6 Characteristics of a Collaborative Organization


The biggest small business assets - brainpower and ideas.


Editor's note: this is part one of a two part series,


It is clear that today businesses, and by extension, the workplace are being redefined by a myriad of external forces. The demands imposed by increased global competition, a rapidly changing economic landscape and the speed at which we develop, use and adapt to technology have all lead to changes in the organization of HOW we work.

Leaders are finding that the traditional methods for driving operational excellence are no longer sufficient and that organizations must leverage existing employees in order to be more cost effective improve overall efficiencies and spur innovation.

This has led to the rise of new ways of thinking and the reinvention of old ways, for example, collaboration, a behavior as old as humans is rapidly finding it’s way back into business culture. The premise of collaboration is simple - an organized body of people working together towards a particular purpose or goal, in it’s purest definition, when people work together (co-labor).

How can organizations of any size work better, be more productive and gain velocity?

One of the main advantages that are derived through creating a culture of collaboration is the ability to leverage an organization’s biggest asset - your collective internal brainpower. Companies and organizations tend to be rich in ideas and innovative thinking - yet these are generally underleveraged. Why does that happen? Typically hierarchy and politics prevents these from rising to the top and these treasures tend to stay buried. How do you begin to uncover these? Creating an organizational wide culture of collaboration is a good start.

Think about it - your organization is probably already engaging in some kind of collaborative behaviors, perhaps through informal knowledge and idea exchanges or more formal processes. However, this is not the same as being a collaborative organization; i.e. an underlying culture of collaboration that is the lifeblood of the organization.

Research has shown that collaborative environments significantly increase productivity, employee morale and ultimately impact profitability.  Because of this, collaboration has become a top priority for many business leaders looking to optimize the organizations resources and boost the bottom line.

Why are collaborative environments good for business?

Profits, innovation, employee retention and growth are all documented results of healthy collaborative organizations. The challenge for leaders is how to go about changing the “siloed” culture that has been an intrinsic part of traditional hierarchical organizations, where linking roles and responsibilities is the de facto approach. This is where a change in culture and business structure should come into play. Initiating this kind of disruption can be risky and an intimidating undertaking to many, however, when done for the right reasons this can lead to outstanding results.

The value of collaboration has helped to shape the emergence of completely new ways to organize business and how work is performed. One of the most notable companies to take on a new approach is the online e-commerce retailer Zappos. Valued at $1.2 billion in 1999 when it was sold to Amazon, and with over 1,500 employees, Zappos is certainly not a start up.

In 2014 Zappos announced that it would embrace holacracy, a relatively new businesses architecture that rejects the standard of hierarchy and silo mentality and redefines the center of power as it is redistributed evenly across an organization (important to note that holacracy does not abandon hierarchy but reshapes it in circles instead of direct divisional lines).

These flat organizations foster maximum efficiencies by allowing for the open flow of communication and cutting down on bureaucracy and internal politics. In the case of Zappos, the goal is to push it’s 1,500 employees to behave more like entrepreneurs who aren’t afraid to take risks, move quickly and surface problems, while tapping into the best ideas across the organization.

“The problem with “divisional companies” — companies built on developed traditional hierarchies that satisfy our desire for accountability — is that their rigid structures pull people apart from one another. The goal of shared success becomes subsumed by politics. “Work becomes more about negotiating power and systems of power than about the actual work,” Alexis Gonzales-Black - Zappo

What does a collaborative organization look like?

One of the distinct differences between collaborative business cultures is that collaborative groups function on the basis of shared power and management among peers, rather than an absolute directive from the top.

There are several important characteristics that help to define a modern day collaborative organization. 

Here are 6 characteristics of a collaborative organization:

  1. Flattened organizational hierarchy and better communication with all levels of the organization
  2. Accountability across the organization.
  3. A culture of inclusiveness.
  4. Shared power in decision-making.
  5. A culture of openness, honesty and trust.
  6. An engaged, empowered and valued workforce.

Embedded in the nature of many collaborative businesses, is the notion of evolving and growing ideas and solutions working closely with peers and subordinates. In an organization where everyone takes pride of ownership and responsibility, this dynamic can elevate the workplace and ultimately the output that is produced. Being open to all ideas, and understanding that the next great one could come from a customer or a subordinate is very empowering.

Unlike popular belief, however, working collaboratively doesn’t mean always playing nice and building consensus, sometimes things can get messy. This is a very important part of the successful collaborative dynamic, working with teams that comprise people of distinctly contrasting experience and professional backgrounds help to deliver a 360 view. Another distinction is how teams thrive on open communication – unencumbered by formality and “structure”.

The point of this is to create an environment of mutual respect, where the interaction of diverse perspectives leads to an exchange of ideas leading to solutions.

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About the author

Maria Botta

Maria Botta is the founder of FWD-Action, a digital strategy consultancy, working with small to mid sized businesses, helping to lead clients in the convergence of technology, creativity, entertainment. FWD ACTION allows Botta to continue to do what brings her the most professional and personal satisfaction, “Doing great work that truly matters, with integrity, for those clients who are striving to do good works for the world". Botta is the daughter of Cuban exiles, she was born in the US, and raised in Europe and the Caribbean, she holds an MBA in Global Management from Thunderbird's prestigious European program in Geneva, Switzerland and an Art History degree from Mt. Holyoke College.