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Bees do it, so why can’t bee keepers and colleagues?

About the author

Eric is a freelance journalist who lives in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He is formerly a writer and editor at New Times in Fort Lauderdale and The Pitch in Kansas City, Missouri. His work has been featured by  the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

(iStockphoto)

(iStockphoto)

Kim Flottum has two sides to his life, one where utter precision and extreme collaboration rule, and another where people just can’t get along.

In one, he’s an amateur beekeeper, with 10 hives in his Ohio garden. Bees speak to each other using pheromones, or chemicals that communicate when the hive is hungry or needs water or needs to produce more workers. Even individual hives work together, agreeing on what land to cover , never competing.

In the other, far less agreeable side of Flottum’s life, he’s editor of Bee Culture magazine, a 141-year-old US publication with 20,000 readers. His staff of five gets along just fine — it is the beekeeping industry that’s so contentious because of myriad competing interests between amateur bee keepers, professional keepers and honey buyers. Each group employs lobbyists to argue politicians for different policies and each has associations that often try to undermine the others — despite the fact that they are all intimately involved in the same line of work and often have complimentary or similar goals.

“If you’re a beekeeper, once you leave the beehive, things can go awry,” said Flottum, who’s 72 and has been keeping bees for 35 years. “Our issues really get out of hand sometimes.”

In the workplace, you’re more likely to find employees acting like beekeepers than worker bees. Many companies – and most people, really – have an inherent cultural problem with working as a team. Yet cultures where team think is encouraged have their own difficulties, such as not speaking up when there are problems.

The secret to effectively leading collaboration at work is finding a middle ground between too much and too little team think, where managers encourage and oversee workplace collaboration rather than simply ask for it to happen.

In the US, assignments that require input from multiple people, or brainstorming sessions where the group decides a matter, are generally loathed. And that’s understandable. Consider the first time anybody asked you to work on a project with someone else. It was likely back in third grade, when a teacher paired you up with a partner to write a paper or build a contraption to drop an egg from two stories up. Chances are, one of you did all the work and the other sat back and took credit.

Those early sour experiences set the stage for disliking team projects in the future, says E Allan Lind, professor of leadership at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, in Durham, North Carolina. And few managers know how to help people collaborate more effectively.

“We often tell people to work together, but we don’t tell them how,” Lind said. “First, we have to be mindful that people working together is not a normal state of things (in the US).”

If better collaboration is your goal, you must start by teaching and inspiring front-line managers, said Mark Horwitch, a Colorado-based partner at global management consulting firm Bain & Company.

Bain preaches a “holy trinity” of tools the company says managers should use to improve collaboration – and thus better business in the long run: empowerment, openness, and co-creation. Those three things, if you think about it, really just boil down to giving employees control, being honest and then allowing those employees to work together to solve problems. They’re all basic ideas – but few managers know how to pull them off.

The companies that do it well – think internet search giant Google or design and innovation consulting firm Ideo – succeed where few companies have even considered treading: they trust employees.

“You have to believe that someone else’s idea can be better than yours,” Horwitch said.

To successfully promote collaboration, managers must actively endorse a business model where good ideas come out of working together. They must also demonstrate that real collaboration equals innovation, and be on the watch for communication breakdowns.

Managers must frequently check in with teams to watch for problem signs. Loud yelling is one. Insults? Also not good. Still, problems might not always be so obvious. A subtle breakdown can occur when, for example, the most creative and valuable team member is afraid to speak up while the least-creative employee is the most talkative. Good leaders will ask for regular feedback on member interaction as well as team progress, said Horowitz.

Managers must also encourage conflict – within reason, Lind said. Of course, shouting and name-calling is counterproductive, but opposing perspectives are valuable.

“Conflict is like the fire in the firebox of an old steam engine,” Lind said. “You don’t want the fire to get so hot that it gets out of the firebox, but you don’t want it to go out, either.”

Even cultures that have firmly established workplace collaboration habits can run into problems. Head to China, Europe, Africa and workers are more likely to feel like they need to be part of a team. In many countries, corporate culture is a near-opposite experience: ideas often come from a group and are vetted before they’re approved.

But all that solidarity also has a downside. In some Asian companies for which Lind has provided consulting services, employees are afraid to speak up and would never think of questioning a coworker’s idea, he said. This dynamic arises in countries which hew to Confucius-inspired principals. One principal: that professional success is based on being a cooperative member of the collective group. That can lead to a host of problems, from faulty products to failed proposals, when employees don’t speak up when they see problems.

Lind recently worked with an IT company in India, for instance, that had a simple request: its employees needed to learn to disagree with each other.

The solution, then, is somewhere in the middle. Find managers who can foster effective collaboration, and encourage and push employees to work together. Also have a structure in which collaborating workers can make suggestions, ask questions, and even cast doubt.

At Ontario-based software maker Igloo Inc, encouraging collaboration meant, in part, rewarding people for working together, said senior vice president Andrew Dixon. The company uses “gameification”, which rewards badges to employees who have succeeded at teaming up with coworkers to solve problems. The badges are then displayed on their inter-office intranet – good for bragging in the break room.

Igloo makes a computer program meant to help offices collaborate more effectively, and the itself firm has an extensive culture that promotes teamwork. Igloo’s chief executive officer insists that, rather than forward documents as email attachments, items be uploaded into the company’s own intranet “cloud” to be shared — creating a top-down expectation of collaboration and shared work efforts.

For instance, when a large retailer submitted a request for proposal, Stephen Rahal, Igloo’s marketing communications director, uploaded it to Igloo’s intranet cloud. “By working together on one document, the speed at which we can solve problems is much faster than before,” Rahal said.The company’s “request for proposal” then appeared as a shared document, with information and action items added from marketing and sales, and finally, a sign-off from a boss. The final proposal came together in less than a week and clocked in at 25 pages.  

“Employees need to know”, Dixon said, “that part of what makes you a hero is your contribution to the community.”

For Flottum, getting bee keepers to agree isn’t as easy. Take the issue of Chinese imports. Beekeepers convinced Congress to apply a tariff so that the US market wasn’t flooded by the cheap imports. But now buyers are having Chinese honey re-labeled in Malaysia, circumventing the new tax. If the beekeepers and buyers would apply the logic of the hive, they could come up with a middle ground, he said.

“What drives a beehive activity, all aspects of activity, is the perception of need,” Flottum said. “Those needs guide what each worker will do at every instance.”

If only it were that easy in the workplace.

Killer collaborators

Not many companies can pull off good collaboration, but those who do have plenty of reason to brag.

Ideo
Founder David Kelly is famous for throwing a bunch of people with divergent backgrounds together in one room and seeing if they can solve a problem. This diverse grouping of anthropologists, opera singers and engineers has created everything from the first computer mouse to the lavatory sign on airplanes.

Google
The company that now dominates web searching began with a textbook collaboration. Founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who didn’t like each other at first, worked together to create an algorithm that became the Google search engine. They then built a company that fostered and rewarded that same kind of working together.

Microsoft-Apple
There’s a perception that the two computer giants don’t get along, but collaborations between the two companies have created some of the industry best innovations. Consider that Microsoft developed Word for the Macintosh and Apple made the iPod compatible with Windows – two inter-company agreements that helped define computing.