Business Collaboration Requires Getting UNcomfortable

While being on a team of similar people is comfortable in a predictably easy-going way, without diverse skill sets, work styles and opinions, it’s impossible to execute well-balanced projects. Innovation requires a bit of conflict, a bit of back and forth. In other words: if business collaboration doesn’t make you at least slightly uncomfortable, chances are you’re missing out on its value.

It’s like Baratunde Thurston, founder of Cultivated Wit, told us early last year: “Collaboration is a different way of thinking about what you’re good at vs. what you’re not good at, and how you find those other parts to co-create the world. I mean, it’s easy to say, ‘You should collaborate!’ but it’s very hard to actually do it–to identify the talent and the resources; to create incentives for them to want to work with you; to reward everybody in a reasonably equitable way; to measure the success of the group effort, and to repeat it. All of those are hard, but that’s the process.”

Correct Collaboration

From the hard truth angle, it’s easy to understand why uptake in the workplace hasn’t always been immediate or successful. Managers of collaborative efforts are frequently faced with sorting out conflicts among colleagues while simultaneously maintaining office morale.

But “that’s O.K.” writes Sharon Nunes, vice president of Smarter Cities Strategy & Solutions at IBM. ”Sometimes the best solution to a problem emerges when opinions are challenged and colleagues need to negotiate with one another to reach consensus.”

She goes on to outline a few tips for getting the most out of your network, including:

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1. Surround yourself with different people.

Many of us are guilty of choosing to work with people who think as we do, but a homogenous clique will fail to challenge itself. And so while a culture fit is still important, Nunes says “it’s a better approach to break out of your comfort zone and embrace a cacophony of styles and opinions to achieve more innovative—and sometimes breakthrough—results.”

2. Collaborate actively.

You can’t be a part of a team if you’re just going to sit on the sidelines; you’ve got to get in and stir the pot a bit. And while it’s not really in our nature to enjoy being challenged by others, such activity often leads to the constructive dialogue needed to create lasting and meaningful results.

Nunes offers a personal example: “…when I led a new health-care business at my company, I was surrounded by a crazy quilt of opinions, genders, ages, and schools of thought. We were all polar opposites and strongly opinionated, and styles ranged from those of a ‘show me’ marketing exec to a pragmatic mathematician. It was a living lab of personality types, and I had to force myself outside the comfort zone of my logical science background to influence my team members, when to speak up or push back, and to use our time together more for working and less for sparring.”

3. Winning isn’t everything.

Nunes acknowledges that this one might seem counterintuitive, but insists that compromise has a place in business. “You can set the expectation that a debate or disagreement will result in a common understanding, rather than creating a winner and a loser. That’s especially important in today’s global marketplace, especially with a diversity of cultures, where it is essential to understand the point of view of others.”

All New Heights

With a little bit of adjusting, collaborative efforts have the potential to kick out some really awesome things–things that couldn’t have come about without the combination of an assortment of components. Done right, collaboration enables us to go places we couldn’t go alone.

A TED blog post titled “Unlikely Collaborations: 5 Ted Talks that Reach Across Fields” recently offered some fun examples: mathematics + history, music + medicine, dance + PowerPoint, politics + paint and a favorite around these parts, agile programming + family life.

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