The title to this article sums up collaboration for me. There is only so much you can do on your own. When we collaborate we see more, we achieve more, and we are more. Collaboration is central to so much of what we do in professional services firms. Whether it is collaboration with teams, across teams within the firm, with clients, with many clients, or with the industry we find ourselves in.
The good, the bad, and the ugly of collaboration
There are so many great examples of good collaboration. Whether it be a group of panel firms who truly work together to put the client first; serving them with the best of their collective knowledge rather than racing to be the first to send the GC the latest legal update. Whether it be initiatives like the Mindful Business Charter or the O-Shape lawyer, where different stakeholders come together to solve a specific problem. We know what good collaboration looks like.
Just as we know what the good looks like, we know bad collaboration when we see it too. Here, for example, we might reflect on teams where communication breaks down and efforts are duplicated. We might think of projects that have failed because the collaboration needed to deliver wasn’t there.
These lead us into “ugly” territory. Where the culture itself doesn’t foster collaboration. Where individuals are out for themselves rather than each other. Forgetting that there is only so much we can do on our own. However brilliant those individuals might be.
What are the ingredients for good collaboration?
There are numerous studies that seek to answer this question. There are some commonalities – psychological safety being one.
A study which I always come back to was conducted at MIT. The study found that what made some teams perform better than others, was not individual intelligence, or having a few brilliant individuals, it was something else…..the study found that teams that performed best gave everyone equal time to speak. The individuals were tuned in to one another (they scored highly on a test for empathy). They also found that the teams had more women on them (underlining the benefits of diverse thinking).
These ingredients are ones that team coaching fosters. However, a team needs to be ready to go on a journey first.
Do we start big or small with collaboration?
When we speak to clients on behalf of professional services firms about the “big issues” (DEI, ESG, the future of work….) we hear the same thing again and again. Clients are facing and tackling the same issues as their advisor firms. They want to hear the firm’s perspectives and they want to share learning.
Does it make sense to collaborate on these big topics first?
It seems like the obvious answer to this is, yes. Why wouldn’t you?
However, to achieve success we need to go back to the ingredients for collaboration. Often there is a temptation for advisors to offer answers. To know the answer. For some of these big topics, it is likely that the advisor won’t. This changes the dynamic and might mean that psychological safety isn’t a given. The advisor is put in a position of vulnerability. The client might well be too!
If firms haven’t experienced collaboration from within, can they start their journey with the big stuff?
What can we learn from other fields that we can bring into a collaboration?
At a recent event, we brought three people who we collaborate with together to think about collaboration from different angles. Here we share some of the learning.
LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY®
We started our journey with psychological safety. Team coaching offers a lot here and Steph Wheeler, who we collaborate with, offered insights into the role that LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® in particular can have.
Referring to Amy Edmonson, who coined psychology safety, Steph reminded us that it is “a shared belief amongst individuals as to whether it is safe to engage in interpersonal risk-taking”. What we described about the dynamic of client and advisor involves risk. Lots of elements of LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® – building positive emotions, sharing stories, metaphors, externalizing emotion – all help to build psychological safety.
The process fosters individual time to speak. It works because there is no one expert in the room. It forces people to listen. Participants see people human-to-human.
What does this teach us about collaboration? That we might need to look at collaborative problem-solving differently. How often do we as firms look to solve something with our clients but in a way that has failed in the past; or in a way that fails to acknowledge, or challenge, the dynamics in the room?
The next person to join us was Natalie Murray, creator of Lawbox Design, a Legal Design Agency. Legal design marries human-centered design with the world of law. It welcomes collaboration. It encourages lawyers to look at what the broader stakeholders are doing.
In legal design clients and advisors come to the table as equals. Clients understand their businesses better than the lawyers and the lawyers have the supporting legal knowledge to create the end result. There is a focus on listening.
The whole legal design movement is noted for its desire to share. It is about doing things better and it doesn’t matter who has done it first. The community shares because it is better for everybody.
What does this teach us about collaboration? It teaches us that, to collaborate, we must come to the party as equals. It is not about one person trying to score points or to lead, it is about working together to create something that is better than what was there before.
The last person to join us was Barbara Gondim da Rocha, Head of Knowledge Management and Innovation at RMS Advogados.
Barbara reminded us that when we share with others there are benefits for us as well as for others. In sharing we become more aware of what we are doing. She also reminded us that ideas are not always transferable. Different firms absorb ideas differently and some are unable to absorb the ideas at all because of their culture.
Sharing isn’t just about the bad stuff, when we share war stories others recognise themselves. They become more open to sharing other perspectives: human-to-human.
Innovation can be little steps. Barbara shared a quote from Patrick DiDomenico, Chief Innovation Officer at Jackson Lewis, “If necessity is the mother of invention, crisis is the father of innovation” (offered on Greg Lambert’s podcast). She brought this thinking to her firm. The crisis drove the need for better collaboration among lawyers. To get the lawyer's buy-in and collaboration they made the lawyers deliver the solution. In doing this she drove empathy. And buy-in.
Barbara also gave the reflection that I used to start this blog. Collaboration is not a one-man job.
What does this teach us about collaboration? Collaboration is not about rising above others. It is about mindset and it is a way of being. What is the message you are giving to your teams? Are you rewarding individual behaviours or the efforts of collaborative ones?