Saturday, December 17, 2011

If Collaboration is So Great why Doesn't It Happen?

Why is collaboration an underused tool in spite of its proven benefits?  As a partial answer, here's an article (based on a survey) from Human Resource Executive Online.

Key points:
1) Typical organizational structures inhibit collaboration - hierarchy, silos, divisions, departments, groups, etc....
2) Employees lack skills to improve project and initiative collaboration - even if they do have the opportunity to work better together employees don't know how to effectively brainstorm and share ideas, agree on ideas, and take them from conception to implementation.
3) Some best practices:  increase freedom for employees to pursue solutions, eliminate rigid organizational structures, provide training on project collaboration skills.  (See related post on the KSAs for teams)
4) Steps to foster collaboration:  ensure the management team supports it and shows their support, foster trust (psychological safety) which increases idea sharing, allow employees to take ownership of new ideas and initiatives and hold them accountable,  train employees on discussion and dialogue techniques for better idea sharing (Click here to understand the difference).
5) Management must model the collaboration they wish to see in employees....this means not talking negatively about other departments, not trying to 'go it alone', and instead showing through words and actions that the success of the organization depends on the entire organization working together, showing how the department contributes to the overall organization goal.
6) As employees gain increased autonomy, ownership, and accountability allow them to experiment with new tools and ways of working.
7) Support a culture of learning rather than a focus on mistakes.  If employees don't feel safe to mistakes, they won't feel safe trying new ways of working and they won't feel safe working better together.

Friday, December 16, 2011


In the book Work Based Learning: Bridging Knowledge and Action in the Workplace, Joseph A. Raelin writes about the importance of reflection for professional growth. Before we go any further, let's stop for a minute and think about how often you reflect while at work?  Is there a 'culture of reflection'? Does your boss encourage reflection?

Raelin contends that a "work team becomes a learning team when it spends time clarifying it’s thought before and after action."  Think back to the last time you worked on a team project.  Prior to each team meeting did you all explore your thoughts?  After the meeting did you discuss how productive you were?  What could have been done differently?  Did everyone feel included?  Did everyone have an opportunity to contribute?  Were questions thoroughly addressed?

In this super busy world, taking the time to reflect on our progress and effectiveness may seem like a luxury we don't have.  Really though it's a necessity we can't afford to do without.    As competition increases, those organizations that take time to reflect and improve performance based on reflection will have the advantage. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Team Norms, Team Rules, Team Charter....

Whatever term you may apply, the principle is the same.  Teams function better when there are agreed upon expectations for behaviors.  In our MSLOC program, we utilize Team Charters.  These interactive, living documents represent our best attempt at ensuring a successful team work environment.  The charter includes our individual personality tendencies and preferences, personal and academic goals, and of course team goals.  We very clearly spell out expectations for communication, task completion, team reflection, meetings, etc.  The actual preparation of the document is a great way of getting issues out on the table and addressing them, before we find ourselves in the heat of whatever project we're working on.  So far, it's been a helpful exercise.

Here's an article from the Center for Creative Leadership about establishing team norms.  It's worth the read.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Progress: Do you hinder or help it?

I recently read an article from the Harvard Business Review (May 2007) by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer entitled Inner Work Life: Understanding the Subtext of Business Performance.  The premise of the argument was that all employees have a continuous inner work life playing in their heads while at work, “a constant stream of emotions, perceptions, and motivations.”  This line of consciousness (or in some cases sub-consciousness) reacts to the events at work and directly affects an employee’s performance. 
The authors contend that there are two things managers do, or don’t do, that influence this inner work life, thus affecting an employee’s performance, including their creativity, commitment, collegiality, and productivity.  They aren’t what you probably think at first; they aren’t pats on the back, verbal or written praise, monetary rewards, etc.  No.  They are, “enabling people to move forward in their work and treating them decently as human beings.”  

How often are these truly the two behaviors managers focus on most?  More often managers provide evaluation, constructive (or non-constructive) criticism, and direction.  They are either super hands off or a micro-manager.  They require meeting attendance, whether productive or not.  They set deadlines, sometimes unrealistic, and expectations, also sometime unrealistic.  They hoard control, squelch creativity, or procrastinate decision-making. You get the point.  Admittedly not all managers are like this, at least not completely, but it is likely that most managers do something (or several things) that hinder progress, rather than enable it.   It’s likely that managers are oblivious to this yet unlikely that employees will feel comfortable enough to point it out.  But, if managers want to improve employee creativity, strengthen commitment, foster collegiality, and enhance productivity then they’ll take some serious time to reflect on how often they hinder, versus help, progress.

Why is enabling progress important? The obvious reason is that it moves the organization closer to achieving its goals.  The less obvious reasons are the affects it has on employees’ inner work life.  As the author’s stated, employees have increased job satisfaction and perform better when they feel like the boss enables progress towards their goals. In contrast, employees who feel their bosses hinder progress are more likely to believe their boss doesn’t value their work, is undermining their work intentionally, or is simply incompetent.

So what can the manager do to enable employee progress at work?  Several things, such as:
·         Provide clear goals and eliminate ambiguity
·         Eliminate long (pointless) meetings, especially when employees are under severe deadlines
·         Provide genuine feedback, opportunities for reflection, and a focus on learning not just evaluation.
·         Ask employees what they need to accomplish tasks
·         Ensure employees have adequate resources, including time, to complete the tasks.

One more point, I focused on the first of the two behaviors Amabile and Kramer suggested managers do to positively affect inner work life.  But, the second should not be overlooked:  treat employees as human beings.  I’m not going to go into detail on this one; I hope it’s self explanatory.  I do however encourage managers to pause and reflect on whether they truly do this.  Do they recognize that employees have lives outside of work?  Do they see employees as people and not just cogs in a machine?  As the authors mentioned, people are working more hours than ever before, thus life outside of work is getting smaller and smaller; all the more reason to ensure employees feel appreciated, valued, and respected while at work.  As managers, we have the opportunity to have a profound impact on a person’s enjoyment of work as well as their overall quality of life.  Please don’t take this lightly. 

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Reflecting on the Value of Reflection

Within the MSLOC program there is a significant focus on the value of reflection in terms of leadership and organizational development.  Although I've been a "journaler" (one who journals) for most of my life, I've never considered myself a deeply reflective person; until recently. My next few posts will focus on the value of reflection, lessons I've learned from a variety of sources.  Here's a brief tidbit to get us started with reflecting on reflection:

I think the ‘reflection’ part of your brain (if there is such a thing) must be like a muscle.  The more you exercise it the stronger it gets.  In my MSLOC program we’ve had many discussions about how to find time to reflect when we’re all so busy.  We’ve talked about reflection-on-action and reflection-in-action (the latter being the ideal).  Personally, I think we can all reach the ideal, eventually, if we just take baby steps; if we exercise our ‘reflection muscles.’  

So perhaps try spending just one moment a day reflecting on a task, your performance or a thought; then maybe a few more moments, and then five minutes once a day, then five minutes several times a day…you get the point.  I wonder if eventually, we couldn’t train our minds to reflect automatically; to basically do something - reflect, say something - reflect, think something – reflect.  I think we can and I don’t know about you but the benefits of reflection, which we'll discuss in more detail, are such that I’m willing to give this little exercise a try. 

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Let's Get Started - Working Better Together

I'm only in the 2nd week of the Learning and Organizational Change Masters Program at Northwestern University and already my mind is swimming with new concepts and techniques, all related to helping people work better together. I hope this blog becomes an online space for idea sharing, thoughtful discussions, and creative brainstorming.  I'll use the blog as a central location to log all that I learn in this exciting program.  I invite you to share your own thoughts and ideas.  I look forward to a dynamic and fulfilling discussion as together we explore how to work better together to improve our organizations and communities.

Here's a good place to start: Do Happier People Work Harder?  This article highlights the importance of employee engagement and the serious repercussions of inattentive managers.