My first real post in this space, in June 2008, was entitled "Collaboration as Competitive Advantage." I posited that most firms in our industry had not mastered collaboration across disciplines and with outside parties. One piece of evidence: High rework rates that would spell disaster in most businesses. I felt strongly then, and still do, that someone could capitalize on this shortcoming and market an effective collaborative approach as a distinctive, high-value offering to clients.
I was reminded of this as I prepared to work with still another client struggling with poor coordination, communication, and alignment between different corporate functions. I will be doing some training for this client on the "skills for collaborative success," which provides a convenient excuse to write about it here.
A simple definition of collaboration is "collective effort to achieve mutual objectives." But true collaboration involves more than simply working together with others to accomplish common goals. The principle of synergy should apply, where collaboration enables people to achieve substantially more together than the sum of their individual efforts.
The A/E industry is increasingly moving toward more collaborative project delivery processes. One example is the growth of design-build. The next wave may be Integrated Project Delivery. These approaches hold great promise for providing better solutions to our clients in less time and at lower cost. But before we can excel at collaboration with outside parties I suggest we need figure out how to do it better internally.
In either case, here are some recommendations for strengthening your competency at collaboration:
Align performance goals. Different members of a team often have different, even competing, goals for the same project. So your first step is to bring some alignment to the team's goals. Start by identifying common objectives that everyone can agree upon (e.g., meeting client requirements). Then work outward, first with goals where there is minimal difference (or perhaps simply different perceptions), moving toward those that are less aligned. In some cases, complete alignment may not be possible, but you should at least determine how such differences can be accommodated. Eliminate as many conflicting goals as possible.
Define steps for maintaining open communication. One of the biggest mistakes in this area is to assume adequate communication will take place without giving it specific attention. It's best to try to schedule all routine communications so that a discipline can be developed around this activity. Then identify situations or milestones that trigger the need for additional communication. Mutually define individual or group preferences for communication (e.g., email or phone, time of day, how discussions will be documented).
Clarify roles and responsibilities. People who regularly work together often assume they know who's responsible for what when, in fact, it hasn't been clearly established. I've worked with different departments within a firm, with clients and consultants who've worked together for years, and design-build teams that have completed previous projects together--and have consistently found gaps in understanding roles and responsibilities. If your team has never reviewed this in detail, let me advise you to do so.
Agree on lines of authority and the approach to decision making. Combining teams of different departments or different firms sometimes leaves questions about who has authority in various scenarios. If there is a design change, who precisely needs to buy off on that? If you're communicating with the media or the public on behalf of the project, whose approval is needed? Clarity on decision making is important, of course, not just in terms of who's involved, but how and when decisions can be made in timely fashion to avoid delays or interruptions.
Commit to resolving conflicts promptly. Differences are one of the qualities that make teams strong. But differences can lead to conflict, which if left unresolved, can erode trust, productivity, and collaborative success. When conflict inevitably arises, start by trying to understand each party's position, needs, and motivations. Be sensitive to the emotional context, trying to depersonalize the disagreement as much as possible. Before compromising between the two positions (which equates to a partial defeat for both sides), seek a satisfactory third alternative. Engage a third party to mediate if necessary.
Celebrate mutual successes together. Be sure to acknowledge and celebrate meeting collective goals. As they say in sports, winning is the best way to overcome differences and struggles among teammates. Plus celebrating success provides positive reinforcement for doing things the right way.