Management and strategy expert Peter Wood says the key to better communication and collaboration in business is having a shared vision.
Because of the recent pandemic, I suspect we’ve all lost touch with some friends in the last year or two. I know I have, and when I look back on out-of-touch friends I remember them by a specific gesture or a phrase or a smile.
Two climbing friends come to mind – I remember suggesting a big mountain objective to one, and she replied “Oh no, Peter, I wouldn’t be able to do that”. But her best friend looked at her and said “Hey Sarah, WE could do that!”. Think about that – “I wouldn’t, We could!”
“If you understand where you are going and what you are trying to achieve, communication and collaboration become easier and more fluent”
We can do things as part of a team that we couldn’t attempt or even conceive of as an individual. We set up companies and organisations so we can collaborate – their purpose is to achieve something that you, an individual, cannot do alone. So making sure your business team works together and that your company truly collaborates must be an essential element of your business strategy.
Even if you are a sole trader, you need to be able to collaborate and work with your clients. And you probably have a virtual team of partners and business associates, so you need to be able to collaborate with them. So, either way, sole trader or business leader, we all work in teams, and being able to say that “We” can help you is far more powerful and will resonate in a much more meaningful way with your clients than the single “I”.
Communication by business owners
I’m often asked about communication by business owners – “How do we get our teams to communicate better?” I think what they really mean is “How do we get our teams to collaborate better?” My answer is always the same – If you understand where you are going and what you are trying to achieve, communication and collaboration become easier and more fluent.
“As a business owner or leader, it’s essential that you understand your business map, and it’s essential that you are aware of the challenges that lie ahead”
Then, when your reach a crossroads and a choice arises, the question is not “Where are we going?” or “What are we trying to achieve?”, but the choice becomes the simpler question “Which route do we choose to reach our agreed destination?” When I meet a business owner for the first time I always delve into the same questions – “Where are you going? What route are you taking to your goal? What challenges lie ahead?” As a business owner, it’s essential that you have ready answers to those questions, and it’s essential that you have a clear route mapped out for the foreseeable future. But that’s not enough – your team needs to know the route as well. Understanding your destination, your route to that destination and making sure your team is on the same wavelength is a hugely significant step to creating a business that works together and one that is striving towards the same goal. It’s like a map for your business – it is, in other words, a business plan.
As a business owner or leader, it’s essential that you understand your business map, and it’s essential that you are aware of the challenges that lie ahead. And it’s your ability to communicate your vision that will inspire your team to walk that route with you to that goal. Your staff need to live your culture, know your brand, and understand their role in your plan so that they can transfer those values to your clients and be trusted to take the right steps in their role in your organization. Those values start with you, and it’s your responsibility to communicate those objectives and values to your management team and staff.
I’ve met a number of people who’ve climbed big mountains, including the biggest of them all, Mount Everest. Someone once said to me “A big climb like that is an engineering project and it needs a project plan”. To collaborate and work together on a big mountain, a team needs a clear sense of destination, knowledge of the chosen route and an understanding of the challenges ahead. But your leadership qualities and experience also play a role in the team’s ultimate success. You need an awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of each team member, and an awareness of the role that each will play in the anticipated success of the expedition. As a leader, you have to listen to the team, understand with empathy the personal challenges faced by each individual, and potentially adjust and adapt the role that each member plays in the ultimate attainment of that bigger goal.
The role of leadership
But you don’t just select the destination and hit “Go!” As a leader, you too have an active part to play in success – you’ve got to constantly enable and encourage collaboration. A good mountaineering guide will always be watching his team, and asking some simple questions – “Are we on the right route? Are we taking enough steps? Do we have the right resources?”
“Teams collaborate because they share a common goal, are aware of each other’s responsibility, trust each other, and are comfortable being held accountable by the rest of the team”
As a business owner, you’ve got to do the same – monitor your team’s progress on a regular basis, be aware of the steps being taken by each individual, and know in advance if those steps will add up to success for the team. It comes back to business planning, and making sure you have regular reviews (and if necessary revisions) of your business plan to ensure it remains viable. A team without a goal will find it difficult to focus – so that new goal you’ve just decided upon needs to be communicated with clarity to the team so they know that there is a new destination and they can re-focus and work in unison towards success.
And it’s also about having the right culture. Developing a culture of responsibility, trust and accountability where each team member is aware of their role (and the roles of the other team members) and where they work in unison to achieve that common goal is essential. Teams collaborate BECAUSE they share a common goal, are aware of each other’s responsibility, trust each other, and are comfortable being held accountable by the rest of the team. That culture of trust starts with you, the business owner. And it’s about developing a culture of accountability – and remember that you too, the business owner, are accountable as well. You cannot hold others accountable unless they realize you are accountable to your clients, to your suppliers, to your shareholders and to your business plan.
And lastly, after you have a viable business plan, and after you’ve developed the right team culture, it’s about installing the right systems, workflows and processes. Get it wrong – if the team doesn’t work together – installing new systems on top of dysfunctional relationships will only exacerbate problems – you may not solve anything, and you certainly won’t gain the full benefits of the new system. But get it right, and modern technology can be the greatest enabler of teamwork and efficient collaboration in any organisation.
I’m often asked by companies and associations to help them modernize systems, and my focus is always on the user – make it easy for the individuals, help them see the benefits and they’ll become champions for the new system. Make sure that what each individual does is part of a bigger process, and the individuals will begin to work naturally as a team.
Well-specified and well-implemented systems are a substantial part of putting your business on the road to success, but remember that no system is perfect, and it’s likely that some compromises will have to be made. And those compromises may mean that you, the business owner, may not get that report you’d love to have. But the balance should be towards the individuals – give them a goal and a vision, make the steps easy for them, trust them to do their job, and the team (and you) ultimately wins!