Girish Menon: Collaboration not competition is the key to success

Organisations need to get people working together to achieve outcomes

Girish Menon
Girish Menon

In an organisation that has a performance-oriented culture, it is quite likely that people are focused on delivering their objectives. The focus is likely to be more on tasks at hand and completing them so they can report that their objectives have been achieved when performance is reviewed. 

While the focus on objectives is quite understandable, there is a risk that it will engender competition between people and teams, rather than collaboration, which in an increasingly inter-connected world is extremely important.

Collaboration is what enables the organisational outcomes to be more than the sum of the parts. Collaboration is what is needed if the key consideration is the organisation aligning with its mission and strategy, rather than individuals or teams achieving their specific outcomes. 

As a child, I once heard a story that amply demonstrates why collaboration is important. Once upon a time, a fight broke out between the different body parts.

The eyes said that they were the most important as they enabled people to see. The ears said that, without them, people would not be able to hear. The mouth said that it was important because it let people speak and eat.

The hands said that without them, the body could not do much. The legs said that the body would be immobile without them. The brain said that thinking was really important and hence it was the most important.

The heart said that people would die if it stopped working. And so on and so forth. 

The stomach was witnessing all this but decided to keep quiet because it knew where this was all leading to. Once the fight had subsided, the body settled down to have dinner. And at that moment, the stomach decided to stop functioning.

Soon enough, the brain realised that something had gone wrong, the hands and legs started failing, the eyes couldn’t remain open, the ears were hearing weird noises.

And that is when the stomach said: "Now do you realise that no one is more important than the other? The important thing is for us to recognise that we each have a role and each role is important, without which the body cannot function. So give up your false egos and start working together." 

The situation is sometimes not very different in organisations. We hear similar views about whose role is more important.

The programmes team would think that they create the legitimacy for the organisation and are hence very important; the fundraisers think that they are the most important because they bring in the money; the finance team think that their role of being the guardian of organisational resources makes them the most important.

These stories keep repeating. When people are unable to see the big picture, it can create serious dysfunctionalities and lead an organisation to fail in achieving its mission – not because it doesn’t have good people, not because it doesn’t have a good structure, not because it doesn’t have a good strategy, but only because there is an all-round failure in working together as a cohesive organisation.

That in turn results in mistrust, disrespect and indifference among and between teams and colleagues, leading to a downward spiral. 

So what can be done to foster better collaboration ? Here is what I have learned: 

  • Set the tone from the top The more consistently the senior leadership of an organisation champions and values collaboration, the higher the likelihood of it being adapted as a behaviour by other colleagues. The more embedded collaboration is in defining organisational culture, the greater are the chances of it being practised. 

  • Recognise good practices People need recognition, and the more people are recognised for promoting collaboration across what they do, in specific projects or initiatives, the more motivated they will be to continue to do so. Encourage colleagues to adopt collaborative approaches to project planning, to implementation, to identifying problems, to seeking solutions, even to having fun. And where these happen, do ensure that these are recognised and valued.

  • Make it part of performance reviews What gets measured, gets done, or so goes the famous maxim. While performance reviews often focus on achievement of tasks, do also ask: "How were these achieved?" The more weight or importance is given to aspects of collaboration, the better are the chances for these to be taken seriously. 

  • Set up cross-organisational teams For operational efficiency and simplicity, it is quite likely that many initiatives are planned and delivered by specific teams or individuals. Organisations are often complex, and hence a lot of value would be derived from working collaboratively. There could be cross-organisational priorities that require people to work together to generate optimal outcomes. 

Girish Menon is chief executive of ActionAid UK

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