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Catalyze Relationships

What happens when you connect colleagues

What happens when you connect colleagues

All too often, organizations suffer due to poor communication and collaboration between it’s people, teams, and functions.


You may have experienced the frustration running through your body after spending days trying to solve a problem, only to discover that someone else in your organization had encountered the sample problem and came up with a solution several months ago. The list of unforced errors due to bad or non-existent relationships within an organization is long, and they often symptoms of a weak organizational community.

Many organizations devise formal solutions to promote information sharing (e.g. intranet), collaboration (e.g. cross-functional teams), and efficient handover (e.g. formal procedures). While these solutions are certainly a step in the right direction, they will not succeed without a healthy community of informal relationships (Etiénne Wenger), One of the most powerful ways to lead your organization in building a strong community is by creating more pathways of connection. This is when you harness the knowledge and trust of your own relationships to bring other people together (or “catalyze” relationships”), referred to as Bridge Relationships in research by Battilana and Casciaro.

Morten Hansen conveyed how high the stakes can be in his book “Collaboration.” Using examples, such as Sony’s failure to compete with Apple in the battle for MP3 customers, as well as the U.S. government’s inability to prevent the 9/11 attacks, Hansen illustrates how poor communication and collaboration between various departments can have catastrophic consequences.

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“The power of bringing people together to form new relationships is that it strengthens the whole community”

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This is where you come in.


Let’s say you’re having lunch with a colleague from one part of your organization, and he tells you about the struggle his team is currently having with a project that is way behind schedule due to prioritization issues. You also know someone else in a different part of the organization who’s team had a similar challenge a year ago, but found a great solution. What would you do? Obviously, you would suggest that your two colleagues speak with each other so that one colleague could give advice to the other one. Of course, the challenges that two colleagues or teams face are seldom identical, but sharing an overall mindset, or a simple tool, saves people—and the organization—a lot of time.


The power of bringing people together to form new relationships is that it strengthens the whole community, which impacts overall performance. Much like a brain benefits from increased synapses connecting one neuron to another, an organization with increased connections between people performs at a higher capacity. And its impact goes far beyond information sharing.


For example, hearing a success story about a colleague in another part of the organization coming up with an amazing new product or solution can give you a strong feeling of pride and reinforce your sense of shared identity. It may even remind you about the larger purpose that drew you to the organization in the first. The impact this has on your motivation is beyond measure.


By connecting colleagues from different parts of an organization, you not only boost motivation, you impact performance by helping people get much needed feedback or diverse perspectives, you enables change process, and you creates synergies that could lead to new solutions.

Unfortunately, these situations aren’t always so glaringly obvious, so it’s easy to miss out on the countless opportunities for connecting people. To help you develop your radar for detecting these opportunities, let’s consider whom we could potentially connect.


  1. People who have similar roles or interests, and would benefit from aligning and coordinating their work

  2. People who are different from each other and, therefore, could give new perspectives, challenge each other’s assumptions, and create synergies

  3. Internal people with external people, expanding boundaries and creating new opportunities for insights and collaboration.


Let’s explore each of these connection opportunities in a bit more depth.


1. Similar Roles and Interests


In research by Robert Cross, he has found three categories of people with similar roles and interests who would benefit tremendously from aligning and coordinating their work:


  • People who have similar functional roles (e.g. Finance, HR, Sales, etc.): It seems so obvious, but for all sorts of reasons organizations fail to bring together people in similar functional roles These people benefit tremendously from sharing best practice and information, as well as leveraging scale. Opportunities to bridge these relationships should be quite easy to spot and these people generally appreciate the connection very much.


  • Technical/Subject Matter Experts: These are often people in research and development and/or specialty operational roles. Bridging these relationships is extremely valuable for knowledge sharing and problem solving. Sometimes these people are a bit hesitant about the connection, because they take a lot of pride in their own expertise. However, their natural curiosity and desire to innovate generally leads them to want to find out what the other person is doing.


  • Critical Roles for Execution: these are the people who the organization relies on extensively for getting things done (e.g. first-line managers). If they don’t do their jobs well, the whole organization suffers. They and the organization benefit tremendously from sharing knowledge and aligning their work processes. Just like people in similar functional roles, people in critical roles for execution are generally quite open to and appreciative of the new relationship.

A secondary effect of connecting people is that it strengthens your relationship with each person and boosts your own credibility.

Diversity


Now, let’s look at the polar opposite reason for connecting people: because they’re different. One of the greatest risks that organizations suffer from is “silos”. This is where the people of different business units, departments, or functions operate in their own separate bubbles. It’s as if they are walled off from each other. As a result, the people working within the same silo fall into the trap of group think: the echo chamber of people who have similar backgrounds, similar thoughts, and quickly make decisions with very little debate. You’ve probably come across this—as an insider or outsider. It can be very hard to recognize when it’s happening (like breathing air), and is quite enjoyable for members of the “in-group” because the feeling of camaraderie is often very high. But the performance level of the group rarely goes beyond average, and the risks can be catastrophic (i.e. US invasion of Iraq in 2003).


The cure for this is quite simple: diversity. In an article written by Brian Uzzi and Shannon Dunlap, they write that, “When you trade information or skills with people whose experiences differ from your own, you provide one another with unique, exceptionally valuable resources.” This cannot be overstated.


Let’s look at a few of the many benefits of diversity.


First, and foremost, it gives people access to information they wouldn’t otherwise have. For example, people in Sales and Service roles often have loads of valuable information about customer needs and frustrations that people in the rest of the organization (R&D, Finance, Operations, HR, etc.) don’t have. Bridging people between these departments and functions so that they can share this kind of information would benefit everyone—including the customer—tremendously.


Another benefit of diversity is the spread of competence. For example, people in R&D use many great toolsthat could be very powerful for improving performance if people in other parts of the organization knew how to use them. But this is only possible if you connect people from R&D with people in other parts of the organization.


A third benefit of diversity is a true game changer, but is the least obvious: the generation of new ideas and solutions that can only happen when people with different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, are brought together. Ecologists have found that most new forms of life are created at the border (or “edge”) of two different ecosystems: where a forest meets a meadow; or where the sea meets land. This phenomenon is called “the edge effect.” In just the same way, when people from one part of an organization combine their knowledge, experience and ideas with those of people from another part of an organization, radical new ideas can be born.


Many of these benefits seem obvious in hindsight, but the most amazing opportunities and solutions are missed all the time because people in different parts of the organization don’t talk to each other. Why is this? The challenge with diversity is that the benefits are seldom obvious at first and the experience can be quite uncomfortable. As a result, the positive outcomes can take even longer appear. Let’s break this down a little:


1. The value of diversity is far from obvious. Test this by asking a bunch of sales representatives if it’s okay to bring someone from HR or Finance to the next sales action plan meeting. The most common response people give when hearing such a suggestion is ”why the hell would we do that?” It just makes no sense to them. And if you force them to let the “intruder” into the meeting, it may even appear to backfire: the “outsider” says nothing during the meeting (out of fear), or asks “stupid questions” about why people work in a certain way—both of which seem to confirm people’s notions of why it was an absolute waste of time to let them join the meeting in the first place.


2. Diversity is not comfortable. Spending time with people who think differently and act differently can be uncomfortable. Research from Tajfel and Turner has shown that this is because it goes against our tribal nature. Groups with more diversity (gender, ethnicity, class, education, etc.) tend to have lower levels of trust. The resistance from group members to increasing diversity can be particularly high when it feels forced upon them.


3. The positive outcomes don’t appear immediately. As a result of the the previous two issues, it can take a while before people see the benefits of diversity; either because the negative attitude dampens the benefits, or because the resistance clouds people’s ability to see the benefits that are sitting in front of them.


As explained earlier, the potential value of bringing together people with diverse backgrounds and perspectives is enormous. So how do we overcome these barriers?


It requires explaining to people in more concrete terms how they will individually benefit in terms of performance, how the organization will benefit in terms of reaching it’s larger goals, and how the customers will benefit in terms of the value they get. But this will probably not be enough. You also need to remind people of the shared identity, values, and goals of the larger organization that they all belong to.


Getting people to accept this message may require a significant amount of communication and, as with most things, patience. This doesn’t happen in one speech; it needs to be communicated repeatedly over a period of time. But it’s worth the effort. By catalyzing relationships between people who might not talk with each other otherwise, you can supercharge the power of your community.

Expanding Boundaries


Lastly, connecting people from within your organization to people from outside your organization is a true game changer. The highest-performing individuals and highest-performing organizations always stay connected to the world around them (Arie de Geus). They stay informed about mega trends and macro events that could effect their business by interacting and collaborating with people inside and outside their industry. The two groups that you could connect your colleagues with are friends and acquaintances you have personal relationships with, as well as people in societies/associations that you may belong to. This is a neighbor to connecting people who are different, in that you are connecting people who may or may not have similar backgrounds or competences, but they certainly work in different organizations or companies.

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Conclusion

A number of experts on networking advise caution when it comes to breadth; they say you should be selective when developing relationships, that you should have a specific strategic purpose, and that you should not waste time building unnecessary relationships with everyone. It is certainly true that you should be selective when thinking about who to engage and mobilize for a particular project or change initiative (see insight Stakeholder Mapping). But this only works if you have laid a foundation of genuine relationships from which you can mobilize. Otherwise, people will feel manipulated and exploited as a “resource.”


If, however, your goal is to create a stronger community at work, and you recognize that a community of relationships can be harnessed to achieve great things, then you should increase the number of relationships you have, the amount of diversity in your relationships, and the level of trust you have in each relationship.


The purpose here is not to add more things to your “to-do” list. Naturally, you have to prioritize your time, and everyone’s situation is different, depending on personality, role, how long you’ve been in the organization, etc. To avoid running in all directions, it’s probably easier to start by focusing on just one area. Start by identifying just one relationship to focus on.

Reflection Questions

In what situations do you try to connect two colleagues?

Which categories of colleagues do you tend to connect (Similar, Different, Internal-External)?

How receptive have people been to your effort?

What kinds of benefits have you seen?

Does your organization’s culture support or resist catalyzing relationships?

Challenge

Yourself

1. Are there two people in your organization who don’t know each other but would benefit from talking with each other? 


2. How would this help your organization?


3. How could you introduce them to each other?

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