project — we implement the technology, announce it in a big, splashy launch, and then maybe spend a few months teaching people how to use it. When it doesn't fly as expected, we scratch our heads and assume it's not right for us at the moment.

The reality is that this is about way more than getting people to use a new tool: it's about changing the way our organization works and changing the culture to be one that is more open, more co-operative, more transparent. And this kind of change is BIG. You are attempting to unpick what may be decades of ingrained behaviors, often underpinned by performance management processes that actively encourage competitiveness between peers and within teams.

In practice, it's going to take more than six months to get an entire organization to change its behavior — for some individuals it will take years — and you must accept this reality from the outset. It's vital that you set out with this long-term view. Build it into your budgets, your adoption strategy and, perhaps most of all, the expectations you establish with executives, stakeholders and employees across the business about when and how this change will happen. If the organization recognizes it as a long-term initiative rather than a short-term tech project, your chances are much better of being allowed the time necessary to enable the business change you're looking for.

Be Clear How Better Collaboration Will Benefit You 

The second cornerstone you need in place is a clear understanding of why your organization needs to invest in a cultural change of this scale. Too often, the reasoning given for the investment is that "we want people to collaborate better." 

You will fail if you don't think beyond this. 

Why do you want people to collaborate? How do you want them to collaborate, and on what? What difference will it make to your particular organization, given your broader business goals or strategies? The more focused and specific you can make your reasons for investment, and the more relevant you can make them to your organization's key goals or challenges, the better, for three key reasons:

  1. It makes it easier for people to buy in to your initiative. This applies to both business leaders, who can then draw the dots between the efforts needed for the initiative to be successful and the performance indicators that they are being measured on, and also to employees, who can then be reassured that this isn't just some hype-led incentive which will be forgotten about in two months.
  2. It give you a framework for your collaboration strategy. If you are clear about the benefits you are most interested in, you can focus on building use cases which enable those benefits, and identify the areas of the business which stand to benefit most, or most quickly from collaboration. Finding those early wins is crucial to demonstrating value from the efforts being put in, and can then be used to further promote and reinforce your approach.
  3. It gives you a way to measure your success. Once you have established what you are trying to achieve, you can start to track your progress against those goals. Can you show examples of where information sharing made a difference to someone? Have you enabled people from different parts of the business to work together to come up with new products or services? Have you improved the speed with which new joiners become contributing employees, or reduced attrition rates among new joiners? Remember that formal KPI-style measurements are fantastic, but anecdotal evidence can be equally powerful in demonstrating your success.

It comes down to this: enabling successful collaboration comes from taking a pragmatic and proactive approach. Recognize the impact of the change that you are imposing on people across the organization. You will undoubtedly encounter some resistance, but if you are well-prepared, with a fool-proof business argument behind you, you will be well-positioned to weather the storm and find that elusive success.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Silly Little Man