What makes for effective collaboration? I pondered this question while reading Elton John’s new autobiography, Me, and seeing how he worked on hundreds of collaborations. I also re-read an article on how Pixar got started and the incredible collaboration required when they made their first full-length movie, Toy Story, in 1994.

These stories made me curious about effective collaboration and here are two resources I discovered that deepened my understanding.

Six Skills Needed to Think “Outward.” In a recent Harvard Business Review article called Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration, Professor Francesca Gino, shares her research into collaboration at Pixar and other companies. Her key takeaway is that successful collaboration is not about culture and workspace, it is about teaching people skills to help them think “outward” not “inward”.

Gino writes that outward-focused people share several mental attitudes – “widespread respect for colleagues’ contributions, openness to experimenting with others’ ideas, and sensitivity to how one’s actions may affect both colleagues’ work and mission’s outcome.”

These attitudes come when people have greater emotional intelligence. Here are the six specific skills Gino suggests we train to help people develop their outward-focus skills and emotional intelligence.

  1. Teach people to listen, not talk. We spend too much time teaching people to present and advocate for their positions and not enough time to truly listening and asking questions. Gino says, “When we really listen…our egos subside, giving everybody the space to understand the situation and one another and to focus on the mission.” Our training could include-
    1. How to ask expansive questions
    2. How to focus on the other person, not yourself
    3. How to engage in “self-checks”
    4. How to be comfortable with silence.
  2. Train people to practice empathy. Gino reminds us that it is often a natural human reaction to judge the other person we disagree with.

    Pet Empathy Photo by Alec Favale

    It is hard to be receptive of their views when we have that state of mind. When we approach the situation with a desire to understand our differences, we get a better outcome. In successful collaborations, each person assumes that everyone else involved, regardless of background or title, is smart, caring, and fully invested. Our training could include –

    1. How to expand the thinking of other people so you understand better
    2. How to look for the unspoken
  3. Make people more comfortable with feedback. In successful collaborations, people give and receive feedback well—and from a “position of influence rather than one of authority.” Our training could include –
    1. How to talk about feedback aversion openly
    2. How to give feedback about specific behavior and its impact directly
    3. How to give feedback on feedback
    4. How to add a “plus” to others’ ideas
    5. How to provide “live coaching”
  4. Teach people to lead and follow. Leaders are at their best as collaborators when they learn to be adept at leading and following and moving smoothly between the two as appropriate. Training could include –
    1. How to increase your self-awareness
    2. How to delegate effectively that helps people grow
  5. Speak with clarity and avoid abstraction. When we communicate with others, Gino’s research shows, we are often too indirect and abstract. Our words carry more weight if we are more concrete and provide vivid images. Gino suggests we use real problem scenarios at our firms and have people role-play how they would communicate. Give feedback.
  6. Train people to have win-win interactions. In successful collaborations, people are more open about their personal interests and how they think they contribute to solving problems. This transparency allows people to explore everyone’s interests and achieve collective results. Gino says, “by balancing talking (to express your own concerns and needs) with asking questions and letting others know what your understanding of their needs is, you can devise solutions that create more value. With a win-win mindset, collaborators are able to find opportunities in differences.” In her article, Gino gives an example where participants have to share an orange. Check it out!

“Bonding” and “Bridging” Collaborations. The second lesson I learned about building strong collaborations came from Tim Harford in his book Messy (Chapter 2). Harford reminds us that we humans are tribal beings and we are happier in groups of people we like and think like us. When we build collaborations solely with our tribal folks our subconscious goal is to create a “comfort zone” – he calls these “bonding” collaborations and they produce weaker results.

The best collaborations, Harford reminds us, come from “bridging” collaborations where people with different skills, experiences, and approaches get involved. Although these collaborations require more emotional energy, they do require the core group of people to raise their game and actually add greater value to the final outcome.

Perhaps this will give you some ideas on how to improve your organization’s collaborations. Let me know what you learn!

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