Here’s a statement that’s hard to argue with: A vibrant company culture is the difference between simply doing a job and being part of a community. It’s a unifying force, and that’s what most of us want out of work, right? Well, that and a fat paycheck, of course.
If you’re a regular reader of our blog, you know that we’ve written a lot about culture. So my plan with this article is to keep it brief and to the point. (If after reading this you’re still interested in our take on organizational culture, here’s a couple of my favorites.)
In this article I want to explain some of the benefits of a culture focused on collaboration. Maybe “focused” is the wrong word here. What I’m talking about is a culture where collaboration isn’t an afterthought or something to strive for. Rather, it’s already baked in from the beginning. I’m talking a culture that’s the natural result of a collaborative working environment.
Let’s call it a collaboration culture!
What is a ‘collaboration culture’?
It’s more than just a strange term that I coined two sentences ago.
It’s a very specific type of workplace where the way people work together (hint: collaboratively!) has a profound, positive impact on the overall company culture. Unlike other types of organizational culture, based around platitudes and empty slogans, it reflects a devout commitment to the collaborative process.
What that process looks like depends on the organization of course. In general, it’s a commitment to:
Breaking out of silos: bringing together people across functional and organizational boundaries, and sharing access so that anyone, anywhere in the org, can contribute with an idea.
Group decision-making: either consensus-based, co-creation, or something else entirely. This means moving away from traditional top-down hierarchies and atomized departments, and toward making decisions as a team for the whole.
Complete transparency: in order to contribute their voice, people need to know what’s going on in your org. This means sharing challenges, successes, and honing your internal communications so that everyone understands how they can help and where they fit in. Empower your people with the information they need!
Here’s what collaboration culture looks like
Practically, this might sound like a workflow that's either full of too many meetings and informal chats or is regimented and strictly controlled, similar to the procedural rules provided by a system like holacracy. But really, it’s all about promoting awareness and autonomy, with occasional check-in discussions to ensure everyone’s working on something that makes sense for the organization. Not only that, but placing trust in teams to independently form working groups and interdepartmental communities of practice to tackle projects.
Put another way, it’s a CEO asking a co-op for their take on a new product direction, or a senior manager working alongside a designer to make their skunkworks passion project a reality.
And this style of working leads to a culture that ultimately celebrates productive, meaningful relationships with coworkers. In this sense, the culture itself reinforces and maintains the collaborative process. Which, as you can imagine, is good for the company and the people.
To get a little more high-level here, a collaboration culture is also about the following:
In a collaboration culture, you don’t need to post your company values on the wall as a reminder because people instinctively know them and can easily observe them in the wild. They live them in how they work together.
What would these values be if you were to write them somewhere? Probably something along the lines of “self and organizational awareness,” “stewardship of ideas,” and “make meaningful contributions.” A collaboration culture puts your people first: giving them purpose, placing your trust in them to do good work, and opening up your organization in a way that forms connections and unleashes their potential.
Leaders neither bark orders nor inspire people with their grand vision. In a collaboration culture, leaders are there to facilitate collaboration and guide people towards realizing their potential. Instead of saying something like “I need you to work on this,” leaders ask “What are you working on and how can I help?”
And yes, this also means giving each employee across the organization the chance to meaningfully contribute on projects that might be outside of their area of expertise or unrelated to their daily responsibilities.
Often the best ideas come from people who aren’t experts. Sometimes the solution to a complex problem comes from a fresh pair of eyes. As a leader, your goal is to maximize the number of eyes on all problems, challenges, and ideas. This means removing communication blockages and helping your people hone their collaboration skills through mentorship.
A collaborative environment not only multiplies connections between coworkers and creates an even playing field—it also makes work a heck of a lot more enjoyable. This enjoyment is plain as day to new employees, interview candidates, and anyone else who walks into the office.
And that’s effectively what I mean when I talk about the culture side of a collaborative organization. In addition to the lived values, the sense of shared purpose, and individual meaning, it’s also the vibe that’s so appealing. And we all could use some good vibes, especially at work.