About six years ago, I started a New Year’s tradition. I choose a word to center around for the year. I always write it down to memorialize the word. If a beach is conveniently nearby (and for some years it was), I would write the word in the sand and watch the waves slowly and rhythmically wash it away. It is a metaphoric and cathartic way to start the year.
For 2022, I chose a word that applies personally and professionally: collaboration. Coincidentally, collaboration is a theme on which McKinsey Legal is also hyper focused.
Collaboration, simply put, is how people work together toward a goal. It sounds ideal, but collaboration doesn’t always come naturally. It may require an egalitarian mindset that prioritizes the collective group over the individual. When collaboration is achieved, it invigorates and promotes creativity, trust, and growth among teams.
Collaboration became increasingly important during the pandemic, largely due to the unexpected barriers for in-person interactions. Physical distancing and office closures meant that many employees were no longer meeting in-person at the office. Instead, teams met virtually, which resulted in challenges with connectivity, alignment, and ever-present “Zoom fatigue”—where many workers felt exhausted after virtual meetings—even without commuting to the workplace every day.
While some perceived this as an impediment to collaboration, I saw it as an opportunity to intentionally think about why we collaborate and to innovate on how we collaborate.
Why is this concept so important? Collaborating, especially across physical distances, gives knowledge workers the chance to create better outcomes, optimize impact, and quite simply, enjoy how fun working with and learning from other brilliant minds can be.
How could teams collaborate? The specific how-tos may depend on the context, the goals, and the skillset of the team members themselves. In my own experience, I’ve found there are common elements that often flow through any successful collaboration: intentionality, transparency, and creativity.
Intentionality and efficient collaboration
Many are familiar with the adage: work smarter, not harder. The equivalent for collaboration is collaborate smarter, not more. The pace of technological change and its impact on legal and regulatory frameworks (like in the European Union) is constant and rapid. Lawyers are expected to not only be experts in their particular legal subject matter, but to also be adept at navigating the legal ambiguity caused by technological change and translate that ambiguity into pragmatic solutions for the business. But no one can sort through this kind of complexity alone. Collaboration increases the potential value add and insights you can gain to solve challenging problems in any situation. Even the smartest of experts should understand when to reach out to others to gain a fresh perspective.
Being intentional about who to contact, understanding what that person knows, and anticipating how that person’s knowledge could directly help solve the problem at hand is key to collaborating more efficiently. Be strategic and deliberate in identifying the collaborators brought in to help solve a problem. These choices will likely enable you to collaborate smarter and increase overall productivity for the team. In identifying co-collaborators, look for colleagues who are complementary to one’s skillset. Seek out diverse perspectives. This may help craft solutions in a more multidimensional approach and could reduce the occurrence of redundant capabilities.
This intentionality helps ensure that inefficient collaboration does not stymie innovation and productivity. It’s important to know when one’s own collaboration is not impactful, too. Recognizing when to lean in—when your opinion is essential to the collaboration—and when to lean out and give someone else the opportunity to lean in is an important skill to adopt and utilize. If you learn to recognize when you don’t have a role in influencing the outcome of a collaboration, it could help ensure the collaboration remains efficient.
Being intentional about when to collaborate and what projects you say “yes” to also could help avoid the strain of collaboration overload.
Transparency and feedback to help enable collaboration
In my own experience, a successful collaboration is built on transparency and communication. Each member of the team may benefit from having visibility into the goal or the scope of the problem and also what others are doing as part of that workstream. This could mitigate the risk of redundancy in tasks by the other co-collaborators while also potentially building trust. Collaboration will likely fail if knowledge is siloed, making information sharing a key element to enable collaboration.
Communication and feedback go hand in hand with transparency. Scrum, a decision-making framework that helps people collaborate via adaptive solutions, offers a good example of this. In a Daily Scrum, teams work together toward a collaborative goal and get immediate or near-immediate feedback as they attempt to problem solve.
This instant feedback lets teams know where their weaknesses are, how they can work better together, and how impactful their communication is with one another. Having access to instant feedback instead of a debrief at the end of the project or at year’s end means these kinds of teams will likely be more successful because they can iterate on the approach with each new phase of a project.
McKinsey has published a variety of insights on feedback to help increase communication and review effectiveness, and the legal team practices using this kind of approach as well. Getting and receiving feedback at a more regular cadence creates space for candid communication and, if done respectfully, can also build trust. Without transparency and trust, collaboration becomes more of an uphill battle.
Creative collaboration to empower teams to innovate
With the trust built through transparency and communication, we permit our co-collaborators to be creative. Creative collaboration can occur when teams work together to try something new, think outside the box, make mistakes and work together to rectify them, jot down ideas, iterate on improvements, be playful, innovative, and experimental in their work. It can even be accomplished when you do something uncomfortable or scary.
While there may be an established approach or process, creative collaboration challenges your way of thinking and empowers you to think about how prior approaches or solutions could be improved. Thinking creatively lays a foundation for the potential to create more opportunities for innovation and impact.
Here’s a challenge: for 2022, think about how you and your team collaborate. Be intentional. Be transparent. Be creative. It may positively impact how you work with others. Your subject matter expertise may expand or deepen. You could discover new ways of thinking and see things from a different perspective. You may start innovating on ideas and discover new and better ways for problem solving.
Most of all, you might even have fun doing it.