Bridging Islands: 5 Practices that Galvanize Collaboration

On paper, collaboration always sounds so good: noble, cozy, inclusive.   Given that spin, who wouldn’t want to be part of such a collective force?  And yet in practice collaboration tends to be incredibly tough to pull off, akin to shouting in a foreign tongue to an island barely in sight.

Why is collaboration so challenging?  Because collaboration elicits a scarcity mentality.  Each department has its own culture, built on what they hold dear.  Ditto their loyalties.  The tendency, when push comes to shove as it does under the pressure to collaborate, is to protect one’s own interests above making progress on a collective concern.  And when the going gets tough, when we’re asked to sacrifice what we hold dear, we tend to retreat back into our own echo chambers: those safe pockets filled with our own people who echo our own beliefs and justify our own actions.  Unfortunately, they also share our blind spots. 

Which is why collaboration is an invaluable commodity in an adaptive organization.  When it works, collaboration is built instead on abundance thinking, capitalizing on the possibilities that percolate when we join forces and share a vantage point from another window into the organization.  In the most practical of ways, collaboration underscores the power in numbers and increases our allies.  When we’re working shoulder to shoulder with those from other pockets, we’re able to deepen our one-dimensional understanding of the organization and accelerate our once-siloed impact on the work we all share. 

So how do we shift our weight from scarcity to abundance to begin to collaborate effectively?

  1. By holding relentlessly to the work at the center of the collaboration, the convening purpose at hand.

  2. By “renting” the ideas of others: this mentality allows us to try on differing perspectives, temporarily, to begin to assess their merit. 

  3. By connecting informally with those outside our own departments: over lunch, coffee, in social settings beyond the confines of work.

  4. Perhaps most difficult of all: by naming the elephants in the room—those unspoken yet present forces that make collaboration challenging and keep groups stuck in scarcity thinking.

  5. By protecting dissonant voices as potential canaries in the coalmine, sounding the alarm for problems on the horizon. When we exclude or avoid certain people or factions, they remain unaware, skeptical, disengaged.

Learning to speak one another’s language, to bridge the space between islands, is collective work. If the larger cultural goal is to become an organization that collaborates, then experimenting with behavioral norms that sustain productive collaborations and beginning to name and institutionalize those emergent norms is essential.  Learning from groups who have successfully collaborated is data rich for the mining.  So, too, is incentivicing the complex work of collaboration and celebrating those collective efforts publicly and frequently. 

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