While researching my book Creative Execution, I took a tour of one of Toyota’s assembly plants in Cambridge, Ontario – the first outside Japan to assemble vehicles from its Lexus brand. As I meandered through the labyrinth of RX frames being mated to their engines, something unexpected happened: the theme song from Disney’s It’s a Small World After All started chiming overhead, and the assembly line came to an abrupt halt as employees gathered around to figure out what to do.

The problem, as it turned out, was a small defect in the chassis welding process. The team worked together to fix the problem, and within 30 minutes the line was humming again. The anodyne Disney tune was, in fact, a signal to the team that the problem was related to welding. This musical mnemonic was a clue that the team should stop all its work and direct its attention to the faulty process.

I was struck by how quickly and seemingly effortlessly this Toyota team sprung into action, putting aside any of the individual team members’ agendas in order to resolve an issue that could, if left unanswered, affect all. How many times have you seen a potential issue arise in your organisation, only to see everyone run as far away from the problem and its source as possible?

In working with senior teams, the problem often gets worse: people’s need to ‘get ahead’ and distinguish themselves from their peers often overrides the need to ‘get along’ with others, which Dr Bob Hogan has identified as a fundamental leadership challenge. Left to their own devices, senior teams can and often do collude to ignore challenges that they perceive to be either outside their mandate or someone else’s problem.

What can CEOs and executives do to enhance collaboration among senior leadership teams? Below are some best practices together with five tips to allow you to fast-track collaboration:

1) Define collaboration.

Trust and collaboration are seen as the two most important ingredients of effective teams. But defining what collaboration means in your own business and culture could be miles apart from what Toyota calls collaboration. The worst thing a CEO or senior leader can do is declare collaboration to be essential to success and then fail to define why that is or what it looks like in action. If collaboration means having your entire team figure out how to solve day-to-day challenges without those being elevated to the CEO’s desk, you need to explain why that matters and how you expect the collaboration to manifest itself.

2) Be precise.

You’ve defined what you mean by collaboration, but now you need to identify what you want people to collaborate on. Identify two or three business priorities that require cross-functional collaboration, and treat those as you would any other priority, which means delegate, track and report back. And remember, not everything requires collaboration, so be clear and direct with your expectations.

3) Make space.

A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which cross-analysed more than 40,000 published papers and 2,350 patents, found that regular face-to-face interaction significantly increases the likelihood of people working together and collaborating. Creating shared open spaces for people to interact is key to highly creative companies such as Google and Apple. The likelihood of collaboration is cut in half when the distance between people shrinks by a mere 400 metres.

4) Encourage conflict.

The soft underbelly of collaboration is the need to encourage candid dialogue and allow conflict to surface in a productive way. For people to put aside their own need to ‘get ahead’, they need to be able to voice their opinion freely and disagree without fear of reprisals. In fact, one could argue that the main goal of the collaboration is to allow people with different viewpoints and experiences to solve problems together, which inherently means bringing opposite ideas to the table. That combustive mixture is what creates greatness, but can also lead to breakdowns without proper guidance.

5) Hold people accountable.

Collaboration done right isn’t a ‘nice to have’, it’s a business requirement. The integrity of Toyota’s famous production system depends on people stopping their work and solving defects before they get passed on to the next point on the assembly line. And the Toyota culture demands that people do this. When an ex-GM plant manager proudly told a senior Toyota executive that his plant had not experienced a shutdown once during the month, the Toyota executive rebuked him by saying “stop hiding your problems”. If you want true collaboration, hold people accountable for it, and reward them accordingly.

In 25 years of organisation development and leadership consulting, I’ve never met a CEO who disagreed that increased collaboration was a potential key to their future business success. But the companies that succeed in this journey are the ones whose senior leaders constantly look for ways to embed collaboration to make their business work, as Toyota did, rather than as a vague operating principle. It’s your turn to take those first steps.

Eric Beaudan

With 20 years of experience in leadership assessment and executive development, Eric brings a wealth of experience to Odgers Berndtson's Leadership Practice. Eric developed the LeaderFit assessment...

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