Cooperation – everybody’s talking about it, but who actually does it?
“We’ve been talking about adopting a horizontal and cooperative approach for a long time,” a branch manager of a French group based in South America told us. “Cross-selling, cooperation, working horizontally, exchanging best practice, managing change, joint development sometimes even with a competitor—no one is against any of this but are we ready for it? Take cross-selling for example. Intellectually it makes perfect sense. The idea is even exciting. But why would salespeople jeopardize a client relationship they have developed over time by sending in a colleague from another part of the business, that they don’t even know, to that client?
For many of us, working across silos means first of all that decisions take more time, things are more complicated and given the matrix organization it implies, that no one knows who’s responsible for what. Still, we all feel that it’s important and even essential to being competitive. But first we need an organization and people who are trained to deal with this approach.
We’re talking about the need for a real cultural revolution.”
FOUR REASONS FOR ENCOURAGING COOPERATION
This manager’s views are widely shared. Thus, international companies and organizations face four major challenges that put cooperation right at the heart of their objectives:
Exchange best practices
Cooperation is first and foremost about not “reinventing the wheel”. Companies want to see the knowledge and know-how they already have shared globally. But how to get there? Databases and IT systems are enough. Achieving this goal requires a culture of systematic exchange and communication.
Managing horizontal projects and global functional units
Cooperation is all about working together, across cultural, departmental, national and organizational barriers.
In other words, it’s about letting go of silos without letting go of specialized units. The fact that more and more companies work in project mode and through the support of global functions make cooperation a core management and leadership competence that the best international companies have developed and implemented.
Speed up the pace, be the first
Cooperation means dropping the slow, cumbersome because sequential ways of working. Instead companies must synchronize skills and expertise, whether in one geographical location or remotely, in order to produce high quality results that are flexible enough to meet local requirements where they will be implemented. By bringing together different skills and points of view right up front, the solutions are more likely to respond to the diversity inherent in international business.
Develop a culture of performance
Cooperation breaks down barriers and then leverages company culture for competitiveness and performance. Encouraging cooperation, implementing enabling processes and demonstrating its benefits are all about fundamental culture change. After all, corporate culture is the result of the attitudes, aspirations and behaviors of the people who make up the company, not the other way round.
THE SIX PRINCIPLES OF HORIZONTAL COOPERATION
In a world of mergers and takeovers, of total or partial integration, reasons for working in isolation are just as convincing as reasons for cooperating. It’s “them” and “us”. The drivers are often cultural but they can also be political or geographical, as studies of post-merger integration show. Everyone wants to hold on to authority over their own domain. Horizontal communication is basically perceived as a way of tightening central control and not as a way of improving collective performance.
ICM has worked with its clients on promoting and implementing horizontal cooperation projects for over 25 years. We have learned a great deal from our experience and we’d like to share some of that with you today.
Focus cooperation where it is required
Working horizontally is not a fad to keep up with. And it requires a large amount of resources. So deciding where to cooperate depends on your company’s strategy. Your strategy will tell you whether cooperation is required within global functional units, within support or operational units or across transverse projects.
Promote leaders who make cooperation meaningful
Working together is all about recognizing the importance of shared goals and giving meaning to collective action, above and beyond borders and silos. One of the critical leadership qualities for driving horizontal cooperation is the ability to act beyond personal interests. Leaders have to share goals and then involve those who have to implement them in defining what they mean.
Identify the specific benefits for all stakeholders
Keep one simple rule in mind: people cooperate effectively if they get something out of it—whether for their department or for their functional unit or for themselves. Without that, forcing cooperation continues to be seen as a constraint or an underhanded form of control. Buy-in crumbles especially since cooperation comes at a cost, in terms of time spent, trips taken and people. To get that investment, the benefits have to be clear.
Agree how it’s going to work
For cooperation to work, different stakeholders have to agree on how they are going to implement it. By discussing this up-front, they will find the appropriate balance between their own specific needs and collective ones. Everyone will feel heard and respected. Once this is achieved, the different stakeholders can then define the practical steps for implementation.
Measure the impact of working transversally
It makes good sense to measure the results of cooperative work. In this way you will establish credibility and embed processes required for long-term success. Involve teams in identifying the challenges, the drivers and potential roadblocks. And then measure the objective benefits of cooperation and communicate these. They will contribute to culture change in a powerful way.
Impose cooperation and assess managers on how they implement it
It might seem paradoxical but without a non-negotiable stance on cooperation, old habits will quickly resurface. Imposing cooperation means demonstrating that working in this way is urgent for business development. Once that is done, it means assessing managers on their commitment to support cooperation by integrating this into their performance appraisal process and applying the appropriate recognition or sanctions.
IMPLEMENTING COOPERATION AND HORIZONTAL WORK PROCESSES
WHAT ICM BRINGS OUR CLIENTS
When ICM is involved in introducing cooperation with global operations or support functions or an international project team, we follow a five-step approach:
ICM puts a questionnaire online that measures how different stakeholders feel about cooperation. The questionnaire evaluates the current state, the awareness of need, degree of resistance and perceived difficulties, past experience, the “power” of silos, expectations concerning working horizontally and how well people understand what’s at stake. After this baseline assessment, we make an annual shorter on-line questionnaire available to monitor the progress and effectiveness of horizontal cooperation.
ICM runs a seminar with an ad hoc team to define and formulate the principles that are required to make cooperation work. Whether we’re talking about global functional units, regional or geographical entities, it’s essential to provide meaning by defining the drivers and objectives of horizontal cooperation. Managers can then communicate these principles widely throughout the company.
On the basis of these principles, ICM works with clients to identify the leadership competencies and behaviors required to link horizontal cooperation to financial performance. These are set down in writing so that they can be communicated and integrated into traditional Human Resources tools.
Bring the stakeholders together
We recommend bringing together the people who have to work together in a more integrated way to help them define their “Cooperation Contract”. This tool allows them to clarify and share the underlying needs of all stakeholders, to define objectives, action steps, ways of working together, as well as the behaviors and attitudes they will need to implement to make this work.
Assess your “Cooperative Leadership”
ICM provides a customized, 360° questionnaire that provides managers with feedback from all their “key partners” in the cooperation process. This tool helps each manager or project leader to assess his/her position with respect to the company’s cooperation principles and to identify a personal development plan.