The most common and obvious symbols will be pictures that convey implicit or explicit messages about collaboration. These pictures will usually show a group of people involved in a joint task and be often accompanied by a strap line or slogan emphasising the value of collaboration. A little less commonly used, but still obvious in its message, will be a "pregnant symbol" denoting nurture and growth (and implying, of course, the close cooperation needed to achieve them).
Job titles will be not only functional, indicating a person's role and responsibilities, but also symbolic; job titles that include words such as "partner", "mediator", "facilitator", "broker", etc., will symbolise the collaborative nature of people's day-to-day work. It is likely, however, that official job titles will be rarely heard during day-to-day interactions within a collaboration. Commonly, collaborators will emphasise their informal approach to relationships by being on first name terms with each other.
Also, people's positions within a collaboration (the titles and roles and responsibilities people take or are given) will be deeply symbolic. Prominent positions for specific people and groups, their precise natures dependent upon a collaboration's purpose and focus, will deliver powerful messages about inclusion, engagement and overall collaborative intent.
Women, business people, entrepreneurs, academics from various disciplines, local politicians, representatives of religious and community groups, people with lived experience of the problems a collaboration is endeavouring to address: all of these people, given the correct context and carefully and intentionally positioned within a collaboration, have the potential to become unambiguous symbols of a preferred way of dealing with people and doing things.
The above symbolic positioning of people within a collaboration is an example of a multi-dimensional interactive symbol: the people in these positions will be not only seen but also heard, and they will be people with whom others can interact.
Because these multi-dimensional interactive symbols impact people through multiple senses and in multiple ways, they are very powerful. Within a collaboration, they can be numerous and diverse. Here are five examples of where they can be found:
The language with which a collaboration communicates. Mutually agreed ways of describing key terms, concepts and processes, etc., will be consistently and routinely used. More generally, a collaboration's language (both spoken and written) will be accessible and engaging to internal partners and external stakeholders and other beneficiaries alike. This co-created and inclusive language, which will continue to evolve as various partners come and go and existing partners develop their relationships, will become a multi-dimensional interactive symbol of collaborative culture that gradually embeds itself within the minds of partners and proceeds to influence perceptions and actions.
The location, layout and style of accommodation a collaboration occupies. Where feasible, accommodation will co-locate key partners. It may also be embedded within a key partner's or stakeholder's community or locality.
The layout of the accommodation will be open plan and ergonomically sophisticated: there will be informal "mingle areas", personal privacy and "thinking time" areas, and (of course) collaboration areas.
In addition, the accommodation's layout will explicitly respect professional and disciplinary space by ensuring each partner's working area is designed to meet the demands of his or her discipline (e.g., by providing additional and appropriate space for partners' specialist equipment, etc., or by providing space where partners can safely store and discuss information that they are required to treat as confidential).
The symbolic messages associated with the above aspects of accommodation will gradually embed themselves in not only minds but also muscle memory, positively influencing partners' day-to-day collaborative activities.
The style and approach of meetings and events a collaboration attends and to which it invites others. Meetings and events will exhibit the following characteristics:
- There will be time set-aside for informal interaction.
- Openness and transparency will be the default position for all meetings and events. When confidentiality is required, the reasons for it will be made clear. Overall, confidentiality will be the exception that proves the collaborative rule.
- Inclusivity will be favoured rather than exclusivity. Where exclusivity is needed (e.g., where a small group of key partners needs to be created to expedite decision making), its process of creation will be open, transparent and jointly agreed.
- Engagement and interaction will be encouraged through the use of creative and participative techniques and approaches (e.g., Doughnut thinking, Two Circle Thinking, Six Hat Thinking and Open Space Technology).
- The style and manner of the chairperson of a meeting or the leader of an event will model and encourage the above characteristics and, therefore, be deeply symbolic of collaborative culture. He or she will, through his or her personal behaviour and approach, encourage openness and demonstrate transparency of decision making and action: he or she will clearly explain the reasons for decisions and actions, and why confidentiality may occasionally be necessary (and the areas and issues it will affect and in what way). The majority of a chairperson's or event leader's role will focus upon encouraging involvement and dialogue, mediating disputes and conflicts, and brokering relationships and agreements (including informal and formal trades).
Internally generated and co-created rules for working together and achieving things: rules that delineate the "collaborative way". These rules will focus upon how resources should be shared, how people should treat each other, how results should be achieved, and how people who break the rules should be reprimanded or punished. It will not be unusual for some of these rules to be unwritten and informal and policed through social interaction and personal relationships.
Rules will be simple and few rather than complex and many, focusing upon key aspects of a collaboration's activities.
The above rules will act as multi-dimensional interactive symbols that strongly influence partners to not only "do the right collaborative thing" themselves but also ensure others do likewise.
Commonly owned and co-created resources, which become significant artefacts of the collaborative culture. As collaborators work together, they will co-create new resources (e.g., analytical techniques, specialist equipment, new knowledge and theories, etc.) to improve effectiveness and help achieve outcomes. These resources will, reasonably quickly, become multi-dimensional interactive symbols of collaboration. Their daily use and management (the latter being about ensuring not only continued maintenance and updating but also continued common ownership and accessibility) will emphasise that they, and other things produced collaboratively, are precious in three ways: firstly, because they help a collaboration achieve its purpose; secondly, because they are of significant and often equal value to the people who worked together to produce them; and thirdly (and most importantly), because they provide powerful and motivational evidence of the synergies made possible through collaboration.
To read about the other characteristics of an effective collaborative culture, click here.