Why work on collaboration is so important during organizational change


Organizational change normally involves changing internal boundaries. This usually creates new “collaborative boundaries”, where success will depend on good collaborative working between the managers on either side.

Added on 18 July 2016 by Andrew Campbell

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One afternoon a driver is attempting to reverse a scaffolding lorry down a one-way high street. A taxi is coming the other way. There is not enough room for both. The lorry and taxi stop. The drivers get out of their vehicles and exchange views. A protracted conversation ensues, full of colorful language. The scaffolding team emerges from the building they are working on and contribute. Taxi drivers from the rank across the street join in. A crowd gathers. Twenty minutes later the taxi is attempting to inch its way forward towards the stationary lorry while two scaffolders lean on the taxi bonnet trying to push it back the other way. How is it that they failed to find a collaborative solution without an extended piece of street theatre? Hypothesis: strong tribal loyalties amongst scaffolders and taxi drivers and little history of friendly inter-tribal relationships makes for a noisy afternoon.

Today we consider it normal to live in towns or cities and to work for a large organization. These, however, are recent developments in human history. Evolution has equipped us to succeed within settled groups – tribes – of typically not more than 150 people, where we know everyone and everyone knows us. But the legacy of thinking tribally remains with us. Our identity is connected with the tribes we belong to, whether they are work tribes, families, or interest groups. Tribe membership has been important, increasing our prospects of survival and advancing our knowledge and skills, and these benefits are built on collaborative behavior between tribe members. Of course each tribe has its own norms of behavior and rules around reciprocity; but the principles of collaboration and loyalty within a tribe are fundamental to our tribal past.

Evolution has also embedded in our emotions a wariness of neighboring tribes, particularly if there is competition for resources or where there is a history of unfriendly behavior. Even if neither of these conditions exist, evolution makes us instinctively cautious until the other tribe’s intentions are clear or until we have developed a modus operandi. And these cautious instincts appear to be even greater in organizational settings, where people are more suspicious of motives than in community settings.

What happens during change?

When organizations are restructured or transformed or new operating models are introduced, the set of relationships that we have invested a lot of time and emotional energy in developing is disrupted. Guided by our tribal past, we are put on high alert: tribal boundaries have changed and this spells danger. So we start out being cautious towards anyone we do not consider part of our trusted circle.

Some of these new working relationships can be facilitated by leaders who look after both sides of the boundary. They can set rules of behavior, discipline those who misbehave and help build trust. But many of the new relationships will be between tribes whose shared leader is some distance up the hierarchy or only exists in the form of a legal contract. Think of new relationships created when a shared services unit is set up or when local marketing departments are centralized at head office. In these circumstances, collaborative behavior will be fragile and emerge only slowly unless significant effort is put in to build trust and to develop appropriate norms.

How to help build collaborative behavior?

Some managers are naturally good at building collaborative behavior across new tribal boundaries. Most, however, are not, particularly when the previous arrangements were stable for a number of years. So what steps can leaders of change take to help managers develop the collaborative relationships that will make them effective?

  1. Understand how disruptive the changes are to the existing set of relationships and tribal loyalties
  2. Identify where these new organization relationships are being created and whether they will require good collaborative behavior across the boundary
  3. Identify those collaborative boundaries where problems at the boundary are likely to have a big impact on performance
  4. Consider the design of the boundary and look for ways of creating an interface that is self-motivating
  5. Identify those managers working on important collaborative boundaries where self-motivation is low and train them in collaborative working skills

What are collaborative skills?

There are two categories of collaborative working skills – forming skills and sustaining skills. The forming skills are more analytical in nature: they help participants understand the context, the prize and the types of relationship that are likely to be most productive. They are about setting up the relationship on a strong footing to begin with. There are three forming skills:

  1. Understanding the context
  2. Clarifying roles, decision rights and ground rules
  3. Agreeing the prize and currencies

The sustaining skills are more about behavior that will enable participants to build trust and overcome set backs on the journey. These skills help managers develop high levels of trust and resilience in the face of setbacks. By deploying the five sustaining skills, managers become better at building and developing trusting relationships. The five sustaining skills are:

  1. Self-knowledge
  2. Relationship maintenance skills
  3. Collaborative orientation
  4. Signaling skills
  5. Virtual working skills 

Tribes and trust are linked. Going back to our hunter-gatherer or small farming origins – we knew then how much to trust each person because we lived our lives in stable relationships in which we knew a great deal about other members of the group. Moreover, there were established rules and norms that controlled how people behaved. Today, when our tribal boundaries are shifting, when we know much less about other people and when the rules of behavior are less clear, trust is hard to build and easy to lose. Training in both the forming skills and the sustaining skills is essential to help us build productive working relationships.

For further detail see the full article in the Spring 2016 360º Ashridge Journal.

See the full article

If you are interested in this subject take a look at Andrew Campbell's Open Programs Designing Operating Models and Advanced Organization Design.