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Collaborative leadership
Collaborative leadership brings together all of the organisations, technical disciplines, business, technologies and management systems.
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Evaluating collaborative leadership

Odilon Serrano, collaboration director Mott MacDonald

The infrastructure industry faces unprecedented opportunities and challenges from globalisation, digitalisation, increasing complexity, and the extent of stakeholder management . Responding effectively demands more, better collaboration, says Odilon Serrano.

There are vast national and global programmes to deliver, such as urbanisation, which is driving the need for enhanced infrastructure, decarbonising economic infrastructure to achieve net-zero emissions, rolling out 5G communications, and turning smart infrastructure from concept to reality. And there are pursuits such as advancing the sustainable development goals and ensuring that everything we do delivers positive social outcomes. Against all these requirements, the infrastructure industry still struggles to hit cost and time targets.

The paradigms that most infrastructure industry leaders grew up with are shifting fast. Collaboratively implementing contract structures within the shifting paradigms can be very complex. A collaborative working culture is necessary to respond effectively.

The need to integrate diverse organisations, specialist skills and advanced technologies is greater today than ever before. It calls for individuals who can lead collaboratively.

Developing an approach to collaborative working that is clear, consistent and communicated across all facets of project and programme delivery is essential. A first, fundamental requirement is general leadership competencies. Leaders must also have more highly developed abilities than ever before in:

  • strategy
  • adaptation to change and challenge
  • emotional and social intelligence
  • knowledge sharing
  • transparency
  • inclusion
  • innovation
  • conflict management
  • team working

Leaders need to work in more complex environments, align a broader range of stakeholders, and focus teams and enterprises to work to common goals and outcomes. In order to achieve this, leaders must be collaborative leaders.

Got what it takes?

Being a collaborative leader involves instilling behaviours and formal ways of working that enable and promote collaboration across their own organisation and those of partners in delivering the project or programme. In successful projects and programmes, collaborative leadership must be supported by technical competence, structured frameworks to guide collaborative behaviours, a shared and clear purpose, and business relationships that are clearly defined and scoped. But the quality of the leadership is the fulcrum. Leaders must remember that they create the environment and set the tone for delivery of outcomes and value.

There are several key attributes of collaborative leadership:

  • Intuition – capacity for noticing and sensing the environment around you
  • Strategic interpretation – ability to understand the implications and consequences of key information and act appropriately
  • People skills – capacity for tolerance, appreciation of uniqueness and difference, empathy for and valuing of others
  • Energy – personal reserves to deal with difficult situations and manage conflict, with capacity to be creative and innovative, and make good decisions
  • Stress and coping capacity – maintaining a positive attitude in the face of work and personal challenges
  • Managing change – aware of and coping with unknowns, embracing diversity and encouraging innovation
  • Prioritisation – ability to focus on what’s important versus being harassed by the urgent, demonstrating patience where needed
  • Assertiveness – capacity to be positively assertive, leveraging the strengths in the team and providing guidance

Creating better collaborative leaders

How do we evaluate an individual’s collaborative leadership capacity and potential? How do we identify the right leaders for today’s challenges and develop those to lead us into the future , establishing the desired culture and behaviours?

Mott MacDonald teamed with a performance specialist to develop a model specifically addressing these questions. It enables us to assess attributes and competencies, experience and skills, to spot gaps for improvement, or analyse when and why collaborative enterprises aren’t working properly. We began by studying a diverse group of leaders to develop a baseline for collaborative leadership. Objectivity is achieved through values-based assessment. Leaders do not self-report.

Baselining collaborative leadership allows us to measure and benchmark a leader’s collaborative maturity. It enables diagnosis, showing where we can work with the individual to enhance their capability, or intervene to strengthen a team. The main areas for development centre around an individual’s or a team’s energy and resilience, which are important to their wellbeing. The need for development can arise through initial assessment or ongoing assessment as a project or programme progresses.

Energy is required to manage difficult circumstances. Energy can be negatively affected when too many things need attention and there doesn’t seem to be enough time to get everything done, especially if high volume is a fairly constant pressure. Erosion of energy can show in reduced patience, when working with difficult people. Leaders with low reserves of energy are prone to ineffective decision making and have reduced strategic insight.

Resilience is made up of energy, ability to cope with personal and work stress, self-regard, self-criticism and motivation. All will naturally fluctuate, but when a sustained reduction occurs, it may result in reduced performance and effectiveness. Leaders generally want to achieve high performance. Paradoxically this can be to the detriment of the leader and the project when if comes at an unbalanced cost to the self, affecting wellbeing and resilience.

Rescue remedy

The approach enabled is very different to typical remedies to poor project or programme performance. Often the response is to replace leaders or add layers of management. But this doesn’t target the problem and remedy it. It’s more like ‘icing the problem over’ to mask it. Our model helps discover the reasons why the project is struggling, and the leadership team to play their part in the turn-around. It can be specific on the issues at an individual level.

Predict and provide

The model can be used to evaluate leadership during the project or programme scoping stage, well before work starts, to inform decisions about who should be appointed to leadership roles. It can also assist in developing emerging leaders – young professionals with potential, or experienced leaders looking to step up a level in the scale and complexity of projects they’re taking on.

Improvement is a watchword for the infrastructure industry – improvement against environmental, social and economic indicators. Continuously improving collaborative leadership is essential for achieving the performance and value of projects, programmes and existing infrastructure systems. Our collaborative maturity model can assist in meeting individual and organisational needs.

  • Provides a diagnostic as well as predictive measure for improving collaborative leadership and team performance
  • Identifies potential issues related to resilience and wellbeing which allows for taking care of people and identifying and managing risk
  • Allows the collaborative performance of leadership teams to be measured and monitored throughout the project lifecycle, highlighting potential energy and resilience issues, and contributing to continuous improvement.

Rightly, better social outcomes and greater value are expected from infrastructure – both existing and new. Collaborative leadership is essential for achieving them.

From transactions to enterprises

Enterprise working involves bringing together all the stakeholders in a single organisational team that is set up to focus on outcomes rather than individual outputs. The enterprise approach to project delivery has been used with great success on isolated projects and programmes for more than 10 years, but in a famously conservative, habitual and precedent-oriented industry, has not yet become widely known. It is described in a paper, From Transactions to Enterprises, published in March 2017 by the Infrastructure Client Group, a panel of the UK Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE).

In an enterprise, all the participants are incentivised according to the outcomes achieved by the whole enterprise, meaning that they are encouraged to collaborate to achieve the optimum results from the project for the client and end-users.

Collaborative leadership brings together all of the organisations, technical disciplines, business processes, technologies and management systems to achieve this.

This article was written for the Institute of Collaborative Working and first published in ‘The Partner’, May 2020

Odlion Serrano

Mott MacDonald collaboration director

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