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We hear all the time that collaboration is the key to success in so many business endeavors, particularly procurement. If you believe the business and trade press, collaboration has never been more important than it is right now for maintaining a competitive edge in a global, commoditized economy. We all know there’s a need. What is seldom talked about is how to be a great collaborator.
Some of us are naturally better at this than others, but everyone can learn and improve. Here’s how to be a collaborative partner that achieves results and that people seek to work with again and again.
1. Listen. This is the most important thing you can do. If you want someone to engage with you, spend most of your time listening. Get to know each player, their take on the subject matter and their goals for the project. Find out what they want to know about your role and your process, but let them lead the conversation.
There’s a big difference between people that listen to respond and people that listen to comprehend. The former are just waiting to talk. The latter have set aside their agenda in order to learn. Be the latter.
2. Make it about them. When you go in to meet with someone you should have done your homework, and have developed some general ideas about what you’ll be doing together. It would be disrespectful not to.
But don’t show off your scholarship. Consider it background and keep it there. If you have an hour meeting scheduled, spend at least 45 minutes of it listening. It’s almost like interviewing a job candidate. The goal is to get them to talk about themselves.
3. Talk to the right people. Ideally, conversations you’re having include the ultimate decision maker, or someone close to that person. Otherwise, it's like a game of telephone: As the story moves along, it changes, and it’s a challenge to figure out what the decision maker really wants.
If you're not able to work with the ultimate decision maker, make sure you create clear, comprehensive documentation of conversations, requirements and timelines. It doesn't need to be a novel, but you make sure progress recaps of go off to all stakeholders and the decision maker so they can concur or say no, that's not what I'm looking for.
4. Take notes. Because it’s hard to listen to comprehend and take notes at the same time, have a scribe in the meeting. They don't have to have a tag on their shirt that says “Hello, I'm the scribe,” but you should agree beforehand on your roles. The scribe should not talk or ask questions. At the end of the meeting, turn to the scribe and ask, “Before we end, is there anything that we need to clarify or get more information on?” That’s a great way to cement understanding and wrap up the meeting.
5. Look for areas of agreement. Do this intentionally, with the goal to agree more than you disagree. It sounds basic, but what often gets in the way is the desire to show off your own expertise. Resist temptation.
We all want to be respected for our knowledge, but if you come off as a know-it-all, people won’t share with you and you won’t get the information you need to be successful.
6. Postpone conflict. Keep in mind: The customer is not always right but they're always the customer. You want your collaborative partners to be right as often as possible. If there are areas where you disagree, or issues you think are going to be contentious, don’t confront them in an early meeting. Postpone them until later in the process.
Keep an open mind, and probe to fully understand their point of view. Think on it, and maybe have an internal conversation. You might find that you're not right; there might be a way to look at it differently or to come to an agreement that honors all points of view. I’ve found that often the original request or description of the project - or your understanding of it - was inaccurate. That’s a good reason to take a wait and see attitude on potential conflicts.
7. Sell, don’t tell. Draw your partners into the process and help them understand how value is being created. Timelines are a good example of something to sell, not tell. Don’t just say, this project is going to take six months. It’s too big a leap. It may in fact take six months, but if you say that without walking through the steps that you have to go through to get there, that seems like an inordinate amount of time.
Ask your partners about their goals and deadlines, resource availability, data to gather, research to do and the level of involvement they want to have and describe your process. You want to arrive at the timeline together, not just roll out a number that leaves them scratching their heads and wondering why on earth it would take so long.
8. Give credit, never take it. People tend to be quick to say what they did. The reality is they only did it with help from other people.
Allow the credit to go to the other players. Take satisfaction in hearing somebody else talk about what was accomplished, knowing that your participation helped them to get to the end result. Be sensible about communicating with the right people in the organization (such as your boss) your hand in the results that were achieved.
It’s amazing how many of these skills mirror the skill sets used in personal relationships. Collaboration skills may fall in the realm of soft skills, it is key a driver of business value. Master the art by following these tips from the first meeting to the close of the project and you’ll become a highly sought after partner and ever more interesting opportunities to add value to your company, and your career, will come your way.
Jack Miles is an advisor known for his experience developing and executing business strategies and his ability to deliver operational excellence in functions which typically under perform in most companies. He has lead procurement teams in both the public and private sector and is a member of Coupa's Visionary Council.