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Collaboration is probably the word that buzzes around the businesses that I work with the most, but it’s also the thing that is most conspicuous by its absence. It’s presence is deeply missed and even craved by those who lack it. 
At times it will appear in all of its glory to create new ways of being and new opportunities, developing individuals and signalling transformation. Sadly, unless a culture of collaboration is embedded, it is a fleeting moment of magic. 
Collaboration often gets confused with cooperation, leaving people wondering why it doesn’t generate. It sometimes appears too onerous because it requires each department to stand firmly in ‘this is not about me or my department, this is about us and the greater good’. Occasionally, the tension that is created through the confronting impact of acceptance and vulnerability, of letting go, of selflessness, is too much to bear. 
I have lost count of the number of times my clients have stated that what is missing in their business is ‘Collaboration’. 
It is a subject I introduce in the context of selling and, as a Consultant Sales Director who leads over 120 sales professionals, I am outspoken on the importance of the modern sales professional collaborating with internal and external customers in order to both help their businesses thrive and smash their sales targets. 
In my experience reaching across 32 years in sales, I have found that the attributes that lead to outstanding collaboration are exactly the same attributes that lead to consistently exceptional sales performance. 
As buyers become more aware of purchase options, they develop stronger ideas about what they need early on in the sales process. Those of us who sell must change the way we approach and work with customers. Collaboration has never been so important. 

Collaboration and Systemic Integrity 

As businesses continue to become more complex, global and diverse, each part of an organisation is in high demand to operate effectively. Each department (or sub-system) equips itself with the right tools, resources and people to create an environment that establishes and maintains its systemic integrity. Aware of its position in the bigger system, it can now perform it’s intended function in a way that adds value to the overall goals and objectives. 
Additionally there are demands upon the business to minimise the impact of errors and/or bad decisions, as other parts of the system will have to have to re-direct important resources to deal with any breach. Not unlike the human body, if the integrity of any part of the sub-system is compromised, the organisation becomes weaker, less able to operate and compete. 
Collaboration connects parts of the system that need to be connected, so that the impact of an emerging challenge or the benefits of an emerging opportunity are experienced in such a way that taking the right actions at the right time, in order to maintain systemic integrity and avoid a crisis, is relatively straightforward. 
Collaboration happens through communication and with intention. 

Collaboration in Action 

In Client A, a senior Marketing Manager spent several hours understanding the Business Development Director’s (BDM) strategies and activities. One week later, the two of them met again, only this time the focus was on the BDM understanding the marketing strategy and activities. During the meetings, each discussed what was important to them, how they were driven, what is expected of them and why they choose to work in the way they work. They got deeply related personally and professionally. 
Once they achieved a strong level of empathy and understanding of the others world, they explored a new product opportunity and arranged to jointly meet three customers in one day. These were a particular type of customer persona who they had identified had a common costly problem. They were committed to creating a new product that would solve the customers problem and deliver over £100k per annum of efficiencies. 
They opened up with their prospects that they were collaborating internally to produce a product for his persona, and shared why and how they thought it would add value. They invited the customer to collaborate with them to produce something that would be mutually rewarding. Two of the customers agreed and they formulated a communication/action plan over 3 months, including meetings, workshops and conference calls with access to the senior decision making group on the achievement of certain milestones. 
Prospect 1 invited another stakeholder into one of the conference calls, and the team received insights that were worth their weight in gold in terms of crafting a new product. During the first meeting, they took care to fully understand the customers business, identifying specifically where the problem showed up and the overall impact of the problem across the organisation. The customer was pleased to answer all of the questions because there was sufficient context and the value of the collaboration was clear and quantifiable. In fact, the BDM later reported that the customer guided them on what questions should be asked in order to get to the optimal solution. 
Each party was clearly interested in maintaining and enhancing each other’s systemic integrity and as a result there were no issues or challenges around communication with all parties sharing freely. 
Over the course of 3 months of information gathering, consulting, testing and refining, the team validated the solution, created the business case, aligned the organisational and operational fit and galvanised support internally to deliver in line with customer expectations. 
At every step, the collaboration team were at pains to ensure the solution benefitted all parties sufficiently to justify the investment and outcomes. 
The team formed through a powerful mindset, which operated from ‘I collaborate with internal and external customers to provide world class solutions that provide excellent value for them and us’. 
As this empowering context took hold it extended itself internally and the same level of understanding reached to procurement, operations and I.T. As a result, product was bought 30% lower than initial expectations, I.T. were able to provide a solution that created additional value and 3 new product opportunities emerged during the process. Systems were aligned with customer input enabling the capture of valuable information at every step of the product lifecycle. Revenue generation for the vendor was able to commence more quickly than expected because senior management decision makers were involved in the collaborative process and the efficiencies were realised sooner than expected for the buyer. 
Once collaboration started in earnest the team were forced to ask questions they would not normally ask because they were no longer acting selfishly, in their silos, but selflessly. 
When I share this example of collaboration, I seem to gain whole hearted agreement that it clearly demonstrates a better way. More opportunities, innovation, shorter sales cycles, more acceptable margins, better products and greater knowledge of the customer. It works. 
Everything works when we understand each other. So why don’t we collaborate all the time? 
What happens in most companies I work with (typically between £10m and £50m turnover), is that a sales person completes a detailed campaign brief and passes it to the marketing department. The marketing department queues the brief and some time later some artwork examples and timings appear in an email to the sales team. The sales team tweaks and agrees timings. There is a conversation about target audience, look and feel of the piece, length of the campaign, the most suitable medium and how the campaign will be followed up. 
A couple of weeks later, it rears its head again and conversations about response rates and return on investment bounce around as each seeks to justify their actions and the costs incurred. They struggle to track the leads and have meetings about CRM systems and lead capture. There is nothing wrong with the intention, but what is missing is collaboration. They fail to get in the others world and they do not believe they can include their customers. 

What gets in the way of collaboration 

Meanwhile out in the world, we mostly operate from a context of fear, scarcity and competition, and this gives us a way of being that promotes non-collaborative behaviours, i.e. protecting, defending, controlling and forcing outcomes. In this paradigm, we have to fit in to survive. 
We erroneously believe that we get ahead through winning every competition, not by playing the game well. We overlook the fact that organisations thrive through internal collaboration. If the different parts of your body were competing, for how long would you survive? 
But perhaps the biggest obstacle to collaboration is failing to understanding the subtle differences between selfishness, self-interest and systemic self-interest. 
The selfish seek short-term immediate gratification with no thought for the longer term or broader consequences. Whereas the self-interested are more strategic; happy to forego what is instantly gratifying in order to get more later. They delay their gratification. 
Collaborators however are ‘Systemically Self-Interested’; appreciating not only the way that the parts contribute to the whole and systemic interconnections and interdependencies, but they also adopt a flexible identity, sometimes with a specific part, sometimes with the whole and sometimes with the whole beyond. 
As the whole is enhanced, we all become greater. True growth is not in our personal wins, but in our ‘systemic wins’, and the only route to this more evolved way of being, is collaboration. 
As a Consultant Sales Director, Speaker and Accredited Master Coach (CSA), Glen Williamson leads and inspires hundreds of sales professionals and new business owners to reach new height of sales performance. 
Taking his 32 years of experience in sales and business development, Glen develops methodologies that help SME’s and sales people to exceed their targets while transforming who they are being so that they can live happier, full and more fulfilled lives. 
Glen believes that sales is a collaborative process, part of who we are and how we survive, and at its core, must be a desire to ‘help’, not ‘sell’. 
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