This topic—collaboration—has come up lately in client discussions and it’s a very important element of effective performance. Here are my quick thoughts…
Collaboration is different from teamwork. Teamwork is a very broad term and can refer to two people or two thousand people where roles are generally well defined and people do their part as a team member. When everyone does their job, you have teamwork. A rowing team demonstrates teamwork. Collaboration, on the other hand, normally comes up when something must be done which is not clearly part of anyone’s job. “That conference was the result of many collaborators.” “No one was doing it, so we decided to collaborate on it.” Crew members on a rowing team rarely talk about collaborating to win a race. But if something went wrong and it was unclear who was supposed to do something, it becomes an opportunity for collaboration if two or more step forward to address it.
I know of a company in start-up phase and growing fast. They need to maintain the start-up culture where people wear multiple hats and do whatever it takes to deliver quality to customers. At the same time, they seek efficiency to avoid overlapping roles, duplicate efforts or turf wars. The company is evolving rapidly, so roles are not static. Therefore, job descriptions make no sense—they are too static and could create silos for people. The only alternative I see is to define “roles” stating each person’s general area and the level of accountability they have for decisions or output or outcomes.
Apart from role profiles, collaboration is needed. Without collaboration, even broad role profiles will become well-defined “jobs”, whether written or unwritten. In the absence of collaboration, a person could take a stand that something is, or is not, their job. And when they must work with someone having the same “job description mentality” there is an increased risk that vital work will fall through the cracks, or for duplicate effort, turf wars or simply confusion. It starts to feel political and the customer can become the real loser. But if two people who are collaborative by nature are given a task, they will get it done without duplicate effort or things falling through the cracks. They will each take ownership and work out specific roles and actions to achieve the business result.
I have now—after 30 years of working with job descriptions—come to the conviction that job descriptions make most sense for mature organisations that are no longer growing or evolving significantly. They are inherently static (point in time) and difficult to maintain. They should be brief and fluid, if they are used at all. (If an organisation maintains job descriptions for disciplinary purposes, you are perhaps doomed to their use, but better to maintain job standards along with your SOPs and KPI’s, not in the job description. Those countries or companies that ask employees to sign their job description when they are hired, are limiting managers from freely assigning work and deploying resources in response to changing business needs.)
So back to collaboration. Collaboration is a behavioral competency demonstrated when a person takes accountability for their own work AND related upstream and downstream work. Collaborators say “let’s get this done.” They do not say “that’s not my job.” Maybe all our job descriptions should include “collaborates with others when necessary to ensure customer requirements are met, willingly performing work that may not be included in this job description.”
Now if everyone had the inclination to jump in and get things done that are not part of their job description, why not keep roles ambiguous? The problem here is accountability and performance management. I find that people are generally happy to step in and assist others when they feel secure that they are performing their core duties well. But if people lack the certainty that they are doing their “main job” well, they will hesitate to step outside their main role. For this reason, I believe roles must be clear enough, and feedback must be frequent and specific enough, to enable this level of emotional security. Only then will people collaborate freely and heroically.