10 Tips for Creating a Collaborative Culture

When I was hired as head of PR and corporate communications for Universal’s worldwide television group, the company was in a major transition.  Despite (or, perhaps, because of) a long and stable history, at that time, many employees were entrenched in separate silos with relationships and reporting structures that had more do with history than logic.  

It wasn’t easy establishing rapport, let alone collaboration, with people who weren’t sure they even wanted to know you.   When I arrived, I had my assistant set up fifteen-minute meetings with anyone who had anything to do with the TV Group.  I got in my golf cart (the best way to travel the nearly 500-acre back lot), and I met with producers, costumers, researchers, accountants, and tour guides. And when people saw that I had taken the time and trouble to get to know them - on their turf - it was the beginning of a working relationship.

Though there are many ways to go about inspiring, charming, or finagling your way to collaboration, following are some of my favorite techniques for creating an engaged and supportive team.

  1. Share information appropriately.  Information is the organizational life-blood on which decisions are made in every company. Except for confidential or proprietary data that can’t be shared, pass information readily both up and down the pipeline that can help others make timely decisions.  This doesn’t just mean the facts but also the nuances of soft data, which can be critical.
  2. Establish high standards for communication.  Set the tone for the highest levels of communication, which includes openness, transparency and trust.  Don’t indulge in badmouthing and finger pointing - they are non-productive timewasters. You can’t eliminate all bad behaviors, but you can let it be known that respect for others is not only expected, but demanded. 
  3. Don’t confuse collaboration with consensus.  Just because you’ve encouraged open collaboration doesn’t mean that you should abdicate leadership or authority.  There’s still a chain of command and decisions to be made.  Assuming you’ve got a management structure that makes sense, stick to it.  People want to be led.
  4. Expect - and invite - conflict.  Encouraging collaboration means that you are also inviting conflict, that is, if you are the least bit authentic in your interactions. By broadening the collaborative circle and inviting opinions from people who might offer dissenting views or new information, you may open yourself up to more conflict, but you’re also a lot more likely to enterprise new solutions. 
  5. Set ground-rules and enforce them.  It’s hard to play by the rules when you don’t know what they are. Decide what’s fair and what’s off-limits and communicate it clearly. Be respectful of race, gender, culture, age, disabilities, sexual orientation and any sensitivity that goes with the multi-faceted workplace, but don’t let the political correctness police rob you of humor or authenticity.
  6. Balance structure with flexibility.   The larger the organization, the more likely it is to have some kind of hierarchical structure in place.  But that doesn’t mean you should throw out flexibility or faith in others’ good judgment. Hire good people, train them well, and trust them to do the right thing until proven otherwise.
  7. Manage collaboration with the proper tools.   Once you’ve opened the pipeline of rigorous conversation and learned to navigate conflict, you’ll want to capture all the great insights you’re having.  Put the proper tools in place, or you risk losing all that great brainpower.  Try customer relationship software, project management programs, or good old-fashioned note-taking to transform ideas into action.
  8. Insights require actions. Collaboration is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end.  And tools and systems (see #7) can help you capture your brainstorms, but they don’t translate them into results. The best collaborations are always followed up with action, even if the action is more collaboration.
  9. Give your group a sense of identity.  When you know who you are and what you stand for, it’s a lot easier to trust each other. And trust is, of course, a huge factor in collaboration.  Think about your collective identity and what you all have in common, whether you’re part of an ongoing team or a one-time task force. Put some language to your shared cause, vision, or team so you'll know how to think and talk about yourselves.
  10. Break down the silos.  If you’re in a position of power, do whatever you can to break down silos institutionally.  If you’re not in a formal leadership position, find ways to open the door to other teams, groups and divisions. Find your equivalent of the golf cart solution and get out and meet the people!