Collaborating isn’t a problem to solve

Companies everywhere seem to suffer the same three problems: we’re organized in silos, we’re not collaborating effectively, and work isn’t getting done. While uniquely aggravating, these problems just aren’t unique.

But I don’t believe that teams don’t know how to collaborate. And asserting we work in silos makes possible solutions dependent on sweeping, systems-level change, along with a very long wait.

Of course we work in silos. And we don’t. Teams know how to collaborate along the well-worn paths supporting existing business models.

So if the challenge we face can’t be reduced to silos, then what is it?

It’s that so much work is new and outside our comfort zones.

What’s really going on.

Work is changing. We’re demanding that people across diverse disciplines come together to do things organizations have never done.

We’re asking individuals to stretch outside departments, functions and what we know to create new things we’ve never delivered before.

And we’re navigating a pace of change and technology advancement we’ve never experienced – literally ever.

We are not, however, talking openly about this monumental learning curve.

It’s a blind curve.

We have few mental models, never mind organization-level models to handle this change curve. Without a road-map, we’re inventing work in real time while trying to deliver against both existing and future business models. Complex methodologies compound the cognitive hurdles.

It’s no wonder we try to problem-solve pointed in the wrong direction, stumbling into high-pitched debates about whether “my framework is better than your framework.” It’s like our brains go off-line and we collectively go into fight or flight. And in full disclosure, I’ve asserted more than my fair share of complex frameworks.

To avoid confusion, leaders at all levels revert to what’s known and familiar, namely those established processes, networks and pathways that support the existing business. Meanwhile, we remain blind to evolving business models and the elephants in the room:

We don’t yet know how to do this new thing…
and we will need to create new frameworks together in order to figure it out.

What’s working?

Just for fun, suspend disbelief for the next five minutes.

What if we stopped making this problem seem so difficult and insurmountable? What if we ignored the organizational complexity and systems-level problems?

In place of what seem like monstrous obstacles, what if we focused in the direction of what’s already working?

Look at any business or organization anywhere. If anything is getting done, if the company functions at all, then there are systems that work. People collaborate every hour of every day to make sure those systems work. They’re coordinating hand-offs, meeting deadlines, advancing goals. Sometimes it’s smooth; sometimes it’s clumsy. But working teams everywhere know how to collaborate.

Yet for whatever reason, we forget to factor these working systems into our diagnoses. We’re so focused on the problems, we miss that solutions could be closer than we think.

And I know for sure that teams want to collaborate. You want to collaborate.

That’s a much better place to start.

While it’s very nice to have senior leaders reinforce messages, it doesn’t really help collaboration now. And you (yes, you) can positively impact that today.

So we don’t yet know how to do this new project. But collectively we do know a lot. And collaboration combines what you know with what I know and what the team knows.

When we’re not panicking, we also know how to think. And collaboration means we’re thinking and learning together to create solutions.

That’s a pretty decent foundation for starting new work.

From this fresh spot, a small and strange shift can alleviate the anxiety and collective panic that crush teams before work even starts. While this idea will sound ridiculously simple, it’s also ridiculously effective: acknowledge the work is new.

The work is new, the work is new, the work is new.

You’re making it safe for people to be confused and to think differently together.

We don’t yet know how to do it. There are currently more questions than answers. We have to figure out the answers together. And even though the new work is confusing and challenging, we know how to collaborate because we’ve done that many times before.

You’re not problem-solving with this new narrative. There’s no plan or road-map. You’re not there yet. But by signaling the work is new and different, you get people’s brains and common sense back online. Then you can unlock creative solutions focused in the right direction: forward.

carolyn solares

I help people re-wire what they know to do hard new things.

Work with me at murphymerton.
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Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash