In the second of their emerging series of blogs, Sarah Coleman, Vicki Griffiths, Ian Cribbes and Tim Lyons continue  their activity of gathering and collating stories and insight drawn from the P3M community.

Ian Cribbes 3

Collaboration means ‘to work with another person or group in order to achieve or do something’ Perhaps this sounds decidedly simple – let us simply meet, discuss and do!!  In business collaboration is fundamentally about the coordination of the efforts of the employees to meet the goals of the organisation. However, when an organisation becomes siloed it usually results in poor collaboration with the result of wasting time and money.  Departments and whole organisations can become blinkered, failing to recognise the benefits on offer with constructive collaboration.

Whilst collaboration is at the heart of everything we do, at times it’s nearly impossible to make it work. Dealing with people brings to the fore how humans interact; ineffective communication, different priorities / objectives.  Add to that the issue of remote teams and teams with a totally different method of operation.

With the advent of the lockdown within the UK due to the outbreak of the COVID 19 virus collaboration took on a new dimension.  In the first instance non-essential workers were asked to work from home – no more discussions across the desk, no more chats at the coffee machine.  Zoom meetings became the norm.  It is without doubt some found this difficult to adjust to, to cope with the feeling of ‘isolation at work’ whilst others adapted quickly and found the experience refreshing.  The ongoing communication and collaboration within teams became critical and the use of scheduled team meetings was important – remembering to include time for social interaction (as there would have been during an in-office meeting).  Meetings with clients / customers needed to be carefully thought through with one of the main considerations being the software used (Zoom, MS Teams, GoTo Meetings etc).  Within our Church organisation, the services were quickly adapted to be streamed via Zoom with daily reflections on YouTube.  To retain some measure of social interaction a time of social ‘coffee break’ was implemented at the conclusion of the service, this comprised of ‘all together – small break-out groups – back together’.  Before long we had organised Quiz Nights, Talent Shows, Coffee mornings to ensure communication was maintained with the wider congregation.

The second aspect of the lockdown was within the wider business environment. Dealing with clients and customers and then the added challenge of the ‘competitor’.  Governments around the world quickly called for and enabled a collaborative approach. The EU asked streaming platforms to limit their services and offer only standard definition, rather than high-definition programs, to prevent broadband networks from crashing. In some areas conduct that would most likely, under normal circumstances, be considered anticompetitive could be allowed at least on a temporary basis. The UK Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) allowed supermarkets to cooperate on opening hours and share data on stock levels to meet food supply challenges.[1]

One question that springs to mind is “why collaborate, particularly with competitors”?  In times of crisis just as with COVID 19 then the underlying rationale ought (must) be ‘to meet public health objectives, to serve the greater public in ensuring that their needs are met’.  There needs to be an understanding that any such collaboration is a temporary measure and that businesses with resort to a competitive nature once the crisis has passed.

On 21st and 22nd March, military planners and NHS England staff visited ExCel in London to “determine if the armed forces could support the NHS response to the outbreak”. Plans to create the hospital were announced in a press briefing on 24th March with the first patients being admitted on the 7th April – a mere 18 days from initial conception; an amazing effort of collaboration between the NHS the armed forces and the contractor (CFES).  Undoubtedly each of these organisations had their own idea of how this project should proceed, if they had not been willing (able) to put aside normal modes of operandi, to keep away from siloes, then perhaps we would still be waiting for the Nightingale Hospital.

One aspect of collaboration that many may have not realised has taken place is that of delivery of post and parcels.  Along with the Royal Mail the vast majority of the parcel delivery organisations have worked together to ensure a reliable delivery service to the public without the issue of more than one representative from the various organisation arriving on the doorstep at the same time.  Here is a clear example of a range of competitors working together for the greater good of the general public without shouting about it.

Ian Cribbes 1From a personal perspective I am involved in the Programme Management of the conservation of a Grade 1 Listed Church (circa 950 years old). The current Project, within the Programme, involves a major scope of work on the main nave floor. In order to achieve numerous levels of permission for the work the project was two years in the planning stage. A number of contractors are involved in the work with a carefully defined critical path and interdependency agreement. Suddenly we were in lockdown – some of the contractors were allowed to continue to work, others not so. Then the Bishops within the Church of England ordered that all Churches ‘lock their doors – no entry for anybody’.  Two weeks ago, this restriction was eased meaning contractors could re-commence their work although some remain in a period of semi-lockdown.  The way each of these organisations worked together – collaborating with each other – in order to continue the works but still observing the 2-metre social distancing protocol with the aim of achieving the end result was a joy to behold.  We are not there yet with regards the full completion of the project but thanks to the collaboration of the contractors we are well on the way.

Ian Cribbes 2In these unique times within this pandemic there undoubtedly a number of lessons to be learned, collaborative working is one that should be addressed.  Perhaps a revised definition of ‘Collaboration’, based on efforts by many during these times, could be: ‘Laying aside one’s differences, breaking down of siloes, adopting an open-minded approach, seeking the best solution.’

As we move out of these times it will be interesting to reflect on how we managed to cope, how collaboration worked – or didn’t within our own organisations and teams.  Please feel free to offer your thoughts and lessons learned.

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Ian Cribbes – FAPM, 16 June, 2020