Aug 082007

Collaboration is Hard, Part III

Collaboration is Hard, Part III

In Part I, I talked about what collaboration is:

partnering with a colleague (either inside or outside of the company) on a project, and through the partnering, sharing knowledge that produces a better outcome than either party could produce on his or her own

and why it’s so important

knowledge sharing as competitive advantage, interdependency as a prerequisite to quality, and gaining productivity through leverage

In Part II, I suggested a few reasons why collaboration is difficult for most of us

It doesn’t come naturally to us on a cultural level, it’s hard to make an up-front investment of time in learning when you don’t know what you’re going to learn, and there’s a logistical hurdle in setting up the time and framework to collaborate

So now comes the management challenge — if collaboration is so important and yet so hard, how do we as CEOs foster collaboration in our organizations?  Not to say we have the formula down perfect at Return Path — if we did, collaboration wouldn’t show up as a development item for so many people at reviews each year — but here are five things we have done, either in small scale or large scale, to further the goal (in no particular order):

  1. We celebrate collaboration.  We have a robust system of peer awards that call out collaboration in different ways.  I will write about this in longer form sometime, but basically we allow anyone in the company to give anyone else in the company one of several awards (all of which carry a cash value) at any time, for any reason.  And we post the awards on the Intranet and via RSS feed so everyone can see who is being appreciated for what reason.  This tries to lower the cultural barriers discussed in the last post.
  2. We share our goals with each other.  This happens on two levels, and it’s progressed as the company has gotten more mature.  On a most basic level, we are very public about posting our goals to the whole company, at least at the department level (soon to be at the individual level), so everyone can see what everyone else is working on and note where they can contribute.  But that’s only half the battle.  We also have increasingly been developing shared goals — they show up on your list and on my list — so that we are mutually accountable for completing the project.
  3. We set ourselves up for regular collaborative communication.  Many of our teams and departments use the Agile framework for work planning and workflow management, including the daily stand-up meeting as well as other regularly scheduled communication points (see other posts I’ve written about Agile Development and Agile Marketing).  Agile takes out a lot of the friction caused by logistical hurdles in collaborating with each other.
  4. We provide financial incentives for collaboration.  In general, we run a three-tiered incentive comp program.  Most people’s quarterly or annual bonuses are 1/3 tied to individual goals achievement (which could involve shared goals with others), 1/3 tied to division revenue goals (fostering collaboration within each business unit), and 1/3 tied to company financial performance (fostering at least some level of collaboration with others outside your unit).  This helps, although on its own certainly isn’t enough.
  5. We provide collaboration tools.  Finally, we have had developed reasonably good series of internal tools — Wiki, Intranet, RSS feeds — over the years, all of which are about to be radically upgraded, to encourage and systematize knowledge sharing.  This allows for a certain amount of "auto collaboration" but hopefully also allows people to realize how much there is to be gained by partnering with other subject matter experts within the company when projects call for it, alleviating in part the "you don’t know what you don’t know" problem.

So that’s where we are on this important topic.  And I’m only finding that it gets more important as the company gets bigger.  What are your best practices around fostering collaboration?

Filed under: Leadership