It’s widely acknowledged that the more perspectives you have on a problem the better the outcome will be. Also many of the biggest business challenges we face such as inclusion and sustainability need collaborative solutions. The future efficacy of business and the planet depends on better collaboration. Law is no exception to this. But despite collaboration being a key skill needed in organisations, most of us still struggle to do it at all, let alone do it well.
In our Brave New Law series, we have been looking at some of the thorny issues facing business and law, then crowdsourcing ideas and tips on how to tackle them through discussions and workshops.
Here’s what our groups of general counsel from around the world talked about and shared on collaboration.
Lawyers and collaboration: a conundrum?
The focus on success or winning in both legal training and the wider profession is a significant challenge to collaboration. Collaboration needs to be taught, modelled and then rewarded when it works. Perhaps if leaders and all of us who are asked to collaborate recognised this, it would shift how we approach collaboration.
Some building blocks for successful collaboration
Leadership is central to successful collaboration. A common failing for leaders around collaboration is not understanding how complex it is and assuming it just happens. Leaders need to collaborate themselves, both to understand how it works, but also to role model what successful collaboration looks like!
Collaboration needs a purpose. Those who we ask to collaborate will then clearly see the reason for being asked to flex a skill that may not come naturally. When we ask groups to flex their collaboration skills, it may help to start by focusing on topics that they feel passionate about and that cross functional groups may gravitate to forming around. These could be topics that are not central to an individual’s day to day roles but actually are of fundamental importance such as sustainability and inclusion.
- Not me, but us
The ability to set aside one's own ego. It can’t be a competition where someone will have the best ideas. It’s likely that the best idea will be a combination of a number of ‘best’ ideas and maybe a few wacky ideas or even ‘bad’ ideas that became good ideas when combined with something else! To help achieve that selflessness, it makes sense to have a laser focus on what the collaboration is trying to achieve or its purpose.
- Avoiding Group Think
Our discussions recognised that collaboration is not about complete consensus. Where the magic in working together comes from is when there are different points of view and these ‘spark’ off each other to create a new idea or way of looking at something. Trying to rush towards blind consensus can mean missing important aspects of collaboration. That’s why having diverse points of view is absolutely central to successful collaboration. For those, who collaborate, understanding others’ different views may lead to insights we could not have reached on our own.
How are in-house lawyers using collaboration?
In-house lawyers collaborate in a range of ways; the three most obvious are collaboration in their own teams (particularly challenging for larger and more geographically diverse teams); collaboration across their organisation with other colleagues and managing cross-collaboration with outside suppliers.
- Internal collaboration with the wider business
Internal collaboration with colleagues can be hampered by historical preconceptions or stereotypes about legal, but successful collaboration can be a way of dispelling these. People like to do business with those they like and can relate to. A key experience shared by all was that it’s important to build relationships with colleagues. This means being interested in their business area, going to meetings and also meeting them in a 'non-legal' situation.
If colleagues only interact with lawyers in a 'legal' conversation, then lawyers will never build relationships with them or reach that trusted advisor status where they are viewed as someone that they feel comfortable collaborating with. It’s also important that in-house lawyers can, when appropriate, find things to unlock for the business, not just saying no to things. Doing this can really open up collaboration.
- External Collaboration
Roles, responsibilities and expectations play a big part in achieving successful external collaboration particularly between different external suppliers. The general counsel or in-house lawyers running the project are central in leading the collaboration and setting the framework for successful collaboration: one example was of external counsel signing up to 'guidelines'.
Demonstrating that external collaboration is expected not just desired and measuring how well external suppliers are collaborating drives success. Clients could ask how law firms reward their people for collaboration/finding solutions for clients, rather than just winning work. One legal team, which has made collaboration central to many of their functions, has renamed this "high performance teaming" – the general counsel has made it very clear that the expectation is to 'co-team': this includes external providers as well as internal members of the legal team. Another general counsel visits their law firms; eschewing the client floors, to see how lawyers work together on the lawyer floors, getting a feel for how they collaborate and how they operate.
This is where technology is also an important tool, to make it clear how work is assigned and who has responsibility for work streams. Most general counsel felt the biggest pitfall with technology was thinking that it would magically create collaboration: it’s not a magic bullet you still have to do the leg work on the human centred skills.
But use collaboration wisely
A final caveat: moderation is all. True collaboration is hard and energy sapping because it's about being selfless and looking at a higher purpose. Leaders and teams need to design collaboration opportunities effectively to maximise success. What won’t work is expecting collaboration to just happen all the time or that it can be open ended. For this reason, many participants felt it was best deployed on particular projects, projects where purpose, outcomes and roles can be defined and managed.
Written by Catherine McGregor, Author, Consultant and Thought Leadership Expert.