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How To Build a Collaborative Culture

How To Build a Collaborative Culture

Interview with APQC 2023 Conference Keynote Speaker Dan Pontefract 

Collaboration enables teams to solve problems more quickly, decrease reinvention and duplicative work across the enterprise, and drive innovation toward better products, services, and processes. But collaboration does not happen with the flip of a switch—organizations need to be intentional about creating the right environment for collaborative behaviors to take root. 

In an interview with APQC’s Jeff Varney, four-time TED speaker and award-winning author Dan Pontefract shared insights about how organizations can enable a culture of collaboration and address the most common barriers that stand in the way. For Pontefract, collaboration is fundamentally a question of culture. Enabling collaboration across an enterprise requires teams to move beyond siloed thinking, design effective processes for working together, and clear time and space for collaboration to unfold. 

What keeps people from developing collaborative behaviors?

What gets in the way of collaborative behavior is other people. There are three primary reasons why this happens. The first is siloed thinking, which seems rampant right now. I think the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated siloed thinking because so many people still continue to work from home or they're not all in the office at the same time. It’s easy to blame others for siloed thinking—for not sharing, for not coming up out of their foxhole, for not thinking about me, and so on. The truth is that we all do it, and could all do something about it. 

The second people-related challenge is our desperate proclivity for being busy and our unknowing distractedness that has enveloped and arguably taken over our thinking like a plague. If we are uber busy, if we are back to back to back to back in meetings, if we don't have any of that “white space”, or we’re always enamored by shiny new objects, our ability to collaborate with others is affected. 

A third people-related challenge for collaboration is the concept of learned helplessness. At its core, learned helplessness basically means, “that's how we've always done things around here.” This often happens when new hires come into an organization or a new team and see people exhibiting behaviors that are not collaborative: “Oh, [Organization A] will never give us anything, so we’re not going to give anything to them.” It creates learned helplessness because new employees think, “Well, if no one else here is sharing or collaborating with [Organization A], then I'm sure not going to be the first.”

Does collaboration need to be structured to enable critical thinking? Or should organizations let it be more serendipitous and offer opportunities for natural collaboration to happen?

The answer is yes. Collaboration is not an either/or proposition. As leaders, we need to find ways to do two key things. One is what I call structured dreaming, and the other is to foster serendipitous, marinated moments. Those sound like buzzwords, so I’ll unpack them.

Structured dreaming means applying activities like blocking out time to do the ideation, scenario analysis, brainstorming, or after-action reviews. These activities can be proactive or reactive. The important thing is to make these activities systemic so people in the organization know when, why, and how to use them.  For example, “today is Friday, which means it’s time for structured dreaming.” You might use an agenda, you might not, but it’s still structured. This approach goes a very long way toward unleashing people’s ideas, pent up frustrations, and feedback.  

When I use the phrase ‘serendipitous, marinated moments,’ I’m talking about those moments when ideas pop into your head in the elevator, in a hallway chat, or in a Teams or Zoom call where you’re just shooting the breeze and come up with something amazing. As leaders, we need to coach and teach our team members that it’s critical to carry a notebook or even just take notes on your phone in these moments. If we don’t write things down in the moment, then our distractedness, busyness, and our back-to-back meetings can all get in the way of capturing that collaborative moment. “Write it down” has to be one of the key action items.

How can organizations help people avoid unproductive forms of collaboration?

Those of us of a certain age might remember something called Robert’s Rules of Order. They seem a bit archaic and antiquated these days, but they were a set of rules to follow for an effective meeting. The rules covered areas such as how to prepare, what the structure and flow of the meeting should look like, who gets to speak, who writes up the summary, and so on. 

I would argue that we need a “Robert’s Rules of Collaboration” to structure collaboration. I’ve seen collaboration models play out both in my time as a chief learning officer and a chief envisioner at places like SAP and TELUS. I've gone on to help other organizations implement collaboration models because I truly believe they are valuable. They help you know when people should be involved or not involved; or when there’s too much collaboration or not enough. 

Around 2002, a professor from INSEAD named Ludo Van der Heyden introduced the idea of Fair Process Leadership (FPL), and I took that idea and ran with it. While he put it forward as a leadership model, it’s really a collaboration model in my opinion. The model includes five E’s: 

  1.  engage with people,
  2. explore your options,
  3. explain your decision,
  4. execute the decision, and
  5. evaluate how you did. 

If the entire organization knows the five Es—or the steps for a similar collaboration model—that’s when you start to see magic happen. People can ask where we are in the cycle and agree that we’re moving from one step to the next. 

I’m not suggesting that FPL is the model you should use—you can come up with your own as well. I’ve done that with some organizations that figured out what the right behaviors were for them—it might be four, five, or six things that get rolled out across the enterprise. 

Is there a risk that people will rely on methodologies or technologies for collaboration rather than the collaborative behaviors themselves?

Yes. For example, there is a difference between collaboration and communication. Some people might say that they’re using LinkedIn, Twitter, or TikTok to collaborate. That’s not really the case—they’re using those tools to communicate. Communication is a subset of collaboration. You could collaborate even without good communication skills, but communication is important. You just need to understand the difference between communication and collaboration.

Another important question here is whether technology is actually a barrier to collaboration.,  I think the answer is yes in many ways.

The promise of technology was that it would be the great savior of our time—the great connector of people to people, people to process, and people to ideas. Yet the irony is that technology has become one of the biggest, if not the biggest, inhibitor to effective collaboration.

I urge leaders—not just CIOs, but everyone around the senior table—to take a very hard look at what technologies their organizations are using for collaboration and communication and to simplify. If you have Teams and Slack and some people using LinkedIn while others use Yammer, that’s not effective collaboration or communication—that’s chaos. 

Will people inevitably find a way to collaborate despite the barriers and challenges?

This is where the HR, people, and culture part of me starts to come out. I am vehemently opposed to not thinking about collaboration as a culture problem because it is. We can look at (American) football as an example. Everyone knows that the quarterback is the star or one of the major stars; yet no one ever thinks about the holder and what their name is. But if the holder isn’t doing his job to set up the kick after every touchdown, does the team win? 

It's important to look at the roles and responsibilities inside of your team. If your team has 15 quarterbacks, you also need to have some holders, right? As long as you treat them with fairness and trust that they can carry out their role, that one little thing they do is going to be so important to the bigger picture. That’s leadership.

Learn more about APQC’s 2023 conference and register today to hear more insights from Dan Pontefract and delve more deeply into people, process, and knowledge.