Collaborating for results

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On the 20th January 2012 Alastair Smart posted a blog entitled ‘Does Culture Really Matter?’ in which he argues that an understanding of organisation culture is essential for relationship development and project delivery. Effective collaboration is essential for achieving results and where boundaries between individuals and teams become too rigid a lack of joined up thinking and working can result – otherwise known as ‘silo working’. 

The cost of silo working to the team and organisation can be very high – a lack of shared learning and innovation, delays in getting work done, unproductive conflict, stress and significant financial costs due to programme failures.

Whilst researching my book a number of people commented on how ideas for countering the down side of silo working are similar to good project management. For example, being clear about purpose and task, stakeholder management and integrating people from across functions. One HR director held the view that silos will only break down if meaningful and tangible things are going on.

Project teams can do this if they place emphasis on learning as well as task achievement. However, I have also witnessed project teams that have become silos. Sometimes driven by the preferences and style of the people involved, project teams can be very task and process focused — under pressure to achieve tight timescales to the right level of quality and cost. This is often necessary, but failure to devote time to relationship management can be costly. Sometimes the focus on relationships with and pleasing external customers means the internal relationships can be neglected. Change projects have failed as a result of alienation and a breakdown in relationships.

To increase the chances of success project teams need to work at becoming open teams. Some key characteristics of open teams are:

Clear team boundaries - having a team identity (purpose, vision and operating principles) is crucial for engagement with others. Without identification at team and organisation levels, identity defaults to the lowest level – the sub-group, clique or individual. On the other hand, too much identification with the ‘home team’ can also get in the way of collaboration, so teams need to balance their identity with flexibility, responsiveness and adaptability.

Sufficient confidence with humility – project teams require sufficient individual as well as team confidence whilst balancing this with a willingness to learn. Appropriate personal and team learning processes need to be in place to achieve this. For individuals the emphasis needs to be on emotional intelligence and developing the adaptability and flexibility needed to work in uncertain and changing conditions.

Cohesive team working – team members need to work hard at maintaining a team approach and representing the team externally with one voice. Open dialogue, challenge and support are necessary to achieve this. A cohesive team will not always agree, but they surface conflict and deal with it. The best teams are able to talk about relationships and behaviour as easily as tasks and processes.

Taking a step back – Open teams recognise that stagnation can occur over time, regularly take a step back and review how things are working. When a team is buried in operational detail and ‘doing things’ then it eventually starts to close down. It can become narrow in focus and repeat patterns of behaviour and action that can become counterproductive. Open teams maintain a balance between dealing with current reality and safeguarding the future.

Proactive relationship management – team members keep in touch with people and events outside of the team, listening to feedback and responding appropriately. Work plans include stakeholder relationship management plans.

On the wider point of culture, project leaders need to have a keen eye on relationships in their team and with others inside and outside of the organisation.  They also need to be able to have a dialogue around relationships with colleagues in the rest of the organisation, particularly for critical outcomes and initiatives. To sustain collaborative working relationships that deliver results, relationship management needs to be a strategic agenda item.


 My book Collaborating for Results: Silo Working and Relationships that Work  is published by Gower. I am offering a 35% discount on the hardback book through the Gower website for APM members  – please contact marketing@apm.org.uk and mention your membership number for details.

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Posted by David Willcock on 7th Mar 2014

About the Author
I have been helping people in organisations overcome unproductive silo working and build better working relationships for over 25 years. I started my career in general human resource management in the public and finance sectors before specialising in people and organisation development work whilst working with Prudential Corporation. After a 15 year in-company career I started my own organisation development consultancy, now Liberating Potential Ltd, coaching and developing leaders and their teams across a range of sectors in the UK and abroad. I am a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and an accredited Master Executive Coach with the Association for Coaching. As well as broad business HR experience and qualifications, I trained in psychology and have specialist skills in supporting personal and organisational change. I combine this with experience and expertise in organisation and leadership development to improve results through people and relationships.

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