What makes a major industry CEO send a LinkedIn message to the world that he is participating in a global conference to set aside barriers and commit to collaboration above competition? For him it is very simple – because that is what it is going to take to deliver on his commitment to ensure every person working in his business and flies in one of his aircrafts get home to their loved ones safely.

Collaboration founded on a clear shared purpose has proven itself repeatedly to produce extraordinary results that would have been unthinkable in a purely competitive environment. We see this in the ever-increasing trend to go open source in the technology sector as well as in industry wide initiatives to enhance safety. Levi’s is an interesting example. After spending nine years perfecting techniques radically reducing the water used to make a pair of jeans or denim jacket, they invited 20 of its competitors to its Eureka Innovation Lab to learn from and co-evolve the approach. With the potential for 50 billion liters of water in savings across the industry, Levi’s made the decision to open source its production techniques, acknowledging the importance of industry-wide action.

“A key to success is to continuously work on the collaboration as well as on the goal the collaboration is there to deliver on.”

When there is a commitment in place to go beyond incremental performance improvement and the ‘wisdom of the crowd’ is required, collaboration is the only way to go.  This is especially the case when there is a commitment to cause an impact across a large population. However, the impact of a collaborative approach is directly related to the willingness of the participants to put aside their vested interests and work in service of a common purpose.

Any collaborative environment is highly complex and there are no best practices to adopt that will guarantee success, but in service of highlighting some important points it is worth putting this aside for a moment and try on a rather simplistic view. Consider that there are 6 Levels of Collaboration and the delivery of extraordinary results through collaboration is dependent on how far up this hierarchy one is willing and able to go.

1. Common Intent

The foundation for any successful collaboration is common intent. This sounds obvious, but all too often there are multiple vested interests at play and although it may sound like there is common intent behind the collaborative effort, deviating interests may be driving the show behind the scenes. For collaboration to work everybody needs to be in it for the same reason. One sign of common intent is the ability to set up the required structures and working practices that will enable the network of conversations necessary.

2. Shared Information

Effective collaboration is only possible if the participants all work from the same data-set. Not only is the willingness to share relevant data fundamental in building trust between the participants, it is also essential to arrive at insights and decisions that go beyond what any one player could have arrived at on their own volition. A key step in embedding this step is the establishment of a data management system and the associated agreements that give confidence to all participants that the collected data will be secure and only used openly in service of delivering on the common intent.

3. Shared Commitment

Having a common intent and demonstrated a willingness to share relevant information allows for a shared commitment to be made. This is a very tangible step where all participants go on the record and state to their key stakeholders (or possibly to a wider audience) a common articulation of what outcome they are willing to be held accountable for. This is the first acid test of successful collaboration as the willingness to be held accountable is a clear sign of authentic intent to contribute to delivering the outcome.

4. Collective Ownership

Authentic collaboration only starts coming to the fore at the point where all the participants take ownership of the complete strategy and plan for delivering the outcome, rather than just their respective parts in the effort. A clear sign of collective ownership is that everyone involved continuously search across the entire scope to identify and action what needs to be done to succeed, irrespective of who was ‘supposed to’ do/deliver what.

5. Single Voice

A truly evolved collaboration will morph from being a collection of aligned stories of why they are involved to becoming one single story. To the listener it is no longer clear that the people/companies involved have different paymasters, as they all speak from their shared commitment and ownership rather than their original reason for being involved. They talk in the collective ‘we’ and don’t distinguish individual companies when referring to successes, failures or learnings.

6. One cause

The pinnacle of collaboration is when the participants transcend their respective company business cases. Instead, they focus their investment and resources in the areas that will have the biggest impact, agnostic to which collaborator(s) will own the budget and resource. They are as willing to invest in a fellow collaborator’s business to deliver the committed outcome as they would in their own business. Only the whole system ROI matters.

Moving up this simplistic hierarchy of collaboration requires effort, persistence and leadership. Each level increases the requirement for straight and authentic conversations, a new level of facility for resolving problems and challenges, re-examination of the purpose for the collaboration, tools for generating increasingly deep levels of relevant insights and handling increasingly challenging conversations with stakeholders. It is a messy journey where participants will be at different levels in this hierarchy and often slip backwards as problems are encountered.  A key to success is to continuously work on the collaboration as well as on the goal the collaboration is there to deliver on.

FirstHuman has over the past years built and tested an approach to foster extraordinary collaborative environments based on our partnership with our community of clients where we have transformed their businesses and cultures to tackle the complexities of the new business era – building new leadership and organisational capability, fostering disruptive and frugal innovation and delivering unprecedented results, especially in complex collaborative and multi stakeholder situations. If you want to hear more from the actual field of play, what we are doing and delivering right now, and how we can do the same for you – get in touch.