We’ve all heard the expression “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
It can refer to any system where multiple separate parts are working in unison to achieve a singular effect. The many elements of a car creating a driving experience, the four members of the Beatles making music as a band, or, in our case, the many people within an organization making a business thrive.
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts when the individual members of the system collaborate harmoniously. In the workplace, this ultimately translates to more productivity—50% more, according to research from Stanford University.
A more collaborative culture is an easy thing to want. But what does it really look like? And how can leaders build it?
4 features of cultures of collaboration
1. Strong communication. Communication is the lifeblood of collaboration. Strong communication doesn’t just mean that people are talking to each other, but that they feel comfortable sharing unpopular opinions and feedback—the kinds of perspectives that set collaboration apart from individual work.
2. Solid trust. If collaboration is the lifeblood, then trust is the skeleton. Trust makes individual members of a system feel like they’re part of the same overarching project. It also makes them feel comfortable sharing precious information—performance notes, personal aspirations, and other things they might gatekeep if they didn’t trust their coworkers and leaders.
3. Transparent leaders. Leaders who practice transparency—when discussing company goals, team objectives, individual performance, and more—lay the groundwork for collaboration.
4. Relevant feedback. Collaborative cultures are honed over time by a variety of feedback sources—conversational feedback, survey data, and even data from technological tools.
How to build a culture of collaboration at your company
1. It starts at the top. The potential for leaders to drive collaboration can’t be overstated. Leaders have the power to decide on and invest in company values, and should find every opportunity to do so.
Finding the right leaders for the job is crucially important. You might already have them, or you might have to go out and hire them. Look for both task- and relationship-orientation in your leaders.
2. Invest in collaboration. Once you have the right leadership in place, carefully inspect your current systems of collaboration to see where you could improve. Compare it with an idealized vision of workplace collaboration, and list the steps necessary to reach that ideal.
Then, make investments. Because personal, trusting relationships are so core to collaboration, leaders should prioritize investments in informal bonding experiences. Ideally, these are experiences that employees wouldn’t be able to have elsewhere—e.g., retreats, and/or socially oriented spaces in the workplace.
3. Establish task clarity. The best collaboration happens when labor is divided clearly and accurately. When each member of the system knows exactly what they’re responsible for and how it contributes to the greater whole, they can focus, manage time, and complete tasks more repeatably than if there’s unclarity.
4. Incentivize collaboration. Find meaningful ways to reward collaborative work. Incentives help break the inertia of the status quo. Left to their own devices, people will stick to what’s natural, but when people have real material motives—happy hours, live events, gift cards, etc.—they’re more likely to embrace change.
5. Create a feedback loop. Challenges are inevitable, especially when trying to make profound changes to your culture. You’ll have to support employees who are resistant to change, you’ll want to measure whether the investments you made are the right ones, and you’ll want to track the impact of incentives.
The only way to do this is through feedback, both subjective and objective. Leaders should stay engaged with employees and proactively seek honest feedback. Moreover, you should decide upfront on KPIs that assess overall collaboration, and assess whether your investments are affecting them the way you hoped they would.
The stronger the ties that bind your organization, the more prepared it will be to grow, and the more resilient it will be when it does. Invest in collaborative systems as early as possible.