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Collaborating for Survival and Success: Organizational Coaching Strategies to Meet Unique Opportunities and Challenges

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Coaching as a Venue for Systems-Oriented Analysis

In traditional organizations, information typically flows from the top to the bottom. Authority is typically set at the top of the organization, and primary leadership roles are played by those who manage people working under them and control various operations. System theorists speak of the critical role played by the “leading part” in a system—that component of any traditional system that monitors, controls, and integrates other disparate and often highly specialized components of the system.  When it comes to collaborative ventures, these traditional functions are called into question as both unnecessary and inappropriate. With the help of a coach, leaders operating in new collaborative models can come to recognize (and adjust to) a major change: information in a collaborative venture tends to flow from side to side rather than from top to bottom.

There is an additional dimension. An organizational coach can help her client recognize (and adjust to) a related change in collaborative relationships: authority tends to be distributed (more) evenly or in a changing (and sometimes even ambiguous) manner among the partners. There is either no leading part in a collaborative relationship, or there are multiple leading parts and the collaboration itself provides the primary guiding, leadership function. A coach can help her client reflect on these shifting leadership dynamics and recognize when and where to be influential and a “leading part.”

All leaders of collaboration can take counsel from Rosabeth Kanter who concluded that successful collaborative ventures “cannot be controlled by normal systems but require a dense web of interpersonal connections and internal infrastructures that enhance learning.”  This dense web (in turn) requires frequent and clear communication, a respect for differences, and flexibility–ingredients that are not always present in the repertoire of a leader and ingredients that a coach can help reinforce and exemplify. Because there are fluid lines and bases of authority, collaborators can’t rely on written agreements or memoranda when communicating with one another. Authority shifts in subtle ways that often require at least brief in-person interactions among the partners. These interactions can be rehearsed and critically reviewed after the fact by a coach and client. Successful collaborations clearly require moving beyond the safety net of legal contracts (agreement-based collaboration) to a shifting, dynamic relationship based on trust and communication (commitment-based collaboration) and coaches can provide invaluable guidance and insight in helping clients engage this shift from agreement to commitment.

Coaching as a Venue for Operational Improvement

Successful collaborations require extensive and skillful interaction among the involved parties—and performance coaching increases the chances that this interaction will be successful.  Given that these ventures require the crossing of traditional institutional boundaries, communication between participants is particularly likely to be distorted and intentions are particularly likely to be misunderstood. This potential for miscommunication is even more likely to occur in the case of cross-cultural collaboration.  A coach provides a second set of eyes and ears that can reduce the chance that this distortion or misunderstanding occurs or remains unchallenged. Collaborative ventures of all kinds add stress to existing relationships, for they invariably bring up issues of control and authority. With the help of an organizational coach, collaborators can learn how to clearly, constructively and frequently talk about their relationships with one another regarding these sensitive and complex issues– for control and authority issues are never permanently resolved in a dynamic collaboration.

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