Delivering better or more innovative public services is a driver of most government policies. It should go hand in hand with strategies to achieve better collaboration but this isn’t always the case. The civil service is acutely aware of how poor collaboration can damage future thinking and, ultimately, outcomes for the public. However, the challenge to making change happen is intensified where deeply embedded cultures and structures exist.
The Government can solve this problem. It has done so before. Increased collaboration between public services was often recognised as one of the more positive experiences of the recent pandemic. Previous barriers to collaboration appeared to fall away as organisations came together to respond to COVID-19. Many organisations went beyond their usual remit to support other services in their region, with the pandemic response taking priority over individual, organisational aims. The public saw leaders focus on results and outcomes as opposed to internal processes.
Creating a collaborative culture
It is well known that a collaborative culture enables organisations to improve problem solving, creativity and productivity. Successful businesses like Google, Facebook and Lego dedicate time and effort in promoting a collaborative approach and environment at their workplaces.
Knowing that collaboration will be beneficial, of course, isn’t the same as putting it into practice. It is more than colleagues just working together. A collaborative culture is one where collaboration is regular and deliberate. Truly effective collaborators are emotionally engaged and genuinely want to help out fellow collaborators or share findings, without a feeling of obligation.
‘The key point in disciplined collaboration is to start with the end in mind: the goal of collaboration is not collaboration, but better results… you should only collaborate when it is the best way to improve performance’ Morten Hansen, Berkley and INSEAD
If you seek to create a more collaborative culture, consider how well you perform against the following:
- Embracing differences. Diversity is a core remit of successful collaboration. Work toward the same goals but from very different perspectives with team members from different cultures, backgrounds and geographical locations
- Promoting employee engagement. Collaborations and great ideas don’t just happen around a desk – they can take place at the most unexpected places at the most unexpected times, while involved in seemingly unrelated activities.
- Keeping the door open. Promote regular interactions. If leaders are accessible and approachable, it creates an atmosphere of openness and provides opportunities for engagement and ‘moments’ of inspiration. Teams succeed when leaders invest in supporting social relationships and demonstrate collaborative behaviour themselves
- Ensuring the right skills. Teams need to be skilled in the practice of collaboration and taught how to work effectively together. Studies show that a number of skills are crucial including appreciating others, being able to engage in purposeful conversations and productively and creatively resolving conflicts
- Hiring and developing collaborative leaders. Attract and assess potential leadership hires who have a collaborative mindset and management style, a strong commitment to joint-working and resource sharing, and the ability to encourage collaboration in their teams.
- Supporting a sense of community. While a community spirit can develop spontaneously, HR can also play a crucial role in cultivating it, by sponsoring group and team activities such as women’s networks or creating policies and practices that encourage these events
- Reinforce and revisit. Creating a culture of collaboration doesn’t happen overnight. Patience, continuous monitoring and regular reinforcement are important to ensure sustained behaviour change and prevent employees from falling back into old and bad habits.
Nowadays technology can make it easier for employees to come together and benefit from a collaborative culture. Messaging apps, employee experience hubs and survey platforms are able to streamline processes and open up lines of communication.
But public services need more than just new technology to develop and grow effective collaborative cultures where high performing teams can thrive. Before turning to technology for solutions, it’s worth considering whether your leaders prioritise collaboration. If they don’t communicate themselves, meaningful collaboration between co-workers is unlikely to happen. If you want employees to collaborate, they should start by leading by example.
‘Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success’
Henry Ford, US industrialist
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