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

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It is very tempting, when faced with the complexity inherent in many collaborative ventures, to remain ignorant of the regular details and problems of the organization. One can always assume (or at least hope) that problems will be taken care of by someone else (other partners or employees who are actually running the venture). I have often found in coaching to and consulting with collaborators that no one is in charge. Each party assumes that the other participating organizations have taken care of particular operations or specific problems. This abdication of responsibility is often an even more serious problem than conflict over authority and control. It is very tempting for a busy business leader to forget for a while about that visionary (but marginal) partnership she set up six months ago. A coach-for-collaboration is there to remind her of this commitment.

Perhaps even more important than the quantity and timing of communication among collaborators is the skill required to make decisions and solve problems in a collaborative manner. This is another place where a performance coach can be of great assistance. Given that many leaders are accustomed to giving orders or at least to managing within a clearly defined, hierarchical structure, collaboration offers a new challenge. Senge speaks of the value of dialogue, as opposed to just discussion, in contemporary organizations.   When someone like Brian communicates through dialogue, he seeks out common understandings and shared values and visions, rather than trying to win over the other party or make his point (as one does in a discussion). Collaborations in particular need more dialogue and less discussion. Many organizational coaches today are aware of (and may have even received training in the use of) dialogue. Expertise in this domain of interpersonal relationships is of particular importance if one is to be a collaboration coach.

Coaching as a Venue for Achieving Competence

Collaborative ventures typically require new structures, new systems, new operations, and even new cultures. Each of these changes, in turn, necessitates the acquisition of new competencies by those who participate in these collaborative efforts. Any extended collaboration will inevitably involve learning for all parties involved.

Kanter focuses considerable attention on this element of learning in her study of successful collaboration:

Productive relationships usually require and often stimulate changes within the partners, changes that they may not anticipate at the outset of the collaboration. When two companies place themselves in intimate contact with each other through an alliance, it is almost inevitable that each will compare itself with the other: How do we measure up to our partner in systems sophistication or operational efficiency? What lessons can we learn from our partner? In fact, learning and borrowing ideas from partners is part of realizing the full value of the relationship.

Inevitably, new learning experiences will include the uncomfortable experience of making mistakes. In my own coaching and consulting experience I have rarely found mistake-free collaborative ventures. It is not critical that collaborators avoid making mistakes—it is only important that they learn from their mistakes and don’t continue to make the same mistake.  The first time an American business leader misinterprets the laughter of a Chinese businessman with whom she is collaborating as a sign of overconfidence, or even indifference, she can be excused; however, if she is to be successful in this international collaborative venture she must soon learn that this laughter may actually be a sign of embarrassment or resistance. She can only come to this realization by actively reflecting (with her coach) on her own interactions with her Chinese partner and by asking for feedback on her performance by colleagues who are more knowledgeable of Chinese culture. These two factors–critical reflection on one’s own performance and solicitation of feedback–are central to active learning in any organizational setting.  They are particularly important in complex alliances and are best facilitated with the assistance of a skillful organizational coach.

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