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Kevin & Jackie Freiberg

17 Strategies For Improving Collaboration

In a complex business environment where organizations are made up of more and more specialists, a great value is placed on leaders who can bring diverse groups together in a spirit of cooperation to get things done. As collaboration experts, these leaders must guard against “tribalism”—an attitude that arises when subgroups fixate on their own activities and fail to look at the organization as a whole.

Tribalism starts when employees and leaders view their organization as divisible and compartmentalized. They see their immediate coworkers and their part of the organization as special, alienating people from other “tribes” within the same organization whom they paradoxically rely on to get things done.

Whether it is departmental, hierarchical, generational, geographical, categorical or gender-specific, tribes are formed in organizations every day. The old-timers resent Gens X and Y for being fickle and disloyal, while the young people impatiently throw their arms up in frustration because they can’t dislodge the organization from its dinosaur ways. The creatives resent the suits, and the suits can’t believe they have to put up with people who think “business casual” means cargo shorts and flip-flops.

Whether you call it tribalism, silo-building, turf-protection or finger-pointing, it chews up physical and emotional energy that distracts people from their jobs, wastes resources, disconnects people and stops the flow of information, severely weakening your organization’s ability to compete.

What forms of tribalism exist in your business? Where do the seams appear?

Use the following strategies to banish tribalism and lay the groundwork for cross-departmental collaboration:

1. Understand why tribes and silos exist.

A “tribe” is any part of the organization that has turned inward, functions as a unique, separate identity and is loyal to its own department, division or section rather than to the organization as a whole. Why do tribes exist and why are they so powerful? Here are a few thoughts:

  • Tribes are a tool for self-preservation
  • Tribes provide identity
  • Tribes create emotional ties in a world where people have a deep need for belonging
  • Tribes are anchors, places people can call home—they provide safety and security
  • Tribal pride usually causes members to think their ideas and practices are superior
  • People are typically motivated by self-interest first, then allegiance to the tribe and finally loyalty to the common good of the larger organization or community

2. Do your homework—become a “tribal” expert.

To break down the walls of tribalism you have to understand the tribe. Don’t automatically assume you know them just because they are part of the same organization. Be able to answer these questions: What do they do? Why do they exist? Who do they rely on to get work done? Who relies on them? Who has a vested interest in their success or failure? What pressures, roadblocks and barriers do they face in carrying out their mission? What do you know about the culture of the tribe? What rules do they subscribe to? What language do they speak? Who are the key players in the tribe? The more you empathize with them and understand the tribe, the more prone they will be to cooperate and collaborate with you.

3. Create a clear, compelling and urgent cause.

In BOOM! we pointed out that firefighters, police forces and special units teams rarely get caught up in tribalistic behavior because the mission at hand is laser clear and the consequences of mission accomplishment are compelling and urgent—often a matter of life and death. Just because you take a team member out of a tribe doesn’t necessarily mean you will take tribalism out of the team member. You’ve got to give that person a gripping reason to be a part of what you are doing. Make your cause exciting, build a solid business case for what you’re trying to do and inspire them to care as much as you do. People find all kinds of reasons not to work together when they are unclear about or indifferent to the cause.

4. Never burn a bridge.

The person, department or functional area you criticize today may be the ally you need tomorrow. Even if you are grinding gears with another part of the organization, never diminish, disparage or dehumanize people from another tribe. Remember the REAL OPPONENT is out there, not in here.

5. In the face of drama take a step back.

In every organization there are people with too much time on their hands. It’s easy for these folks to stir the pot with “petty preoccupations.” When drama erupts and the “pot stirrers” in your tribe start pointing fingers at members of another tribe—don’t get sucked in. As the old cliché goes, “There are two sides to every story.” Interdepartmental conflict is often caused by more than one group. Beware of people in YOUR tribe who are divisive. This doesn’t mean you don’t take on critical issues or you shy away from conflict. It simply means that you don’t get wrapped around the axle of drama and tribalism without thoroughly investigating first.

6. Get to “YES” fast. Focus on what’s working between tribes.

People gravitate toward winners. When you focus on how you have successfully worked with another tribe in the past you start with a common ”YES,” a common reason for working together again. You can do this by asking these questions: When we worked well together before what really clicked? What brought us together? How did we capitalize on the diversity of thoughts, ideas and styles of members from the other tribe? How did it feel to collaborate when it worked? When members from two different tribes sit down at the table of collaboration focused on a history of demonstrated success, both have a better chance of starting with optimism, hope and a spirit of cooperation vs. a spirit of finger-pointing and blame.

7. Create small wins.

Small wins have a way of breaking down barriers and busting silo walls. Small wins create momentum. It feels good to win and if winning requires the participation of two tribes that have been “warring” with each other, both tribes now have a reason to work collaboratively.

8. Promote meetings between department heads.

Something positive happens when people meet together face-to-face. Thinking and brainstorming together, problem solving together, celebrating together, and assuming collective responsibility for the organization’s success is a powerful catalyst for building trust and making collaboration a way of life. Of course, busy people who compete for scarce resources or think they really have no reason to build rapport will resist this effort, but don’t back down, it could be the single biggest thing you can do to foster creativity, collaboration and cross-functional accountability. Department heads that do this will be more likely to assemble joint task forces comprising people from different disciplines with different backgrounds and further promoting a culture of collaboration.

9. Encourage people to socialize outside of work.

Yes we all lead busy personal lives and having one more corporate event that we are obligated to attend can add to the stress. But think about it, socializing with co-workers outside the office can open communication channels, create better understanding and break down the walls of mistrust—all of which contribute to lowering our stress. One department can work with another department for years without really knowing individual members. This makes it easier for people to focus on their differences rather than on what they have in common. When I learn that we share a common interest or wrestle with some of the same issues outside of work, you become a real person, I stop stereotyping and objectifying you, and it makes it more difficult for me to point the finger at you at work.

10. Recognize, reward and celebrate collaborative behavior.

The legends of athletic dynasties consist of incredible collaborative efforts. Players sit in locker rooms and clubhouses reminiscing about the key play “when it all came together.” Whether told through video, newsletter, podcast, annual report or webinar, stories of great collaboration break down the walls of tribalism and honor collective accomplishments. Attaching performance metrics and bonuses to collaborative efforts sends a very strong message to everyone about what values are driving the business.

11. Make innovation a preeminent focus.

Creativity and innovation by necessity requires different people with diverse perspectives and expertise to “cross-pollinate” the organization with fresh ideas. When the bar for innovation is set extremely high and creative breakthroughs are an expected part of the culture, people have no choice but to start silo-busting.

12. Brand everyone as a junction box for knowledge.

Collaboration isn’t about having all the answers. In a world that is becoming more and more specialized, having all the answers is simply unrealistic. Collaboration is about knowing who to go to for the right answers, trusting their character and competence, and having access to them at the right time. All of this assumes there is a relationship to begin with. Accelerating the flow of knowledge in a company is the result of players who build a network of cross-functional relationships within the organization, throughout the industry and around the globe.

13. Think systemically.

We pointed this out in BOOM!, but it bears repeating here. Systemic thinking starts by developing the discipline to ask yourself, How will the decisions I make and the actions I take, way over here in my part of the organization, affect someone way over there in another part of the organization? How would I receive what I’m proposing? It’s easy to objectify and oversimplify other people’s jobs. If I think your job is easy because I really don’t understand the nature or pressures of your work, it becomes convenient for me to rationalize why you should serve me, then I don’t have to think about how my work affects you. After all, my job is extremely difficult and complex. Or maybe I don’t oversimplify your job, maybe I’m just going 90 mph with my hair on fire and my focus is myopic. In either case, systemic thinking can shatter the walls of tribalism because it forces me to look at things from your perspective and see the organization as a whole.

14. Walk a mile.

Create opportunities for people from different parts of the organization to work together. Establish a rotation system where employees can work in another area to develop empathy and gain a big picture perspective. Invite people from other departments into your team meetings for an outsider/insider point of view.

15. Ask the tough questions.

Anyone who receives the output of your work is an internal customer. So, who receives the output of your work? Identify the criteria by which these other departments evaluate the quality of the service you provide? Put a small ad hoc team together, then go to the functional areas that receive the output of your work and ask the following questions: What are the top 10 things we do to make it difficult for you to do your jobs? If you were running our department or business unit what would you do differently? How can we make the “handoff” to you more seamless? If we were easy to do business with what would that look like? Have the team convey the answers to the rest of your department, then begin making changes. Circle back to those who gave you feedback, thank them for their insight and candor, then tell them what changes you are implementing.

Here are a few more tough questions:

  • If you got candid feedback from members of your team or others teams you work with, which end of the continuum would they say you personally operate on most consistently—tribalism or collaboration?
  • If you operate “tribalistically,” how is that working for you? What impact is that having on the reputation of YOU Inc.? On your career? On your team, division, department, company or customers?
  • What causes you to be “tribalistic?” Information is power, do you need to control information to be or feel more powerful in your company? Do you need to protect your sense of independence? Do you need to fly under the radar screen of others because you fear being exposed? Do you think that your products, services, ideas, people and ability to execute are better than others so that you’ve become “tribal?” Do you get so focused on your own little world that you become myopic? Do you have a scarcity mentality where protecting resources tempts you not to cooperate? If the answer to any of these questions is “yes,” challenge the accuracy of your assumptions. Challenge the value of acting upon them. Are you really getting the results you desire?

16. Let the customer weigh in.

Most customers are more aware of tribalism than you think because they experience the consequences of it. If you really want to get people’s attention invite several customers into your organization to talk about where the ball gets dropped, how this impacts them and how they feel about it. If they use more than one vendor, ask them how these tribalistic behaviors compare with competitors. The power of this exercise, of course, is that it shifts the focus from internal naval-gazing to the real opponent and the real reason you are in business.

17. Honor requests – keep your promises.

Most requests and promises are held sacred within the tribe, but considered optional between tribes. Taking a request from another tribe seriously and doing what you say you are going to do goes a long way toward building trust and blurring boundaries. The question every person and every business unit asks of another is, Can I count on you? Will you be there when I need you? Do you care about this as much as we do?