3 Elements to Create a Collaborative Culture

Do you know what makes a culture? There are reasons why you should consider it to  develop a collaborative environment? Several factors make up cultures, such as habits, preferences, styles, unwritten codes of behavior, etc.  One thing I learned while leading transformations was that it is the leader that sets the tone. When I hear the saying, “culture eats strategy for lunch,” I can relate. When strategies and culture do not align, change may have a short life span. 

The leader sets the tone and that tone trickles down to everyone in the organization.  People have different personalities. Each person will contribute his/her character to the composite of the organization’s culture.  If it is a positive tone, people will be inspired to collaborate, care, and add value to each other.  The people will make this part of their daily behavior.

On the other hand, if the tone is of distrust and negativity, It will also trickle down and may be perceived as a toxic culture.  The culture of an organization impacts its customers, both internal and external.   People tend to give what they receive; therefore, this is one reason why it is vital to treat employees the way we want them to treat customers.  

Many organizations treat the symptom by providing customer service training.  Although it is a valuable investment, in some cases, not knowing how to treat customers may not be the cause of substandard customer service.  I worked for an agency that had the worst customer service record in the organization.  As a new hire, my task was to turn the organization around and fix the customer service issue.  After brief conversations and observations, I concluded that the customer service issue was merely a symptom of a more significant problem.  The root cause was the leadership style and the negativity that permeated throughout the organization.

Resolving the customer service issue required a fresh start with a new leadership style, shielding staff from the negativity that flowed from higher levels in the organization, and training.  The change in leadership gave everyone the incentive to recommit to their role and approach daily situations with the same consideration and care they were now receiving.  Changing culture is not a quick process.  It requires time for each individual to experience and adopt a new set of unwritten rules for behavior that comes from appreciation, choice, and communication.

1-Appreciation: One way to start changing a toxic culture is by helping people feel appreciated and supported for their work. Regardless of whether it is their responsibility to perform their respective roles, people need to feel that they contribute to something bigger than themselves and their contribution matters.  In his hierarchy of needs model, Maslow identified the need to belong and be appreciated as every individual’s psychological needs.  Naturally, individuals are happier about their environment if it meets their psychological needs.  

Coming up the ranks, I encounter environments where the person in the leadership position offered a constant reminder that everyone’s job security is in the hands of management. The threat to stability puts at risk a person’s means for fulfilling his/her basic need for food and shelter.  Fortunately, many organizations understand the relationship between treating people with respectful appreciation and customer service quality.  When people are happy, the chances for better customer service increase; it starts with the leader.

2-Personal choice and commitment:  Everyone must see something in the leader or environment that compels them to recommit to their job. Each person has a choice. It is the leader’s responsibility to gain the trust of the team.  Each person’s commitment to the group will have a positive compounding effect and help change the culture.  It is a one-event at a time process.  It takes time to change the culture of a government organization.  I benefited from being a new sign of hope for the team.  I didn’t expect to see immediate changes, but I offer them hope for a better future and a new organization.  No one will change on command; it is an individual process, and it happens only if the individual chooses to do so.  Getting buy-in is vital to the transformation process.  

There are a few examples of organizations that have a collaborative culture.  One of them is Chick-A-Filet.  Just visit their drive-through and experience a happy culture.  I don’t usually eat fast food but became curious after hearing a speaker talk about the company’s leadership and their effort to create a collaborative culture. 

3-Communication: Communication is essential in any change process, especially when you strive to have a culture where collaboration is at the center of all success.  Communicating freely in all directions within the organization is necessary to develop an environment of cooperation, trust, and excellence.  It is an excellent idea to provide communication training to make interactions more significant, given the diversity of personalities and backgrounds.  When people understand how to communicate more effectively with others, they can develop better relationships.  One way to help people identify how to communicate with others with different personalities is to offer them the opportunity to take an assessment, whether DISC, Whole Brain, or any other.  The appraisal’s objective is not to pigeon-hole the person into their style, but to offer recommendations on how to best blend their style to more effectively communicate with people with a different personality profile.

To summarize, culture consists of many factors, including personality styles, leadership cues, and the overall environment created overtime.  To change the culture, it takes time and intentional effort by the leader and every individual that makes up the organization.  Showing appreciation for work performed goes a long way to creating a positive environment, which then translates into the service provided to its internal and external customers. Changing the culture also requires the individual commitment of those in the organization, including leadership. Finally, communication is an important factor throughout the change process and maintains the level of collaboration desired by the organization.    The team should communicate in all directions to increase the effectiveness of the team and benefit the organization. Communication is the door to change and, therefore, should be consistent and frequent.

The Principles of Growth and Procurement Transformation

Transformation and growth go together, and awareness is a prerequisite for development.  I found this to be true throughout my career in public service.  Both personal and organizational development requires the understanding that there is the potential to expand our capabilities and perform at a higher level.  We may have a natural talent in some areas.  But talent alone does not determine the level of performance or success. It is necessary to cultivate and develop those talents.  We all have high potential to become more and do more, but we each choose to use that potential.  I read in several sources that we use anywhere between 10% to 40% of our potential. I can only imagine how much more we would accomplish it we use another 20% of our capabilities.  It is a daily choice that we make to set our priorities and determine how we spend our time.  It is easier to go about life underperforming than elevate our game and take a more challenging path, a path that can lead us to achieve extraordinary things.

Some of us may have lofty goals of making a mark in the world by leaving our leadership legacy for our family, colleagues, and our profession.  Some of us want our existence to matter by making the contributions that future generations can enjoy.  If our goal is to leave a mark in the world, we need to stay relevant, and to remain relevant, we must continue to evolve into the best possible version of ourselves. But growth is change, and change is uncomfortable. 

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” — Albert Einstein

I led a mastermind with a group of procurement professionals. A mastermind is a group of like-minded people who come together to share and discuss ideas and concepts. The book that we studied was “The 15 Invaluable Laws of Growth” by Dr. John C. Maxwell.  As I gathered with colleagues and friends, it is refreshing to learn that many want to continue to learn, grow, and make a difference.  We all struggle with the day-to-day and perhaps mundane tasks that often get in the way of our growth.  Sometimes we wonder why we’re not further along in our career or other aspects of life.  I think the answer to that is in our daily schedule, our habits, and routines.  The choices that we make today reveal the results tomorrow. 

The reason these are laws is that they apply in every situation. I am now putting this book in the context of team transformation, and I believe that these laws are applicable based on my experience. There is a reason why they are considered laws. The awareness step always preceded any transformation plan, at least, those I led.  It was necessary to assess and take inventory of the conditions and circumstances that led the team to the present state.  Reflecting on the past helped take stock of the present conditions of the team and their performance.  This reflection and observations helped identify the gap between the vision for the future and the current state.  Understanding the gap helped me develop a path forward.  The purpose of the goals for growth was to help the team become people who could achieve the vision.  Change, of course, was necessary.

In my opinion, John Maxwell’s laws of reflection, intentionality, and awareness are present in the initial assessment exercise.  If we want to grow, it is necessary to take inventory of where you are, determine where you want to be, and be intentional about taking steps that move us towards the desired state. The law of the mirror comes into play when the organization decides to invest in the procurement team’s transformation. From the organizational perspective, those making the decision see sufficient value in the procurement function to invest in it.  

Interestingly, these laws apply both at the group level and the individual level. Each individual in the organization needs to self-assess where they are and where they want to go.  Once they identify the gap, they can design their growth journey.  Individual awareness goes beyond professional goals.  Taking a hard look at themselves in every aspect of their lives is ideal.  Understanding where we are is vital because we cannot change what we don’t know is broken or no longer serves us. Having awareness is the first step, but we must also take action. Action has to be very intentional to move us in the direction of our vision for the future.  

Another law that I found revealing was the law of the environment.  I can relate this law to the culture of the organization.  The atmosphere within the team may or may not be conducive to growth and development.  In an organization, everyone influences everyone else.  When each member of the organization is at a higher level of awareness and has the right leadership in promoting an environment of collaboration, that environment will be conducive to growth.   This particular law says that “growth thrives in conducive environments.” We don’t select our co-workers, but a team environment can make change possible. If the people around us are on a growth journey, the chances for the team’s collective growth are more significant.

We see the law of the rubber band in the tension created by growth.  Change is difficult, and development requires change.  This tension between the comfort zone and the unknown translates into growth both individually and collectively. When we stretch our abilities, we are essentially learning and growing.  Challenging situations offer us tremendous growth opportunities.  Being in that tension stage is very challenging, particularly for the most tenured staff.  Imagine going from the most knowledgeable in the room to having to re-learn your job!  Although you are always the most knowledgeable in the group, there is no tension and, therefore, not growth.  This tension stage is uncomfortable, but as the rubber band, individuals add the most value to the organization.  This tension is a good thing even though there’s plenty of frustration.  To stay relevant, one must continue to grow and change.  This tension benefits everyone both individually and collectively. 

Growth tension can be maintained when each team member remains curious about the continuous improvement of processes and finding ways to bring best practices to the operation. Staying curious is an asset that will help keep the individuals in the team growing.  An environment that enables individuals to explore that curiosity will benefit the entire organization.

We can observe on the back end of the transformation process, the laws of expansion and contribution.  The result of the growing tension is the increased capabilities of the team and each individual.  As the group expands its capabilities in an environment conducive to growth, team members will want to share knowledge, particularly with new team members.  This mindset of sharing information, helping those around you, and contributing to others’ growth also helps individuals get a more in-depth understanding of what they have learned.  An environment of collaboration is beneficial when it comes to change.

To conclude, I think that all of the laws discussed in the book are important and very relevant both on an individual basis or a group basis.  I only mentioned a few of the 15 laws of growth.   These are present in the transformation process, starting with awareness, reflection, intentionality, and worth (law of the mirror) at the very beginning.  Growth comes from the tension caused by a change in an environment that supports collaboration and the continued curiosity for continuous improvement.  Finally, when team members can teach each other, their knowledge is elevated and helps create a culture of collaboration, growth, and development. 

The Five Qualities of a Highly Impactful Team

It takes a team…! Whenever you see a successful leader, there is certainly a capable team beside that leader. As Dr. John C. Maxwell stated:  “One is too small of a number to achieve greatness”. A leader can accomplish some goals but to reach significance a leader needs a team.  Phil Jackson, the head coach of the Chicago Bulls back in the 1990s, stated: “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” Team members contribute their talents, and the entire benefit from the collective contributions of each member.

Coming together is a beginning

Staying together is progress

And working together is success

–Henry Ford

Creating a cohesive team requires thoughtful consideration to bring together the talent needed to achieve specific goal(s). A team is as strong as its weakest link.  Strong, successful teams have certain qualities in common.

Members of great teams are committed to high performance.

Each team member shares the responsibility for the entire team’s success and each of its individual members. Each team member’s performance determines the team’s success. I read a story that exemplifies the commitment to high performance for the benefit of another team member. The story is about the veteran Charles Plumb, a US jet fighter pilot in Vietnam.  

Plumb was ejected from his jet and parachuted into enemy territory.  He spent six years in a Vietnamese prison.  After released and back in the US, he was sitting at a café one day, a man came up to him and said, “You’re Plumb! You flew jet fighters in Vietnam from the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. You were shot down!” Plumb was confused and asked how the man knew about that. “I packed your parachute,” the man replied. The man then shook his hand and said, “I guess it worked!” Plumb assured him it had and said, “If your chute hadn’t worked, I wouldn’t be here today.”

The story reveals the importance of skills and the ability to perform at your best when it matters most. In a good team, members are committed to the cause and its members. This story also unveils the element of trust.  

In great teams, members develop trusting relationships.

In his book “The Infinite Game”, Simon Sinek makes an interesting observation about the difference between a trusting team and a team. He states that in a team where a group of people come together to achieve a specific result, the relationship amongst the team members tend to be transactional. In contrast, in a trusting team environment, the team members develop a trusting relationship. Trust is a feeling that develops in the layering of situations where team members feel safe to be vulnerable. Trust cannot be imposed, required or demanded. Trust and vulnerability go hand in hand. A violation of trust essentially eliminates vulnerability, which then shatters the possibility of trust. 

In great teams, members are committed to working collaboratively towards a common goal.

The 1992 Olympic Men’s Basketball Team aka “The Dream Team” is an example of collaboration towards a common goal – to bring home gold. The Dream Team was comprised of the best players in basketball history. To win gold, they had to put aside their egos and unite on a common objective. They had to trust each other on the basketball court to attain greatness as an Olympic team. “The whole is better than the sum of its parts.” –Aristotle

Another example is a team that over time has seen the participation of the brightest minds in the world, The Royal Society of London. The Society is committed to a common goal: the advancement of science. Under his leadership in the 1700s, Sir Isaac Newton asserted the Society’s dominant role in science.  With the help of Edmond Halley, the Society published Newton’s Principia Mathematica. It is one of the most influential books of all time describing the action of gravity. Through the Society’s photographic expeditions of the solar eclipse in 1919, astronomers confirm Albert Einstein’s relativity theory. Today, the Society fosters international scientific cooperation, innovative research, and better communication between scientists and the public.    

Members of great teams listen, communicate, and connect. 

Google led a research initiative on the qualities of the best teams, Project Aristotle, and concluded that the best teams are those whose members listen to one another and show sensitivity.  

In NASA 1969 Apollo 11, for example, the team had over 400,000 scientists, engineers, and technicians.  The astronauts of that mission were Whilst Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins. These men made it a point of visiting the laboratories where these scientists, engineers, and technician worked in order to establish the human connection with the people on whose hands they were entrusting their lives.  

The Manhattan Project, despite the controversial team’s purpose and extreme secrecy (developing an atomic bomb during WWII), is considered another of the most impactful teams in history.  It is said that communication and collaboration made it one of the most effective teams.  

Leadership and clarity are necessary to achieve greatness in a team.

The leader has a role in helping the team achieve greatness. Without effective leadership and clarity, it is very difficult for a team to achieve anything, much less greatness. Even when its members are highly talented and accomplished individuals who have enjoyed “solo recognition”, it is essential for the leader to create the right environment for high performance. Talent can be powerful in a team, but only if there is commitment to a common goal and collaboration. Where talent is abundant in the team, but self-interest guides team members actions, it is impossible to establish trust.

What undermines team success?

Research by The Ken Blanchard Companies concluded that teams fail due to a variety of reasons. Three of those conditions caught my attention:

  • lack of effective leadership and support
  • lack of clarity of purpose
  • lack of talent or training.

There are many examples of failed teams even when their members were very talented. Enron, for example, was a highly regarded company.  They violated the trust of many due to greed. They deceived over 20,000 employees who were left to face significant personal financial losses.  

Another example is the changes to the LA Lakers Basketball Team after the 2002 championship that the leadership of that organization made. Two very talented team members who enjoyed individual recognition were unable to work collaboratively. There were a number of player trades made by the organization, which essentially created a new team. The new team did not possess the qualities necessary to maintain its champion status in the season that followed. The inability to collaborate was detrimental to creating a cohesive team environment. The organization may have overestimated the value of individual talent and did not put enough attention to the other qualities required to assemble a strong team.

In conclusion, some of the most impactful teams in history attribute their success to a strong foundation of trust, respect, communication, collaboration, and a commitment to a common goal. The qualities that make a team successful are interconnected. The leader must orchestrate well the resources, talent, and the environment in order for the team’s efforts to achieve high impact. The leader has an important role in creating an environment that brings out the best of the team collectively and individually. When there is clarity of purpose and effective leadership, the team can move the organization in the right direction. 

About the Author: Lourdes Coss is a retired Chief Procurement Officer with 27 years of government procurement and transformation experience; the author of “Procurement Methods: Effective Techniques”; and an executive coach, speaker, leadership & procurement trainer, and procurement consultant