The Collaborative Leader's Compass
In my most recent post, I introduced the Collaborative Operating System’s (COS) definition of collaboration in some detail. If you haven’t seen the article, check it out. Several readers expressed appreciation for its power and simplicity.
Here’s that definition again, just so that you have it at hand: Collaboration works when all the stakeholders have ownership of and alignment around what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.
In this post, we’ll kick the tires on this definition a bit. In order to do that, let’s start with an example scenario based on (somewhat simplified) real events.
Scenario - EZ Tech Voucher Program
The VP of Human Resources for EZ Tech (~1500 employees) calls a meeting with her team to announce the launch of a new program:
VP: “I’m glad we could pull most of us together on such short notice. I’ll be sure to catch up with Marco (Communications Dir.) and Britney (General Counsel) to fill them in later. They’re having a blast, by the way, at the HR convention in New York. So, anyway, I've got an important new initiative for us to discuss… something that's going to be great for the company, and will give our team an opportunity to deliver a big win.
“As you know, the cost of healthcare is killing us. We can’t keep paying higher premiums year after year. We've got to share these expenses with our people. The problem is that we don’t want to generate a lot of resentment, so we have to keep everyone’s interests in mind. And that’s exactly what we've done.
“In our new approach, we’re going to allocate yearly healthcare vouchers in amounts that are guaranteed to cover this year’s premiums for all the lower-cost providers. For anyone who wants coverage through the more expensive providers, they’ll have to kick in a few bucks. That’s the basic idea.
“As we see it, employees will appreciate the increased flexibility of choosing their own provider. And, of course, the company will be able to control the cost of the program, which eliminates our exposure to the longer-term trends in healthcare costs.
“It’s up to us to roll out this new program, so here’s how it’ll work: I’m assigning you, in pairs, to collaborate with each department head. Your job will be to ‘sell everyone’ on the new voucher program. I really need you all to be super positive about this. There will be a few skeptics, so we’ll have to stand firm. If you encounter any significant pushback, do your best, but send those folks to me if you have to.
“Now I know you probably have questions of your own, but as HR professionals, I also know you get it. We really don’t have time right now, but if you have questions, jot them down and send them to me in an email. Just remember, this isn’t up for debate. We just have to get behind this. Okay… thanks everyone.”
So Many Questions...
Now, take a moment to reflect. If you were on this team, how might you react? Here’s my guess: At a minimum, you’d have a bunch of questions about the program and its outcomes, including:
Who developed this voucher-based program? Who was consulted?
It sounds like our General Counsel hasn't been involved yet. Is the new program even legal?
How long has it been in the works? Why haven’t I heard about this before today? Why the last-minute meeting?
How will it affect me and my family? Will I be able to afford to keep my current healthcare plan?
How are employees going to react? What is “significant pushback” and what does it mean to “do my best” when people show resistance.
Who on my team will I be paired with? Which department will I have to work with? (I hope it’s not <fill in the blank>!)
How am I going to work with my assigned partner? How will we divide the work?
How will we engage with our assigned department? Email? Meetings? Small groups or one large group? I wonder how our Communications Director would want us to proceed?
Do my partner and I have to coordinate with others on our team to ensure that we all handle things in the same way? What other questions might come to mind for you?
That’s a lot of questions, and it doesn't appear that the VP is exactly open to hearing them all either. (Consider, too, the emotional reactions that the team and others might experience in the scenario. Those will impact the implementation of the program, and could have farther reaching implications for the company, as well.)
The Collaborative Leadership Perspective
Looking at things through “collaboration-colored glasses”, we’d ask this question:To what extent do all the stakeholders have ownership of and alignment around what we’re doing and how we’re doing it? More specifically, we’d ask:
Who are the stakeholders? (Hint: In collaboration, we define stakeholders as everyone who is affected by what we're doing or how we're doing it, and anyone else whose expertise we may need. I can think of quite a few stakeholder groups, right off the bat. The families of employees, for example, is one that we might neglect to consider if we’re moving fast. How many distinct stakeholder groups can you identify?)
How have those stakeholders been involved so far?
To what extent do the stakeholders feel a sense of ownership around the new program and how it came to be? Will they “feel or believe” that the new program is theirs, or are they likely to react as if the new program is being imposed upon them?
Are the stakeholders sufficiently aligned around the program and how it came to be? Will they “see and understand” the program in the same way?
If you were betting on how smoothly this program would play out, how would you bet? Chances are it's going to be rocky. If the culture of the company is one where people have little expectation of being involved in the decisions that affect them, maybe the new program would result in nothing more than some grumbling. But that’s the best case scenario. It could go much worse.
What Would You Do?
As a collaborative leader, here’s the real question: If you had influence in this scenario, what might you do differently to ensure smoother sailing? Breaking it down, which stakeholders would you involve and when? How might you handle things differently to increase the level of alignment that exists among the various stakeholders, and when? What could you do to increase the ownership that the various stakeholders feel with respect to the new voucher program?
Challenge yourself to answer those questions. Then, ask the very same questions of any collaborative change initiative in which you’re involved at work. Coming up with answers isn't always easy, but developing this leadership muscle will prove extraordinarily worthwhile.
Mark Voorsanger is a consultant, speaker and executive coach who has been leading and managing teams for more than 25 years. He is a member of the training team for the Collaborative Operating System, a powerful framework for teams and organizations that need to collaborate effectively.
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