I’ve recently heard from several colleagues and client organizations who are engaged in partnerships designed to harness the strength of complementary skills, experience and thinking. Their purpose is to enter new markets, build the business, and create innovative approaches that can only come from an interdisciplinary approach.
The great thing is that they recognize and have committed to the creative power of diversity! They know that research shows that diversity of thought leads to innovation. The trouble is that each of them has encountered frustration and, in some cases, regret: the partnership is not as easy as they’d hoped, they haven’t found their “sweet spot” of collaboration, new customers are not pounding down their doors. They talk over and past each other, they have differing goals and strategies, they feel their partner lacks respect for them. In short, the very reason they are partnering in the first place — to leverage their complementary expertise — is getting in the way of successful collaboration.
What to do? “Come on, Dianne,” they tell me. “You do this collaboration thing for a living. Give us some tips. What are we doing wrong?” Well, instead, how about starting with what you are doing right?
Tip #1: Remind yourself what motivated you to partner in the first place. What skills, experience, contributions or contacts does your partner bring to the table that you want to access? Have you spent focused time listening and learning from your partner, how they do things, how they see things, discovering what about their perspective is unique and can add value to your own? And vice-versa?
Tip #2: Affirm the strengths you see in your partner. Too often we get caught in a blame game, or we get so busy we don’t take the time we should to actually communicate our hopes and appreciation. We take it for granted that our partners know we value them, and why. Speak up purposefully and let them know!
Tip #3: Be honest about the challenges. Collaborating with partners whose worldview is different from our own means that we have to speak a different language, translate our common sense to theirs. Such efforts can get tiring, even irritating. And, when we don’t understand, or worse, misunderstand what our partners are saying or doing, that impatience and frustration show through. Pretending the challenge isn’t there usually is not the answer; it makes the white elephant in the room grow ever more looming. Rather, put your differences out there, on the table for discussion.
Tip #4: Agree on rules for the game. You have partnered precisely because you are different; you are experts in separate arenas, and of course you do things differently. A successful joint effort needs to bring out the best, rather than the worst, in each of its partners. There is a need, therefore, to talk purposefully about HOW you communicate: how you can disagree without offending, how you can make decisions in which all partners feel heard and valued. Such game rules should be revisited and updated regularly. Ten minutes talking about how we communicate can shoot productivity forward. We’ve all been in meetings where we focused on task and drove one another nuts, getting nowhere.
Tip #5: Diverge then converge. And repeat. Diverge by listening to one another. Converge by summarizing what you heard. Diverge by gathering data, doing research, discussing the matters on which you disagree. Get to the point where the convergence emerges: you see the trends in the data, you get to the heart of the matter — exploring the disagreement leads you to a core truth and a path forward. I can not emphasize this last point enough. In thirty plus years leading international teams, team leaders inevitably come to me saying, “we are never going to get agreement. The team is all over the place.” Experience shows, repeatedly, that if you listen to understand, summarize the key points, a path forward that incorporates the diverse perspectives, skills and experience presents itself. It takes a little faith and a bit of letting go. Then the magic begins.
Bonus Tip #6: Know when to get out. Not all matches are made in heaven; not all collaborations are worth the effort. Do your homework before entering a partnership, and be brave enough to make the call when it’s no longer a fit. Of course, filtering out cultural differences to be sure it’s really not a fit is key. But beating your head against the wall and getting yourself into all sorts of contortions trying to make something work is not good for anyone.