Chad and I had a great asset going for us when we started our first company – we didn’t know what the hell each other did. He could program, I could sell, and we realized that each other was really good at doing what they did. It inadvertently allowed us to avoid one of the mistakes I see a lot when I’m working with both a) brand new entrepreneurs who aren’t exactly sure how to craft a solid company dynamic and b) large companies who want all of their employees to feel involved. What Chad and I avoided was over-collaboration because (in this case) we HAD to let each other focus on his expertise.
There is a duality that exists in that you want to be inclusive with your employees, advisors, or assistants, but on the other hand, a CEO probably has some pretty strong rationale for a decision that he or she would make independent of anyone else’s input, because it’s informed, mostly correct, and can be made far faster than a collaborative effort. So where should collaboration fall in the world of decision making? I offered my advice recently with a client who was erring too far on the side of over-collaboration.
What she would do, every Monday, would be to sit down with her entire company and have a “brainstorming” session on how to improve the company. Now don’t get me wrong, she was getting some pretty good ideas, and smart ideas out of the sessions, but there were several problems, too. One was that there was never a consensus agreement on which direction to pursue, and another was that sometimes the ideas were well meaning, but simply off the mark based on the fact that the employee wasn’t privy to information (like finances, or legal ramifications) about which my client was cognizant. Thus, much of the goodwill coming out of these meetings fizzled shortly after the meeting, and one unwanted result for my client was that her employees were noting that none of these ideas were being implemented, and they were starting to get discouraged because of perception that “the boss didn’t care.” My advice to her was that she needs to come into those meetings with a concrete idea first, based on HER expertise running the firm, and let the group feed off an idea that was ALREADY vetted for fiscal, legal, and logical feasibility. Since she is in a little weekend musical group, I offered this analogy:
It’s kind of like a professional band in which you have a singer, a guitarist, a bassist, and a drummer. Generally, the initial stage of a song is to start with some type of rhythm and beat, which the drummer and bassist hammer out. The guitarist can hammer out the key, and the melodies, and the singer writes the lyrics. (For the record, this is a general idea of how a song is written, so I do realize that you die-hard musicians out there could destroy my layout up there!) But for sake of conversation, there’s a reason four people in a band can work like this. It’s collaborative, yes, but the song doesn’t necessarily originate with four people sitting in a big room with a couple instruments and nothing written, and having a big giant brainstorm about the first note of the song. You have to let each member of the band bring their particular level of expertise to the table, and let them lead that piece of the song.
That band, however, engages in a GIANT amount of collaboration once some of the general principals of the song are settled. You record a session, you go back, listen to it, and get in a huddle about what did and did not sound good. Whole parts are scuttled or reworked, and where guitar riffs don’t exactly match the beat, perhaps those are rewritten. Perhaps the syllables in the chorus are off, and a few words need to be arranged. After all, you have a group of professional musicians all whom can add an overarching intelligent musical commentary to the buildup of this song. THIS is the stage where collaboration lends the most muscle to the band (or company), when you already have established a strong foundation of where you’re headed.
When she started to enter meetings with a topic off of which to springboard ideas, things improved dramatically, both for actual time saved, and also for the fact that they had been "pre-vetted" to be able to put some of these things into motion. And that improved employee morale, too. Remember, you’re the head of your company, you’ve probably been there a pretty long time, you probably know more nuances about your company than almost anyone else, you probably know why your clients buy, what your business can and cannot do, know who you can target, where you’re inefficient, which of your employees know more than you in which aspects of the business, and where you can grow. Don’t shelve all those things just to allow for a feel-good roundtable, but rather, start with those things and let collaboration eat at the details. That way you’re sure that the underlying foundation comprised of the “requisites” cannot be eroded.