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Breaking Down the Silos

What it really takes for smart collaboration. Guest post by Mish Middelmann

Guest post by Mish Middelmann

Business cases for smart collaboration abound, yet genuine creative collaboration in business is remarkably rare. As Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School Heidi Gardner, Ph.D., points out in her forthcoming book Smart Collaboration, people need to collaborate across a variety of specialisations as well as personal and cultural differences for them and their businesses to really garner the dividends of smart collaboration.

Courtesy T Pychyl
Source: Courtesy T Pychyl

What’s needed is both the logical business case and the interpersonal skills to work effectively with people who are different from yourself—as well as organisational structures that support collaboration and reward collective work products.

What struck me in Heidi Gardner’s Harvard Business Review webinar was how strong the business case is for collaboration. Thanks to Gardner for making the case so clearly and backing it with solid data—true cross-silo collaboration in professional services firms.

• Grows corporate revenue exponentially with the number of business units serving the client

• Increases professional billing fourfold

• When an individual departs, collaborative teams have triple the client retention rates of lone rangers.

So what stops most organisations from actually reaping these collaboration benefits?

Many would-be collaborators set out with great intentions, and then crash on the rocks of negative group dynamics before they or their organisation really get the multiplier effects of breaking down the silos. Gardner identified some of these barriers—for example blame or the assumption of blame—that arise when the people you are collaborating with look, feel, behave and think differently to yourself.

It shows up as irritation with the very difference that is needed for collaboration to be creative. People start talking about how "they" (the different others on the would-be team) have their priorities/facts/ideas/culture/values wrong, or how "they" don't really listen properly to "us." Actually working in a monoculture can be attractive for the very reason that it is soothing to be amongst people who think and act in the same way.

Would-be collaborators across silos need more than just a business case to get past these barriers to collaboration. Many need to vent about the above frustrations first. Once they get that off their chest, they need support to open up to the value of those different perspectives, priorities, and ways of being from the other silos. And for sure, they need to be convinced that those "others" are also listening to them in an equally balanced way.

The good news is that the relationship systems skills needed to collaborate in diverse teams can be learned. Leaders need these skills to grow their businesses and reap the diversity and collaboration dividends Gardner articulates so clearly. I'm part of a global organisation dedicated to building greater Relationship Systems Intelligence among leaders and their teams, and it works.

Mish Middelmann, a consultant for executives and companies, is the former CEO of Praxis Computing. He is based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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