Want to Encourage Collaboration? This Change Model Shows the Way
Great collaboration is a competitive advantage. It gives rise to smooth processes, innovative solutions, happy people and robust bottom lines. Yet, although collaboration is celebrated in the workplace, it’s not always obvious how to cultivate a culture of collaboration. This is especially true when the existing culture is at odds with the aspiration.
Slapping an updated value statement on the company’s letterhead or launching yet another new initiative from the HR department will result in little more than initiative fatigue and eye rolls.
What other options exist?
Culture change is a hot topic for good reason. Culture determines how we work, the customers and contributors we attract, and how we navigate challenges and leverage opportunities. Culture matters.
Yet, culture change is a tough nut to crack, in part because culture is a function of individuals, systems and contexts — features which are both mutually amplifying and mutually limiting.
Culture Change: The Case of Psychological Science
Over a decade ago, psychological science faced a crisis as researchers realized many of the empirical findings upon which they had built mounds of theory were based on suboptimal research designs and questionable data analytic strategies. Findings failed to replicate. Ideas that were once presented as fact were now understood to be statistical anomalies (at best) and flat out fabrications (at worst).
While some anticipated this crisis would kill the discipline, exposing the ultimate impossibility of describing — much less predicting — complicated human behavior, others believed it presented an opportunity to do better science.
Researcher Brian Nosek was in the latter camp. In 2013, he co-founded the Center for Open Science. Its mission: increase the openness, integrity and reproducibility of scientific research.
To accomplish this mission, a huge culture shift would be needed. As Nosek and colleagues observed in a paper published in the Annual Review of Psychology, “Academic science occurs in a complex system of policies, norms, and incentives that shape decisions about which research is funded, which research gets published, and which researchers get jobs and promotions.” The same idea, of course, applies to the business world.
In order to meet their mission, the Center for Open Science would need to create culture change across entire academic disciplines, including hundreds of research journals, thousands of academic institutions and tens of thousands of scholars.
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An Integrated Culture Change Model
Drawing inspiration from research on everything from how individuals change their behavior to how innovations gain widespread adoption, Nosek developed an integrated cultural change model.
This model is guided by three principles:
- Culture change occurs gradually over time;
- Different people have different motivations; thus
- “Multiple interdependent interventions are necessary to address variations in motivations and to leverage the adoption by some to stimulate adoption by others.”
So what does this model say? And how does it apply to the tricky challenge of creating cultures of collaboration within our organizations?
Make Collaboration Possible
Collaboration innovators — Everett Rogers’s term for the people who are first to adopt innovations — are eager to get out there and co-create. To make this happen, organizations merely need to have in place the infrastructure to make collaboration possible. When in-person, that infrastructure might be as simple as a room filled with whiteboards, sticky notes and fresh markers. When remote, that infrastructure might be as simple as a phone system or video conferencing platform.
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Make Collaboration Easy
Early adopters of collaborative culture will join the cause when the user interface makes collaboration easy. Are meetings well-structured to allow space for a range of voices to share perspectives and explore possibilities? Have we created opportunities for contributors to learn about each other’s talents and interests? Do our calendars provide the breathing room necessary for informal conversations and new pursuits?
Make Collaboration Normative
The early majority will enact collaborative behaviors when they perceive those behaviors as normative. To signal the norm, organizations can share examples of cross-functional collaborations in the company newsletter, provide professional development funds for learning communities interested in upskilling in collaboration, or make the calendar holds for a collaborative group’s brainstorming sessions visible to all. Leaders can model sharing half-baked first drafts, invite input, and receive feedback.
Make Collaboration Rewarding
The late majority will get on board with the culture change when the incentives make collaboration rewarding. How can an organization make collaboration rewarding? Measure and reward work at the level of the team rather than at the level of the individual. If individual output is always recognized, people will not be incentivized to collaborate. Executives can note and celebrate great collaboration when they see it, advancing those who are especially adept at working across functional areas or in close partnership with external stakeholders.
Make Collaboration Required
Finally, the laggards among us will resist collaborating until they must do it. Policy becomes a handy tool for compelling the desired behaviors. Perhaps project teams could be required to pressure test their new product with at least two other departments that were not involved in the product’s development. Or perhaps new initiatives only get the green light if at least two divisions provide financial backing.
Related Article: Why Aren't Companies Teaching Us How to Collaborate?
What’s at Stake?
If you want a more collaborative culture, you need to make collaboration possible, easy, normative, rewarding and potentially even required. Two caveats are warranted here.
First, as Nosek and colleagues note, "The model’s five levels of intervention are highly interdependent; each is necessary and none is sufficient to achieve culture and behavior changes." Culture change in service to collaboration takes intentionality and effort.
Second, the order in which these interventions should be staged matters. It wouldn’t, for instance, make any sense to try to incentivize collaboration if the existing infrastructure makes collaboration impossible.
Why would an organization bother with all this effort to create a culture of collaboration? The point of collaboration is not to join forces because it feels good or because it is easy — the point of collaboration is to join forces because the anticipated end result clearly relates to the goals of the organization.
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About the Author
Dr. Deb Mashek, PhD is an experienced business advisor, professor, higher education administrator, and national nonprofit executive.