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Cooperation Is Key to an Agile Workplace

Cooperation Is Key to an Agile Workplace

by Marco Nink

Story Highlights

  • 3 in 10 workers perceive adequate cooperation at work
  • Slowed communication undermines programs for agile
  • Four common barriers hinder collaboration

A business can't be agile and siloed at the same time. Nonetheless, recent Gallup research shows that most employees don't -- or can't -- cooperate with other departments and share knowledge.

Gallup finds that only about a third of employees in the U.S., France, Germany, Spain and the U.K. strongly agree with the statement "In my company we openly share information, knowledge and ideas with each other." Specifically, 30% in Spain and the U.S. strongly agree, while 36% agree in the U.K., 38% in France and 39% in Germany.

Only one of four employees from Europe (24%) and 19% in the U.S. strongly agree they are "satisfied with cooperation between my department and other departments" at their organizations (22% strongly agree in Spain,23% in France,25% in the UK and 26% in Germany).

Those findings are from a series of interviews Gallup conducted in late 2017 and early 2018 with 80 business leaders and managers in the U.S. and EU about their experiences with agility in their companies. Gallup then interviewed more than 5,500 American and 4,000 European workers regarding how they perceive the culture of agility in their organizations.

The research shows that most companies lack the eight cultural factors that drive agility, two of which are cooperation and knowledge sharing.

Without the ability to work hand-in-hand and exchange information easily, employees miss the benefit of varied perspectives. In addition, they're short on opportunities for collective brainstorming that help inspire new ideas, find flaws in strategies and put people's energy where it does the most good. And employees are very likely wasting valuable time and getting frustrated as they sit and wait for information to arrive.

Leaders should show teams how it's done by openly sharing information with team members, actively seeking feedback from other departments and nurturing open discussions.

When that information must cross an organizational barrier, the wait can feel very long indeed. Leaders can dismantle those barriers -- if they can find them. Here's what to look for:

Policy problems: Even well-meaning policies and practices can inhibit or prevent cooperation. Badly designed or poorly governed policies can spur power struggles or focus on the wrong goals -- incentive systems, for example, can inadvertently reward a department for fixating too much on its own interests. Leaders should look at the organization's policies and practices with a view toward their unintended consequences.

Knowledge hoarding: People who fear loss of autonomy or control can become territorial about knowledge. An "us vs. them" dynamic can result and organizational goals become harder to reach. Leaders should actively -- and publicly -- promote collaboration. Stress that managers must work across departments and share knowledge. Publicly recognize the managers who perform these behaviors. Leaders should position such managers as role models to emulate.

Misalignment: When the needs of departments or teams are misaligned -- the inventory control group wants as little product in the warehouse as possible, for example, while the sales group wants enough product stocked to cover any sale -- it can feel like the teams are on opposing sides. Teams experiencing this misalignment need shared goals, drafted and managed by leaders of both teams for their mutual benefit.

Leaders should focus on their team building skills -- and coach managers to do so as well. Embedding face-to-face, as well as remote, interactions between departments and teams helps build closer relationships faster. And it shortens the adjustment period that is typical for newly formed teams.

Centralization: Expanding the rights of decision-making authority expands the organization's knowledge base and deters territorialism. Decentralizing decisions also eases information bottlenecks that can slow production -- which is why this tactic is a key feature of agile companies -- and promotes team and individual autonomy. This approach facilitates open, direct, honest and respectful communication within and across teams.

Leaders should show teams how it's done by openly sharing information with team members, actively seeking feedback from other departments and nurturing open discussions. However, while information sharing is vital, information deluges are a problem in their own right. Too much information and not enough time or resources to process it slows people down -- just as much as too little information can.

Dismantling the Invisible Barriers

Collaboration is a cultural attribute and can take time to establish. Cross-department projects help cooperation take root and encourage managers and individual contributors to establish inter-department connections.

Leaders can capitalize on Gallup's research into partnerships as well. The best partnerships tend to include a common mission, fairness, trust, acceptance and communication. Some partnerships have another two elements: forgiveness and unselfishness. Leaders can launch cooperative partnerships by creating the conditions that foster collaboration in partnerships -- the right CliftonStrengths mix, for instance, and the right incentives -- and keeping a close eye on process and outcomes.

The goal is that internal and external networks be woven together to share ideas, knowledge and resources. Networks help teams build on each other's expertise, experience and perspectives -- a necessity for agile companies. Leaders should take part, especially as role models for cooperation.

And it's becoming increasingly important that leaders participate. Specialized knowledge is a form of currency; it's how businesses solve problems and create customers in a complex business environment. Interdisciplinary teams appear to be the logical solution, but successful teams usually consist of people who complement each other well. It's unlikely a company can form those interdisciplinary teams if barriers to cooperation block them at every turn.

So, it's up to leaders to locate their organization's needless barriers to cooperation. And once identified, they should dismantle it. Undermine it slowly or topple it quickly -- whatever best suits the business, the barrier and the people involved.

Business moves too fast to be stymied by employees who won't or can't cooperate with each other. And as the Gallup data shows, the majority of employees operate behind walls as it is, so there's ample room for improvement.

Gallup can help you remove the silos in your organization to develop a truly agile workplace:


Marco Nink is Gallup's Regional Lead in Research and Analytics, EMEA.

Jennifer Robison contributed to this article.

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