Almost every collaboration project I have seen in my career starts, progresses and ends the same way.  We have a vision; we plan; we create committees; we start small and build toward our goal. We align the people, assign a project manager, install the software and build out a basic taxonomy. Perhaps, we even think about governance and throw in some branding.  Then, we launch and collectively hold our breath.

The moment of truth has come.  Momentum builds and spikes – then fizzles.  We have done everything right and yet true collaboration evades us.  In the end, our excitement turns to frustration as the shiny new solution – something we spent so much time and resources on – fades into the recesses of our users’ attention.

Why do so many collaboration initiatives fail?

In order to ensure success in the future, we must first understand the past.  There are many reasons why a collaboration project can fail but most are doomed from the start.  The good news is that with a little planning and nurturing, we can greatly increase our chances of success.

Beware of improper expectations. One of the main reasons collaboration initiatives fail is rooted in the need for collaboration itself.   Organizations are likely seeking greater collaboration because they need to do more with less.  They need to squeeze more productivity out of the people they rely on, the people who are already stretched too thin.

If this describes you, I can tell you it will get worse before it gets better.  You can’t install a solution such as SharePoint, Yammer or any other collaboration tool, and sit back and watch productivity go up.

Technology will, by itself, not change the fact that your people are already overtaxed.  While you can get these results over time, they take a high amount of energy to cultivate.  In short, you will have to first slow down to move fast.  Knowing this and planning for it up front will save you a lot of pain in the early days after launch.

Address the human element. All collaboration projects are different.  Unfortunately, most customers, and even consultants, treat them like every other IT project.  We fail to account for the human element in collaboration projects.  People are what drive collaboration, yet we spend the vast amount of our energy on the technology.  By approaching them in the typical build, incubate and launch sequence, we are taking a technology centered approach that fails more often than it works.

We didn’t get anyone to dance. Think back to the school dances of your childhood.  I can still picture the scene.  The gym is decorated, the lights are dimmed and the music is playing.  The foundation is set for an evening of dancing and fun.  You expect the kids to just rush in and start dancing but it never turns out that way.  No, instead they begin forming packs.  After all, there’s safety in packs.

The first group finds a table and parks itself for the night.  They aren’t really into this; they aren’t even sure why they’re there.  Next, you have your wallflowers.  They may join in, but, first, they are going to sit back and see what everyone else does.  Now, out come your closet dancers.  They have had their energy bottled up for a long time and are eager to let it out.

The resulting flurry of activity, they call dancing, leaves you scratching your head.  It may not be pretty, but at least someone is engaging.  Lastly, you have the group that thinks they belong on Dancing with the Stars.  They know what they are doing and want to make sure everyone else does it their way or stays out of the way.

It’s unfortunate that a school dance is such a good analogy for collaboration.  They share many of the same attributes.  They both begin with great potential yet inevitably fall short.  The reason for this is they both fail to account for the human element.  Just like a dance, collaboration is about two or more people coming together in harmony to produce something greater than the individuals could produce on their own.  In order for that to work, you have to convince people to dance.

How can we increase our chances of success?

There is a lot of guidance out there about how to run a successful collaboration project.  I believe it’s all sound advice.  That being said, if I could boil it down into a single snippet, I would tell you to be honest.  Be honest with yourself, be honest with your stakeholders, be honest when plotting your course and be honest about your expectations.  Only when you can approach the project honestly can you move forward.

Involve the right people. Since collaboration is about people, now is a good time to involve the right ones.  These are your early adopters.  They are your champions and your sponsors.  In our school dance analogy, they are the kids’ dance committee (the kids who were dragging people onto the dance floor).  Success is rarely achieved in a vacuum and you will need these people in the days ahead.

Understand your “Why.” There is a reason why you are embarking on this initiative, a reason why you want your teams to collaborate more effectively.  Your first thought may be something like, “increase productivity,” or “speed to market.”  Those are not reasons, those are results.  For an inspirational primer, I suggest you watch Simon Sinek’s TED talk entitled Start with Why.  Your “Why” will serve as your North Star and help guide you through the tough times ahead.

Know your starting point. In any journey, you need a starting point, a destination and, lastly, an idea of how to get from one to the other.  Since collaboration initiatives tend to be so complex, I suggest a compass rather than a detailed map.  This road is not well established and you will need to be able to react to things along the way.  Be adaptable, be flexible and roll with the punches.

It’s important to take into account the organization’s culture.  Is it a more open and agile organization or is it more closed and structured?   One type will have a far easier time implementing collaboration workloads than the other.

One of the hardest things to figure out is where to start.  What business unit should I launch with first?  What initiative is going to give me the biggest bang for my buck?  I often tell my customers to, “Start where you have visibility and flexibility.”  I will give you an example.

Every quarter, like most businesses, we do a business review with all of our executives.  We use a standard PowerPoint template for this.  Earlier this year, we decided that the template no longer fit the needs of the business and we needed to make some changes.

Now, this was two weeks prior to the quarterly business review (QBR) meeting.  While the presentation served as a great candidate to showcase the power of collaboration, we didn’t really have time to pull it off.  We had visibility but not flexibility.

Instead, we assembled the team and gave simple instructions to gather ideas throughout this QBR on how we could change the template.  We would then come back together after the fact with the intention of making changes the following quarter.  Now, we have both visibility and flexibility.

Envision your destination. No journey is complete without a destination.  You need to have a vision of how your organization will look and act three months, six months and one year after kickoff.  By understanding the past and envisioning the future, you can greatly increase your chances of success and improve your organization’s ability to collaborate more effectively.  Remember, it’s a journey!

Learn more about tapping into the vast array of collaboration tools via CDW.

One thought on “Building a More Collaborative Organization

  • Shareem Taylor says:

    Great article and very much needed at this time. It provided some positive reinforcement and thought provoking content. Thanks for a great blog post!

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