As a specialist function, in-house legal teams need to collaborate with others.
There is also a plethora of online tools available to make collaborating easy for us to use. So, we should all just start collaborating, right?
If only it was so straightforward! In practice we can find that there are often barriers to successful collaboration. Identifying what these barriers are is usually the first step to removing any hurdles and driving easier collaboration that has more impact.
There are a number of barriers to collaboration which commonly occur across different organisations.
Lack of time
Even though in many cases effective collaboration saves time, ironically a lack of time is often a key reason why collaboration doesn’t happen. In-house legal teams (and indeed most employees) are extremely busy and, simply don’t have the time to set up the mechanisms for effective collaboration. Even if there is an easy route to collaborate, the daily rush of operational matters can still stymie collaborative effort. Often, it’s a question of putting time aside to make it happen.
Lack of scope and focus
Collaboration is quite a high-level term. We all know it’s something we should do, but often a desire and intention to collaborate more is so woolly it’s meaningless. Who should we collaborate with? How should we collaborate? What should we collaborate on? Where should we start? Not having an actual focus for collaboration can be a barrier.
It’s much easier to actually focus on a set goal, perhaps a project or improving an inefficient process, and then have collaboration as a working style or enabler to get that end goal. Having scope, focus and specific objectives gives momentum to collaboration and generally leads to activity rather than vague intentions.
Some organisational cultures lend themselves much better to collaboration than others. There are a range of influences on culture which can make collaboration more difficult. For example, where there is a strong risk culture, where all time is recorded and non-chargeable time is (unofficially) frowned upon, and where cost centres are encouraged to compete against each other, collaboration may be less straightforward than it should be.
People and politics
Sometimes it’s not the culture of your organisation, but an issue with a function, a team, an individual or a relationship. Not everyone is up for collaboration; personal preferences and office politics can also prove to be a barrier.
Tools and facilities
Sometimes culture is not always the issue. There may be a real desire to collaborate, but the tools you use or the facilities you have access to could be the culprit. Perhaps you don’t have an effective meeting space to use, or your online collaboration toolset is clunky, slow or so difficult to use that nobody really wants to use them? Usually if the tool or facility is the barrier then there is usually at least a clear path to remedy the issue.
The need for confidentiality, or concerns over confidentiality, is a real barrier to collaboration, particularly when working with third parties or those external to your organisation. Sometimes if it’s unclear or there is the potential for rules over confidentiality to be broken, then people will be reluctant to collaborate. This is clearly a major area for in-house legal teams where the majority of the work will be highly confidential and sensitive.
It can be a challenge to collaborate across different locations and different time zones. Although there are a lot of different tools which can help make remote collaboration much easier, there are some people who still find virtual collaboration less successful than face to face meetings and find the lack of proximity challenging.
How do you remove the barriers to enable collaboration?
Some of these barriers are difficult to manoeuvre against. Personal politics and organisational culture are not going to change overnight, but taking a clear, process-led way to collaboration which incorporates feedback and buy-in from those involved can reap dividends. For example, you could take the following steps:
1. Prioritise a high value activity to collaborate around
First of all, identify what you want to achieve. Make it something specific. Perhaps there is a department you work with closely where you could work better, or there is a working group with a specific aim. Perhaps your team has a long-standing objective to reach or output to produce that requires closer collaboration between you all. Whatever you choose, make it high value and where closer collaboration has obvious advantages.
2. Get feedback from those involved and identify barriers
Work out what you’re going to do. Identify who’s involved, the collaboration style and tools you have available to use. As part of this process, make sure you get feedback from everybody involved about how you can work together better. When you talk to others make sure you identify any barriers or potential issues. Involving everybody and canvassing opinion is not only critical for getting information to help plan your collaboration, but also helps drive the buy-in of the participants.
3. Provide clarity and try and remove any barriers you can before you start
Before you start, provide some clarity to everybody about how your collaborative project is going to work. There may be some obvious barriers you can remove. For example, making sure there’s an online tool that works for everybody and which is easy to use, and isn’t too clunky. Perhaps some of those involved are addicted to email, so you need to find an online tool where users can email documents into a collaboration space? You can also set some ground rules and expectations, give out roles, suggest everybody’s time commitment and so on.
4. Get up and running
In truth most of the barriers to collaboration won’t emerge until you start collaborating, so you need to get up and running. Getting started is the key.
5. Iterate as you go
Assess how everything is working as you go. Do you need to make any changes? There is plenty of room to experiment here. Perhaps see what everybody else thinks and then iterate as you go. The secret here is to be flexible, iterative and inclusive to find the optimum way to collaborate, and also to ensure you don’t let things fizzle out. Keep up the momentum with collaboration.
Collaboration is important and rewarding, but it’s not always easy. If you have the will, set aside a little time, find the right scenario and involve everybody it’s perfectly possible to remove or reduce the barriers which can inhibit successful collaboration. From there you can then start to repeat patterns of collaboration that work, and build on relationships inside and outside your organisation, that will benefit everybody.