Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Great Discriminator - A Culture of Collaboration

One of the things I have enjoyed about consulting is the exposure to multiple companies and multiple business units within those companies. In the year I have been at The Gunter Group, I have already worked with multiple clients on projects that span across the respective organizations. It has been very interesting to contrast the clients and more specifically the corporate cultures that exist within those companies.

I have participated in and watched various projects being driven in different parts of a client's business and it is interesting to see which projects have been, are, and will be successful. The other day I was reading a report of some analysis done by one of the world's largest and most respected consulting firms. The analysis was essentially outlining a path for success for a broad spectrum of projects of varied scopes and complexities. The analysis, which was very good by the way, touched on a lot of elements of the business that would impact the likelihood of project success. Elements like governance, data analysis, process design, etc. The analysis and the accompanying recommendations were undoubtedly sound given the caliber of the firm, the background research done to support the report, and my own confirmation based on what I have picked up about the client. I try and get my hands on these types of reports whenever possible to see how "the big boys" are doing it, to shape my own thinking, and to have examples of successful presentations. I am, however, always surprised that these reports fail to mention what I consider to be a very big influence on the success of a project and ultimately the success of the organization as a whole.

At their core, companies are merely people. A group of people with a collective identity; a corporate culture if you will. Reflecting back on my many interactions with the people that make up these organizations it has become very evident to me that a collaborative corporate culture is a huge discriminator in determining the success of any project. Although it is a macro factor, the collaborative spirit of an organization transcends everything that the company does and/or attempts to do.

Here is an example to give context of the premise I am talking about.

At client A, the project team I worked with was designing an extremely innovative, complex, and challenging system that has the potential to alter the way they do business. Without going into too much detail, it was a massive undertaking with relatively limited resourcing.

At client B, the scope of work I was involved in was relatively straightforward and mirrored business practices at other organizations. The bulk of the effort on my part was driving the creation and adoption of a framework to promote cross functional interaction amongst project teams. A very realistic undertaking with appropriate resourcing.

Below are vignettes that illustrate typical exchanges in both organizations. In both organizations I have been directed to connect with a particular individual or group of individuals as it was thought that our respective works may be related in some fashion.

Client A:
Me - "Let me give you a brief overview of the project I am working on. John Doe recommended I connect with you as your project may intersect with mine in some manner. We may be able to help each other." (Continue with my overview)

Other Party - "Wow, this is great. I actually have really in depth knowledge of X and would love to get involved in the work you are doing. I am actually simultaneously driving Y effort and it would be great if we were aligned. At a high level we are both supporting strategy A so connecting now would really set us up for success. Feel free to include me on your future meetings and I will pass along our high level overview. Also, have you thought about connecting with So and So? They are working in the Z space on a project and it may help to drive your project forward as well."

Client B:
Me - "Let me give you a brief overview of the project I am working on. John Doe recommended I connect with you as your project may intersect......." 

Other Party - (Interrupts) "Well we have already gotten our project approved at such and such level and we have found that we really don't have any interdependencies with your project."

Me - "Oh, OK. Well I am not really looking to create additional work for anyone. I am just looking to leverage the work we are both already doing. We may be able to help each other." 

Other Party - (Interrupts again) "Our project team is really busy and we are on a tight deadline. We don't have the resources we need. I have told John Doe time and again we need more help but until we get it I just really need to focus on X."

Me - "OK. Well how about I jump in to what it is we are actually doing and if there aren't any opportunities for collaboration or any synergies to be gained from working together that is fine. I just wanted to be proactive about connecting the dots across the organization. (Continue with my overview)

Other Party - "...........*crickets*..........." (Meeting concludes.....)

These aren't depictions of a single event. They are aggregations of month's of interactions that give a good representation of single events in a variety of contexts on a daily basis. Of course, there are exceptions. However, I have found that exceptions within both cultures are extremely rare based on my personal experience. This only furthers my point. Can you begin to see why a collaborative corporate culture is so foundational to the success of any endeavor regardless of scope, complexity, etc?

The other aspect that adds to the importance of a sound corporate culture is the self fulfilling nature of culture. Which organization do you think inspires future collaborative behavior? Even those people that want to collaborate within client B are consistently met with resistance. Those in client A are inspired by the positive interactions, enhanced results, and they are more likely to actively seek out others to help and work with. Both trajectories are accelerated in opposite directions just by the nature of the prevailing culture.

So how do you create and engender a culture that embodies collaboration? That my friends is a question I don't pretend to have all the answers too. Maybe I'll be so lucky to figure that one out someday......