Wendy Tan, Wholeness, Collaboration, Partnering Agilely in the Digital Age, collaboration workshop

Collaboration has been an established practice. It’s even more so now, as we pull together expertise to solve novel problems, bring new products to markets in record time and promote more engagement and productivity. Emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills are useful but no longer sufficient to collaborate speedily in a fuzzy landscape. The additional dimensions include focusing on the whole, contracting with peers, navigating ambiguities in the evolving work together, whilst having clarity to path-find amidst complexity.


To examine this, let’s take a step back first. Using factories in the industrial age as a metaphor, work is divided into parcels and people are specialized. I finish steps 1 to 3, I hand it off to you, and you complete steps 4 to 6. Responsibilities are discrete, performance indicators are clear and we manage our parts. A black and white workflow.


Of course, we are not in the industrial age anymore. In fact, we are at the edge of a new world with many new possibilities as different fields come together to learn and create new solutions. Chee Seng, a HR leader in the research industry says, “In the new research world, a scientist needs to pull together different expertise and experience to solve a problem. There are no pre-defined SOPs, team structure, process and norms.”


Similarly, Joel Leong, Talent Management Director in Jabil, exclaims, “I don’t ask whose role is it anymore.” He was responding to my question, “Where does the job of a Diversity and Inclusion role ends, and that of a Learning & Development role starts?” This is because D&I initiatives often include women leadership, cultural understanding, respect, which traditionally have been undertaken by L&D through training.


In the not so distant past, in these overlapping situations, we would define role clarity, performance indicators and hand-offs. So we try to achieve black and white workflow, since no one wants to inadvertently step into each other’s turfs. In situations where the problem and procedure is well-defined, role clarity is still useful, e.g., in the operating theatre, the roles between the nurses and doctors are well-defined.


However, to solve novel problems speedily, we operate at the fringe. Questions like who do I collaborate with? Will we be able to work well together? What problem are we solving exactly? How do we ensure we listen to one another and keep the space for the best ideas to surface? How do we know this is the best idea anyway? Who and how do we make decisions? How do we evaluate performance? Who job is this? Who takes on the organizing role? These are questions for just 1 team. Multiply that across 8 teams or projects, we get a blur of grey mess.


Here comes Collaboration 2.0. Unlike the past focus on teamwork, where we support one another within the framework and boundaries of functional expertise, collaboration 2.0 requires us to be comfortable with the greyness of ambiguity and to see the whole of the team and the issue. This means looking at the big picture, identifying people with the right expertise and experience, reaching out to them to form a partnership, agreeing on how to work together and being willing to renegotiate the roles and ways of working.


There are a few key dimensions that characterize Collaboration 2.0:

  1. Relationships replace Job Descriptions

Job descriptions are static and become irrelevant as new development unfolds. It is also difficult to clearly define the roles upfront when we don’t know exactly what we are getting into. Rather than stick to “this is what my role is supposed to be”, we need to be flexible and count on the strength of the relationships to negotiate changes and who does what, which is often not the original job description.


Instead of counting on an outdated document, count on the relationships. Trust and connectedness cement relationship. It’s conventional wisdom that relationships take time to build. I disagree. That’s a poor excuse for not cultivating our skills and capacity to nurture relationships at the speed of change.


Consider this. Trust at the basic level is, to do what I say and say what I do. This is so simple but not commonly practiced. Do you do what you say and say what you do? (It’s ok, if you say sometimes 😉


Trust is also built based on honesty, being direct with one another. Instead of complaining about a colleague to someone else, talk to that colleague directly. It does require skill and courage, but it deepens mutual understanding and facilitates speed in the project, rather than avoidance or aggression. Also, respond to emails or texts even if you feel awkward, e.g., say ‘no’ to an invitation or apologizing for a delayed response. Silence creates question marks in the relationship, whereas closing the loop keeps the relationship intact.


The third level of trust is knowing you have my interests at heart and I have yours. This comes from a place of care, perhaps not so common, but possible if there is a level of connectedness in the relationship. The best way to cultivate this high level of trust is to give it others first – to have their interests at heart and to watch for their backs. This could take the form of simple actions like sending a text message warning your colleague of an impending objection at an upcoming meeting, or alerting him about issues he may not have thought of or gently steering a meeting towards a more productive path.


With the relationships in place, you are in a position for peer accountability.


  1. Peer Accountability replaces Performance Evaluations

Have you noticed situations where bosses are not part of the dynamics, people are more transparent in their commitment and refusal? Without the pressure to say the right thing or get into the boss’ good books, people have more capacity to be real with one another and choose to be accountable (or not).


This is even more important in Collaboration 2.0 situations. Can bosses realistically appraise the work of their staff when they are not involved in the projects? Of course the regular updates with bosses are important, but for knowledge workers, reputation of good work travels far and beyond. Of course reputation of bad work travels too. Rather than think about how the boss would appraise our work, think about how your colleagues will appraise your work. Their impressions become your reputation.


Choose to be accountable to your peers, rather than be held accountable by the KPIs or your boss. Accountability is not a ‘holding’ job, it’s tiring for anyone to hold another accountable. Think parent holding a child accountable for music practices, you get the idea. The current systems and processes are also flawed to hold accountability when work changes so quickly. The projects defined at the start of the work year morphs to something else after the second quarter.


The alternative is to choose to be accountable to your peers. Make promises that you intend to keep. Come clean when you break your promises. Make requests for help. Collaboration is to give and take.


  1. Focus on the whole replaces functional focus

The functional focus is a product of the industrial age – divide and conquer. The whole is divided into parts to be managed separately with more depth. The past few decades, organizations have tried to break silos, build teams, focus on organizational purpose and vision.


The alternative is to have people focus on the whole first – the challenge, the possibility, the solution and go beyond their functional lines to solve it. Rather than focus on the roles of D&I and L&D separately, Joel focuses on the whole issue, which is how to ensure the organization’s success in the future. When we focus on the whole, we get down to basics, why do we need to do what we do, what is the contribution of our expertise, how can we value add, then we decide the best way to do it.


Without keeping ourselves within the functional fence, we have more freedom to venture out to learn about other expertise, understand their lingo, ways of thinking and absorb new ideas into our understanding. This expands our breadth and relevance to the business.


Of course, this doesn’t mean letting go of our functional expertise, which is the very reason we are in the room. However, it does mean straddling the tension between our part and the whole, as we search for creative solutions.


Collaboration 2.0 will demand skills beyond emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills. These will still be relevant and useful. The additional dimensions include focusing on the whole, contracting with peers, navigating ambiguities in the evolving work together, whilst having clarity to path-find amidst complexity.


Written by Wendy Tan

12 Jul 2018