To infinity and beyond! Isn’t that a great and energizing phrase? Buzz Lightyear would certainly agree, as it’s his mission: To go further, be stronger, and ultimately be successful. Those of us who know the movie Toy Story can relate to his motivations. But we also recognize the many struggles he faces as some of our own. In the end, it was support and collaboration that led Buzz and Woody to be successful.
Despite the recognized benefits of collaboration, being aligned internally and putting collaboration into practice is often easier said than done. I recently worked with a nonprofit organization embroiled in a heated internal struggle between the administrative and service delivery components of its operations. A survey revealed leaders of the organization had completely different perspectives on achieving their organization’s strategy and goals. Each considered their role most important and felt the other was operating in ways detrimental to the organization. Both groups were vital to the success of the organization as a whole and knew that taking steps to create a collaborative workplace was critical to resolving their performance-paralyzing conflict. If they didn’t collaborate, the organization would fail — but they also knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Whether resolving internal issues or launching a new initiative or program, collaboration is about breaking down barriers that hinder progress and replacing them with new ways to work together.
Making Collaboration Work
The essence of collaboration comes down to people — people interacting positively with one another to achieve a mutually desired result. The human element is the primary influencer that must be taken into account. Developing a collaborative culture involves behavior change and relationship building. Trust, understanding, appreciation, and sensitivity about feelings and egos are essential elements. There has to be acceptance of personality differences and diverse ideas. Communication must be a priority, and everyone must remember that listening is the secret sauce that makes communication work. And you have to be willing to embark on a new journey, and to take that always difficult first step.
The creative process that produced the hit movies Toy Story, Finding Nemo, and Inside Out offers lessons that can help nonprofits seeking to create collaborative relationships. In his book, Creativity, Inc., Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios and president of Pixar Animation and Disney Animation, reveals that Pixar films are produced through the creative efforts of numerous groups of professionals that must work together to create a movie project that meets both Pixar's high standards and box office expectations.
According to Catmull, getting to a finished product involves idea sharing and joint problem solving. And he credits the company's success to teamwork that channels naturally occurring creative conflict in a positive direction. While most nonprofit organizations don’t have the resources a movie studio or large company has, his eight essential components to building Pixar's successful culture of collaboration are appropriately relevant to our sector.
- Establish a safe environment for exchange of ideas so that fear of failure or rejection is not an issue.
- Don't take the opinions of others as a personal attack. And conversely, don't make sharing an opinion a personal attack.
- Be willing to give up control. Collaboration participants must accept input from others and be willing to let go of practices that don't work.
- Don't succumb to feelings of winning and losing. Give-and-take interaction should produce balanced solutions.
- Be ready to listen, and prepared to hear the truth and viewpoints that challenge the status quo.
- Know the difference between criticism and constructive criticism. One tears apart and the other builds.
- Welcome disagreement as an opportunity to test ideas so the best concepts survive.
- Schedule progress reports for review and frank evaluation.
Is any of the above happening within your workplace? Do you have a workplace environment where everyone supports each other and is engaged in stimulating, idea-generating, and problem-solving conversation? What could be the results if new ideas are both welcomed and encouraged and individuals are not afraid to share out loud?
I imagine a nonprofit sector where the best ideas come forward and are embraced. I believe creating a culture of collaboration represents an opportunity for transformation, and that implementing the action steps presented above for developing a collaboration culture — though easier said than done — will transform imagined outcomes into reality.
Do you agree and/or have other thoughts on how to make collaboration work in nonprofit organizations?