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Why companies need employees to speak up, ask questions and share ideas

Over the last few years, many old-school views of corporate communication and hierarchy have been overturned and continue to be scrutinized.

Leaders are less likely to hide behind closed doors and are now embracing open office concepts designed to promote more immediate, small scale, random collaboration.

In the past, employees would wait for meetings to interact with colleagues. Now meetings, like email, are considered the plague of office life. These are being replaced with more progressive and agile processes like standing, cross functional meetings called “scrums”. The social technology we use in our personal lives is being adapted for the enterprise. Software like Yammer, SalesForce Chatter, Jive, and the recent darling, Slack are transforming how we communicate in the workplace.

These technologies have been successful because they address a fundamental need – the need for people to communicate with the people they work with. More so, the need for fast and easy access to information, feedback, and to others. While these tools allow for more open communication across all levels of hierarchy and across silos, this capability hasn’t been fully realized yet. Currently, most of the communication that happens still remains in the boundaries of  smaller teams or horizontally across the organization. This sharing of communication enables people to work better and share ideas with those adjacent to them on the org chart — people with whom they work with already. But there is another fundamental need that is only starting to be addressed: the ability for organizations to collaborate vertically.

What is Vertical Collaboration?

Collaboration is two or more people working together towards a shared goal. Vertical collaboration then, is the ability for people who make decisions to work together with frontline employees towards a shared goal. Effectively, there is an element of co-creation between head office and the frontlines. Or, put another way, it connects strategy with execution.

Many organizations have a few people making decisions in head office, and a large number of people performing the work based on these decisions. Perhaps there are 150 people in head office, and 3,000 people on the front lines. Let’s indulge this oversimplification.

How do the large number of frontline workers not just communicate, but collaborate with head office? 

Often, they don’t because at scale, this is a tricky problem to solve. With so many frontline workers, and head office having so little time, what often happens is that head office does its thing, frontline workers do their thing – and the two operate somewhat independently.

What happens if you don’t collaborate vertically?

Well, it’s similar to the result when individuals and departments don’t collaborate horizontally: less productivity, less efficiency, and more frustration.  

Specifically, a lack of vertical collaboration may lead to decisions coming from head office that are off target because there wasn’t enough consultation with the frontlines who may have offered a better solution. If the frontline perceive a decision as being sub-optimal, they may be slow to adopt this change in behavior or fail to adopt it altogether. Secondly, there may also be a lack of alignment from the frontlines, especially if the decisions coming from head office don’t feel like they consider the frontline employee’s point of view. This is similar to the previous point, but slightly different. The first point is the logical brain rejecting the new change based on the merits of the idea itself. They believe the new idea is a bad one,  so they are hesitant to adopt it. The second point is the emotional brain rejecting the change because it feels like it is someone else’s idea being forced on them.  They are hesitant to adopt it because they had no say in it,  and possibly the idea is coming out of left field for them.

So to sum up, a lack of vertical collaboration may result in a lack of adoption of new programs and a lack of alignment. I don’t think it is coincidence that these are also some of them most frequently cited challenges that companies face when dealing with their frontlines.

What’s needed for vertical collaboration

For an organization to collaborate vertically,  you need a lot of the same things as to collaborate horizontally. First, you need the desire, recognition from leadership that changing this behavior will add value in the long term. For most top leaders the concept of collaboration is a no-brainer. It’s obvious. Inevitable.  

Once the organization takes a stance the collaborating is valuable, the next step is to provide people with the tools and structure necessary to take on this desired behavior.  

Finally, like all new things, the desired behavior needs to be reinforced throughout the workplace.It must become part of “how we do business.”

Final Summary

The leaders of today can’t be expected to make perfect decisions about things that happen in the trenches they don’t occupy. Likewise, the employees of today can’t be expected to stick around and work for a company that doesn’t show a genuine interest in adapting based on the insights of people closest to the work.

A company that performs below its potential will be a company where the employees think the plan is flawed because it was written by someone without their input.

A company that performs to its potential is one where plans are created and work is executed incorporating the best from all parts of the organization, especially up and down.

Harness the power of employee ideas.

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