Collaboration is key to agile leadership

by | Mar 18, 2021 | Articles

Dr Simon Hayward, CEO of Cirrus, writes for the Institute of Leadership and Management’s Edge magazine.

Agility – the ability to adapt to rapidly-changing circumstances with speed and focus – has become more of a highly-prized asset than ever since the Covid-19 pandemic struck. At the heart of agile working is collaboration – within teams, across organisations, and beyond. 

The ways in which we collaborate have changed since remote working has become more widespread.  A BCG study of 12,000 professionals around the world found that the majority improved or maintained personal productivity during Covid-19, but levels of collaboration and social connection in teams have dropped. The ILM’s own research found that while most remote workers do feel connected to colleagues, 71% miss them. It is as if the collaboration muscle has atrophied during lock down and remote working, and it needs a rehab programme of intense physiotherapy to restore its strength and resilience.

To develop more agile ways of working it is therefore important for leaders to encourage greater collaboration and team working. Leaders need to create and support multi-skilled teams able to deliver robust outcomes in short bursts of effort, teams that are self-managing and dedicated to learning how to improve their speed and quality. Leaders need to empower these teams to decide how to achieve goals in line with overall strategy.

Leaders can act as the physiotherapist, focusing on the collaboration muscle, tracking its progress, removing barriers to its success, and coaching teams to go out of their way to make collaboration happen in practice. They can facilitate more social connectivity, more time to speak as human beings, rather than focusing simply on tasks and output. They can also inspire teams to collaborate by reminding them of the customer vision and of the team’s purpose, and to create value through solving problems better together.

The leader’s role in catalysing collaboration

In a truly agile organisation, teamwork is seen as a natural way of getting things done. People commit time and energy to collaborating in teams and to improving their team’s performance. This requires people to subsume their ego and individual objectives to the team’s identity and goals, which can be challenging for some. As leaders, we also need to be great team players, thinking ‘we’ more than ‘I’, focusing our time and effort on team success rather than on our own. We often think of leadership as way of influencing others, and in many ways it is; but it is also about being open to influence, open to ideas, open to challenge, open to changing our minds.  

As leaders our job is also to enable cross-functional, effective collaboration, to remove silos and accelerate processes. We need to encourage regular communications between teams, and repeatedly reinforce the shared purpose and accountability for outputs across teams. It is helpful, for example, to have regular team reviews where we discuss with the team how they are collaborating with other teams, and with their customers, to ensure they are playing their part in the wider enterprise as effectively as possible. By reminding the team of their responsibility to collaborate outside the team, we keep the need for collaboration front of mind.

And as leaders it is often our responsibility to make the first move, to encourage teams to reach over boundaries to seek out ways to make the overall customer experience better. We can be the catalysts for accelerating collaborative achievement by being role models for cross-functional and cross-team communication and coordination.

What are the barriers to collaboration?

In principle, we can all recognise that collaboration between teams is an essential ingredient of a connected and agile organisation. However, in practice, increasing collaboration across teams can be deeply challenging.  

A lack of collaboration is a real barrier to agility. One of the most common issues I hear from both large and mid-size organisations is the issue of silos getting in the way of collaboration and agile working. Human nature means we too often look inwards, rather than instinctively reaching across boundaries to improve overall organisational effectiveness. Our natural empathy for people in our group converts to a lack of empathy for those outside our group. So, we need to work harder to establish and maintain collaboration such as cross-functional working in a matrix structure or driving innovative research across different academic departments. As leaders, we set the example, so if we focus our time and energy on building collaboration others will tend to do so as well.

Building collaboration across and beyond your organisation

To get effective cross-functional working, we first need to ensure each team is working well in itself. In agile ways of working the team is the essential unit of work. Each team needs clarity of its purpose and clear roles within the team, simple ways of working and high-quality relationships. Regular reviews with straightforward and caring feedback fuel improved team performance as well as supporting increased levels of psychological safety.

Once we have strong teams delivering effectively, we can broaden our approach to create wider collaboration across teams and functions, focused on process improvement and delivering an integrated customer experience. If processes such as new product development or customer relationship management are to work smoothly and efficiently, and deliver value to the customer, they require integrated coordination across functions, with smooth hand-offs and communication between teams.

Whether you are working across channels in a retailer or cross-selling in a multi-service professional services firm, you can accelerate customer benefit by increasing cross-functional collaboration. I have found that it can help to find the mavericks who think differently and who see how working across teams can generate significant benefits for all parties, and to sponsor them to create real success stories. When we joined a larger international consulting firm in 2008, my colleague Clare went out of her way to forge new relationships with leaders in different specialist teams, leading to new sales opportunities for all.  She saw the potential and went for it, drawing others into fresh bids and new client wins.

Ultimately, we need to extend this collaborative approach further to working effectively with partners outside the organisation, such as in an integrated supply chain in car manufacturing, or in software ecosystems like app developers for smartphones. But we know that collaboration is not easy – it takes investment of time, resources, and energy to be effective. And this is accentuated when working collaboratively between different organisations. So, it is helpful to be selective, to start small, and to focus on tangible opportunities which you can only take together.  In this way you can build partnerships based on increasing momentum, with a growing track record of success, so your investment reaps an appropriate return.

In an age of upheaval, disruption and uncertainty, the way teams interact has become a business-critical issue. As leaders, we can address this issue by building the collaboration muscle within teams, and by creating opportunities for collaboration with other teams and organisations where your skills are complimentary or where you can create more value by working together.

Five ways for leaders to create more collaborative and agile workplaces

  1. Build social connections between teams and people to rebuild the collaborative muscle across your organisation
  2. Trust and empower your team to take responsibility and drive continuous improvement based on feeling safe
  3. Be the first mover, take the lead and reach out to others to create mutual opportunities through collaboration
  4. Clarify purpose and goals for your teams and for collaborative working, so everyone is clear about what and why
  5. Be selective about when to invest in collaboration, to ensure it yields more than it costs.

© The Institute of Leadership and Management’s Edge magazine

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