In my discussions with CIOs over the last several years, they have repeatedly stressed the importance of considering people and processes before technology. The transformational change CIOs are leading needs to fit with their organizations.

After reading "Smarter Collaboration" by Heidi Gardner and Ivan Matviak (the book reaches shelves on Nov. 1), a collaborative business culture is a must-have for organizations needing transformation change. This culture should as a goal put IT onto a team that is creating the corporate future. For this reason, I recommend "Smarter Collaboration" to business leaders and CIOs. With a culture of collaboration everything is easier.

Why Collaborate?

Gardner and Matviak start their book by asserting that competition moves faster in the digital era. Speed can be a competitive edge or deterrent. The authors argue firms that succeed at transformation figure out how to collaborate across silos and build teams with complementary skills. And this is increasingly the essence of competitive advantage. While technology and the ability to “sense that the snow is melting at the edge” still matters — without collaboration, some organizations can have a "Kodak moment" where the middle of the organization rebels against corporate strategy.

For this reason, businesses today need contributors that can build networks across boundaries and then invoke those networks to deliver value to their companies. The author’s research shows collaboration accelerates innovation, increases customer satisfaction and enhances employee engagement. And these result in higher revenues and profits, greater market share, improved efficiency, accelerated growth and improved transparency and risk management. To prove this point, they provide case studies from multiple industries.

Importantly, smart collaboration also impacts employee engagement. Today, 30% of employees worldwide and 67% in the US say they are not engaged. Expectedly, working remotely tends to increase worker isolation. Given this, CIO David Seidl said in a recent #CIOChat that “today, we're focused on how we build connections and communities for new hires and maintain it for everyone.”

This matters, the authors say, because today’s business uncertainty and complexity are best tackled by a diverse team with complementary talents. The reference to complexity is similar to Professor Russell Ackoff who suggested, “our environments have become larger, more complex, and less predictable — in short more turbulent.” (“Creating the Corporate Future,” Wiley Press, page 4).

Related Article: Create a Connected Enterprise for Better Customer, Employee Experience

Building Smarter Collaboration

An integral part of smart collaboration is building teams that understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses. With this knowledge, leaders can put together complementary talents. You could argue smarter collaboration starts much earlier, from the point of looking for job candidates, setting the corporate strategy. But simply putting diverse people on a team will not solve an organization’s problems. Team leaders need to ensure everyone contributes. When this takes place, a positive cycle of collaboration occurs. Additionally, diverse people get ahead and stay longer.

The authors are candid that virtual workplaces complicate interpersonal relationships and collaboration. Smart leaders, therefore, understand that remote work impacts marginalized groups the hardest because in times of stress, people turn to those that are most like themselves in age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic state, and personal beliefs.

Assessing Collaboration                                                       

The authors say the starting point for building a collaboration culture is understanding where the organization is failing to collaborate. A reason for doing this is executives often think their level of collaboration and interaction is the same as that for individual contributors and lower-level leaders.

With this knowledge, executive leaders need to articulate why collaboration helps the company achieve its strategic goals. It is critical to pinpoint where cross silo collaboration will most benefit the company. Doing this involves asking and answering: where do we lack business momentum? What anti-collaboration behaviors do we have? Where are competitors moving ahead? Where do we have high attrition? It also involves identifying bright spots and how those can be replicated in other parts of the company.

With the reasons for collaboration collected, assessments should occur regularly. Each assessment should allow for open ended feedback. When the business problems are in hand, the authors claim most business leaders are shocked to learn how much money the company is leaving on the table. A complete assessment should include customers, too. This will capture the voice of the customer and determine where gaps exist in customer communications. Fortunately, investing time and money here can result in a business advantage.

Related Article: CIOs Examine the Inevitable Marriage of Customer and Employee Experience

Dimensions of Smart Collaboration

To help leaders construct effective teams, the authors provide a model for how people approach problems and collaborate. These contrasting dimensions provide the insights for team construction:

  1. Complex to Concrete: People that are complex enjoy exploring abstract ideas, digging into ambiguous issues and making connections across a broad range of topics. Meanwhile, concrete people ask how should we put this idea into action? What resources are needed? And why should we do it now?
  2. Risk Seeker to Risk Spotter: Risk Seekers examine problems and instantly look for ways to turn them into an advantage or opportunity. They importantly help the organizations avoid groupthink. Meanwhile, risk spotters point out the critical downsides and threats.
  3. Hands to Hands off: This needs little additional definition.
  4. Wary to Trusting: Wary people need people to prove themselves. However, trusting people presume a high degree of integrity and that people are fully capable of doing their jobs.
  5. Closed Communicator to Distant Communicator: Open communicators bring energy to meetings, frequently drop by the office, share photos of the family, and discuss their weekend plans. Meanwhile, distant communicators get right down to business with no preliminaries.
  6. Individual to Group: An individual-oriented person typically does not want to participate. A group-oriented person models collaborative behavior and solicits input regularly from experts.

To be fair, this six-part model is a matter of degrees. No single trait (or tendency or attribute) is best for collaboration. Effective collaboration requires genuine listening and leaders that are good at figuring out how to tap into team member’s strengths. Managed adeptly a diverse team gets things done that neither the solo contributor nor a homogeneous team can do. For these teams, leaders encourage people to consider their preferred ways of working, assess team gaps, determine additional experiences needed and define stretch responsibilities for team members.

Hiring and Retaining Collaborators

Gardner and Matviak say these processes start by leaders clarifying roles and building support for each internally. In terms of recruiting and hiring, the authors recommend fine tuning the screening process for openness. As well, they recommend asking candidates to describe situations they have faced, how they handled them and their personal emotional response.

At the same time, Gardner and Matviak say it is critical to make sure search firms are briefed on the need for collaboration and pre-screen candidates for this quality. When interviewing candidates, managers need to set the tone by expressing the expectation for collaboration. It is important to uncover candidates that understand the value of networking.

Once people have joined, it is critical for them to become productive members of the community quickly. Their manager needs to help them establish trust. For this to work, they should create a collaboration plan. Interestingly, the authors suggest that Slack and Teams can be used as an early warning kind of system to whether collaboration is occurring. This is especially helpful for determining whether remote workers are connected.

Getting People to Collaborate

Good leaders need to establish goals and performance metrics that foster collaboration in connection with business objectives. The authors share the work of Darrel Rigby who says, “traditional management was mistakenly focused on fomenting competition to spur individual effort versus fostering collaboration to achieve team success."

Fortunately, research shows that cooperative teams almost always outperform aggressive individuals. And in an increasingly digital era, well-functioning teams prove more effective at dealing with rapid changes. Leaders, therefore, need to act. They need to set ambitious, annual cross silo goals. They also need to model collaboration and share success stories. In this process, they need to break down silos and get broader teams to work together. Part of making this work is personal accountability goals that connect the team to organizational goals to metrics.

Learning Opportunities

Smart leaders, today, put in place the collaborative building blocks. They focus employees on long term, multidisciplinary initiatives which take more than a year to carry out. Beyond this, they rethink performance reviews. Instead of backward summary, judgment, they provide more frequent performance feedback. These answer what I am I doing well, what I should continue to do, and what I should change. They are not fault focused. With frequent performance discussions, yearly there should only be a performance recap. For these, managers should determine whether goals were delivered in a collaborative way.

Leading Collaborative Transformation

Today’s CIOs are increasingly focused upon business transformation. But often a collaborative transformation needs to be at the center. Like digital transformation, collaborative transformation has a substantial startup cost. Here, it is about building a network of trusted collaborators.

Success requires effective leadership and communication. Leaders fail if they treat collaboration as a separate initiative rather than an on-going process tied to strategic goals. And while I prefer a collaborative environment, collaboration is not an end. Given this, leaders need to convince people to join the journey. This includes people with different risk appetites.

To make collaborative transformation work, leaders need sustainable momentum. This requires communicating frequently and consistently in early and middle phases. Additionally, it requires leaders that start where the energy is. This involves finding and recruiting influencers. In this process, leaders need to carefully pilot new approaches. Getting momentum can include gamifying the effort, creating buzz and heroizing teams. Institutionalizing collaboration will change the way people work.

Outside Partners

Today’s digital companies increasingly need to manage complex ecosystems. Many provide a whole solution to the market. Yet poor collaboration can prevent a partnership from delivering business value. Typical problems to partnership include Us vs Them, a Do It Ourselves Culture, and a Laissez Faire Culture. To limit these risks, the authors stress the importance of partner due diligence. In this process, leaders should agree on goals and answer: Why are we in this relationship? What is each party trying to gain? In 3-6 years, what will this collaboration be known for?

With these answers, ground rules need to be set. The aim should be to build organizational trust. Another component is communicating together the value of the partnership. But everything starts by creating a culture that embraces partnerships. At the same time, for a relationship to succeed, more than one person should own a relationship. This can be formalized through a governance structure.

With this in place, organizations should optimize alliance management structures. This includes validating alignment with business strategy. At the same time, organizations can fix breaches to the relationship quickly. Everything is made easier by building personal relationships.

Related Article: What Does It Mean to Be a Digitally Savvy CIO?

Barriers to Collaboration

The authors share a number of barriers to collaboration. One of the biggest is mismanaged diversity. A McKinsey study found that well managed diversity leads to higher returns. However, the authors say tokenism gets in the way. Without involvement, collaboration does not occur. Numbers for gender are scary. Women being interrupted or not being invited to key meetings are examples.

Stress is, also, a barrier to collaboration. Deadlines and risk result in people seeking conformity, safety, deference to hierarchy and a narrowing of voices that are heard. A final barrier is over commitment.

To work through each of these, organizations need to promote an inclusive, learning culture. Such a culture encourages curiosity, exploration and genuine interest. It promotes psychological safety while promoting mentoring. It also measures accountability and diversity. Doing well involves goal setting and capturing performance in scorecards and dashboards.

Parting Words: People and Process Comes First

CIOs were right to assert in our discussions that people and processes come first in business transformation. A truly collaborative organization armed with the right mission can accomplish the nearly impossible.

Those that succeed in today’s digital world use collaboration as an enabler of a future oriented organization. They understand that today’s complex problems require the right team. The question is have you created the collaboration needed to support your business transformation?

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