Focus on collaboration to bolster business success

Creative thinking needs not to be overly rigid or structured

Walk in the door of almost any business today, and you’ll find a group of people in a conference room gathered for a meeting. A meeting that in many cases will result in one or more of the participants feeling bored, left out, unheard, frustrated or even angry.

There are more than 5,000 books available on Amazon that pontificate on the virtues and practices of running effective meetings. However, of the hundreds that I have read, none of them adequately and concisely describe the essential ingredients to running a meeting focused on collaboration. 
Without a considered respect for good meeting values, and the important mechanics of managing a meeting, your meetings are destined to produce one of three results:

  1. Feed the facilitator’s ego,
  2. Allow your team to feel “busy” while not accomplishing anything, or
  3. Frustrate everyone that attends.

There is a fourth type, which is a grand combination of all three. Unfortunately, I’ve been guilty of running some of these meetings but, over time, I’ve come to recognize the commonalities in values and mechanics that every great collaborative meeting shares. These are:

Values: the people attending your meetings must:

  • Commit to showing respect for other ways of thinking and doing;
  • Assume good intentions;
  • Leave their personal baggage at the door;
  • Agree that success is not always compatible with comfort;
  • Understand that alignment is valued over consensus.

Mechanics: the properties that are critical to your meeting are that:

  • The team commits to being physically present;
  • Meeting objectives are clearly defined;
  • There is enough time allocated to accomplish the objectives;
  • Team members are required to work both independently and as a group;
  • The facilitator is focused entirely on creating team-defined outcomes.

Most importantly, the core trait that all great facilitators have is the quiet courage to persevere in their quest for positive outcomes in spite of the team’s personalities, history, anxiety and objections to change.

It should be understood that not everyone is collaborative and, in my experience, a collaborative attitude cannot be taught. However, those people who do not value collaboration may still have a very positive impact within your business. In fact, many of the most talented practitioners I have worked with have been passionate individualists, single-minded about how things should be done and unwilling to discuss it in an open debate.

Although valuable for getting things done, such non-collaborators absolutely do not belong in collaborative meetings. The people you invite to meetings must all agree to certain values before the discussion begins. I have gone so far as to outline the necessary values in the meeting invite with the stipulation that accepting the invitation is also an agreement to adhere to the values laid out. Eventually your group will come to understand that this is “how things are done around here” – stage one of a bottom-up, grassroots change.

Value #1: Be Open to Other Ways of Thinking and Doing

Within a meeting setting, dominant personalities – the extroverts – will often have the most to say. However, if these personalities are permitted to dominate the discussion, some of the best ideas and suggestions can be left unsaid. 

Value  #2: Assume Good Intentions

Responding well to negative input is one of the important factors that drives growth. In a successful collaborative meeting, participants ask themselves what can be learnt from a negative comment rather than becoming upset. In other words, they assume that the intention behind the comment is good.

Value #3: Leave Your Baggage at The Door

One of the biggest dangers to collaborative thinking is when one or more attendees bring their personal issues into the room. Typically, these issues manifest as someone acting out the role of victim, villain, or hero. The victim is the “poor me” attitude brought into meetings; the villain points outwardly and blames others for the way things are; and the hero manipulates the situation by offering to shoulder the entire burden and carry everyone out of the current mess.

Value #4: Be Willing to Get Uncomfortable

Although this example may seem a touch dramatic to scratch out on the whiteboard, it perfectly illustrates the most daunting issue facing organizations that desire change: change inevitably leads to conflict and struggle. It means people’s routines are upended and that there are hard conversations to be had. It may mean risking customer relationships or losing valuable employees.  It requires asking difficult questions, like “what is the risk of doing nothing” or “what if our competition does this instead?”

In a collaborative meeting, participants need to be emotionally prepared for potentially uncomfortable what-if scenarios and tough questions.

Value #5 Alignment is Required; Consensus is Not

You may wonder about the difference between consensus and alignment. Consensus is when a majority of a team agrees that a given decision is the right one; alignment is when the entire team agrees to stand behind a decision, even in circumstances where they may not agree.

Ideally, the individuals who are invited to meetings will add value. However, a disastrous side-effect of collaborative meetings is the false expectation that an individual’s input is not only valuable, but that it will dramatically influence meeting outcomes. Most people believe they should have a “vote” to help decide what should be done but the data proves otherwise. Consensus-led organizations are generally ineffective and almost never leaders in their industry.

Properly-aligned organizations are, almost by definition, innovative, progressive and healthy. Aligned organizations do worry about making the right decision, but they are more concerned about getting behind the decisions that have been made.

The Mechanics of Collaboration

Without the right values, your meetings will be a frustrating failure. However, the mechanics of the meeting may be even more important. The proper meeting structure is critical to achieving an effective outcome and alignment with the decisions that are made. These are the rules that I insist upon for anyone facilitating an important collaborative meeting:

Rule #1: Show Up in Person

The fashionable belief that organizations can foster a collaborative culture by leveraging a completely distributed workforce has been debunked. Even the most advanced tech companies in the world are now bringing their employees back in to the office. When given the opportunity to deal with colleagues in person rather than remotely, 92 percent of employees believe collaboration is dramatically improved and 82 percent feel it is easier to make themselves understood.

Rule #2: The Facilitator Must Clearly State Measurable Objectives

A clear and measurable objective should be stated in the title of the meeting invite. Rather than allowing objections to pop up during the actual meeting, where the meeting’s positive, can-do energy will be irreparably diminished, you want these objections to come out well in advance. As a result, when the meeting begins, you can get right to the business of brainstorming the moment everyone has arrived.

Rule #3: Allocate Enough Time

This rule runs in direct opposition to the in-vogue trend of keeping meetings short and small. Don’t listen to those meeting naysayers; not all problems can be identified, creatively solved, and tasked using 3 people and 20 minutes.  Give your team a luxurious amount of time to brainstorm, particularly when you are trying out your new-found meeting facilitation skills. 

Creative thinking is never done well when it is overly rigid or structured (although it is also not done well when there are no constraints at all.) This approach may sound too costly, but time wasted on failed collaborative meetings is an even greater loss.  Unless you’re a creative agency or a technical consultancy, collaborative meetings are rarely a weekly or even monthly occurrence anyhow, so allowing 25 percent or even 100 percent more time than you think is required is not as great an expense as you may suppose.

Rule #4: Independent Reflection is Equally as Valuable and Important as Group Brainstorming

Have you ever been invited to a “collaborative” meeting and then never been asked to make a contribution? Or have you facilitated a meeting where some of the attendees did not contribute anything but a modest nod of the head?

The most significant dilemma a facilitator faces is how to ensure everybody plays a part. My experience has shown me that that the people least likely to participate are almost always the ones with the best ideas. They are the practitioners: engineers, customer service reps, coders, creatives and project managers. They are typically quiet and cerebral… introverts.

Insisting upon a contribution, but giving each individual personal space and time to contemplate their ideas, produced better results than any other method I have tried. I also noted that the “extroverts” produced more thoughtful ideas when given time to reflect.

Rule #5: The Facilitator’s Job is to Push the Team to Define the Outcomes

All too often, a facilitator will take “center stage” in front of a large, blank dry-erase board. They strategically call upon people to offer opinions, and then choose which matter enough to go up on the board. Steve Jobs ran his meetings this way and he was very effective and engaging, but he was the exception that proves the rule. He was a genius anomaly that is all too often modeled as the ideal.

A facilitator must have the ethos that they are the servant of the meeting’s objective and the liaison for everyone’s ideas in the room. Their power comes from setting the objective, inviting contributions, pushing the meeting along and keeping people on track. Their role is to help resolve tough conflicts and, usually, to decide which course of action to take. A facilitator should never, ever feel they must have all, or any, of the answers. If that is the case, they may as well call a meeting to get the team to align behind their already set vision. There are better ways to align a team around a decision that has already been made than inviting folks to a meeting disguised as a brainstorming session.

Return on Collaboration

Collaboration can be difficult to measure. However, it is possible to measure the impact collaborative environments have within an organization. Frost & Sullivan conducted an in-depth survey comparing organizations with a mature collaborative culture to those without. The results were astounding, showing that a culture of collaboration increases:

  • Profitability, by 29 percent
  • Growth, by 26 percent
  • Customer satisfaction, by 41 percent
  • Productivity, by 36 percent
  • Product quality, by 34 percent
  • Innovation, by 30 percent

Although impressive, these statistics probably do not help you measure the impact of improved collaboration within your own organization.

Collaboration is the key to contemporary organizational success. Vacuum ideation may have worked at one time, but this is no longer a viable solution within the complex systems and dynamic organizational structures which exist today.

Although organizations acknowledge this truth, most fail to adeptly facilitate collaborative cultures and become less competitive as a result. Changing to this type of culture is often too difficult to institute from the top down. Instead, the recommended path is to implement simple changes to the way small teams gather and coordinate their decisions.


Anthony Franco

mcSquares CEO Anthony Franco founded seven successful companies and holds multiple patents. He founded the Denver-based consulting firm, EffectiveUI, the world’s first and leading user experience and digital product development firm; and serves as the executive director of UX Mag, an online publication focused on furthering the practice of creating great products based on the principles of human-centered design. His most recent start-up, mcSquares, was conceived out of the lessons learned while running brainstorming workshops within Fortune 100 conference rooms. mcSquares focuses on creating collaboration systems for high-tech, educational and creative spaces.

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