As I’ve been working from home these past few weeks, I’ve given some thought to what it means to innovate and how one key element can often make innovating successful.

What am I referring to when I say the word innovation? Innovation is the act of improvement. Innovation can be defined in several ways and take on many different forms. One form of innovation involves looking at an existing problematic process and improving it. Another form of innovation is finding a new way of performing a task. It can also be implementing a piece of technology or even developing a piece of technology to automate an existing process or workflow. However, in order to innovate, you often need to work with others as part of a team.

You need to collaborate.

Now that working remotely has become our standard way of working, at least for now, collaboration is more important than ever since we are isolated from our co-workers. Our days are filled with Zoom meetings, Skype calls and just plain vanilla conference calls. Collaboration, however, is a critical skill to have regardless of circumstances and one that can be powerfully important when it comes to innovating. What exactly is collaboration? In this blog post, I intend to explore and define what collaboration is and what are some of the key elements of collaboration.

For starters, collaboration is far more than simply talking with someone else. It is working with someone else and exchanging ideas, learning from one another, and taking that shared learning to create something. Often collaborating means working with someone else from a different function or discipline. This is on purpose because that thing which needs to get created requires having knowledge of multiple areas that may have nothing to do with one another, at least ostensibly. For lawyers, this notion of not having the knowledge required can seem like anathema. How can I, a lawyer, not know what I need to know in order to do something that is asked of me? Well, I hate to break it to you, but you, lawyer, do not know everything. You don’t need to know everything. The world is filled with information and it simply isn’t possible to know everything we may need to for a certain task we are asked to do. What this means, then, is that we need to learn from others and work with others to achieve our goals.

There are countless opportunities to simply collaborate with others within your own organization. Suppose you work in-house like me. There are plenty of times when I have needed to rely on others from areas like product development or information security in order for me to perform my job effectively, like understanding a complex information security assessment or reviewing a vendor contract that would help with development of a new product. I collaborated with these other functions, I talked to them, learned from them, and worked with them to accomplish my analysis of the assessment or my review of the agreement. Suppose you work for a law firm. You are working on a complex deal that involves the sale of securities, the development of intellectual property, and the creation of a new company. As a lawyer you would need to bring together others from each of those areas to work on the deal together. In this example, you are presented with multiple opportunities to learn from these other experts and to then hopefully bring that knowledge to bear during the next similar transaction you are tasked with handling. Remember, the experts that you may need are often found outside of your firm or your network.

So, what are the skills needed to achieve effective collaboration?

  • Communication

I once was working with a couple of sales team members on a complex deal, one was highly experienced and knowledgeable about what the deal was intended to achieve while the other was not and was from a different country. I had worked with both before, but never together. I summarized for both of them what I had taken away from our first meeting together what I believed were the key parts of the deal. I conveyed this summary over the phone. They each then provided feedback, which I took notes on, and then paraphrased what I had taken notes on. This continued on for a few minutes. By the end of the call, everyone was on the same page about what were the next steps.

In the above example, there are two parts of communication that I illustrate: talking and listening. When working with others on a project you all need to be communicating effectively with one another. There are plenty of tools that we now are relying upon to communicate – Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype, etc. The real question though is whether we are being effective in our communications. I want to draw your attention to two key actions that I did in the above example:

    • I actively listened. Listening is hard. Listening involves far more than simply not talking. It means taking the time to note what the other person is saying, reading their body language, and when responding to what someone has said sometimes paraphrasing to ensure you understood what they said. Listening also involves actively showing interest in what the other person is saying by looking at them, nodding your head to show understanding, and asking questions when you do not understand something. Often taking notes can be helpful as well to help you remember what is said and what is agreed upon as next steps to take.
    • I talked when appropriate. Talking for most of us is easy. But, when talking to a group, the rules of talking change a bit. When talking, not everyone you are talking to may talk the same way you do and may not be a native English speaker. Therefore, it is important to be clear and succinct with what you are saying. Talk slowly and carefully and check in periodically as you speak with those you are talking to ensure they understand what you are saying and if they have questions about what you have said.
  • Dependability

One of the reasons I work so well with my sales team is because they know that they can rely on me when they are facing a tight deadline or want to make a sale near the end of the month. When I first began working as a lawyer, I quickly learned that if I were to be a business partner, I needed to provide time-sensitive support to those who turned to me for assistance. I needed to be responsive to their requests and set expectations of when I would be providing a response to a question. That way they would trust me and know they could rely on me when they most needed my help.

Similarly, when collaborating, it is vital to do the same to establish trust. Lawyers like to go it alone and, frankly, we have been trained to do so because we have been taught that we are different and taught special skills to use and the special rules we have to abide by. When working with others, however, you need to develop trust with those you are working with so that you can rely on each other’s knowledge and expertise.

  • Accommodating

I once worked for a company where I co-managed a team comprised of global team members. Some of these team members were less experienced than others and needed some training around some changes in processes that I was tasked with implementing. This took time to do because of cultural differences and language barriers. For one team member in particular I needed to be especially patient as they kept making mistakes even after repeatedly providing training. I then realized I needed to train this person differently from the others. This change in approach immediately paid off and this member became one of the most valued members of the team.

As lawyers, we have been all, presumably, taught to think in similar ways and believe our way of thinking is the only way to think about certain things. Yet, when working with others, the “lawyer way” is not the only way and often may not be the best way to move forward. We need to recognize this and be open to new ways of thinking and allow others to lead in areas where their expertise, skills, or own processes are best suited for the task at hand. We need to accommodate those with whom we are working with. We all do not share the same personality or work in the same way. When collaborating, we need to be flexible with those we are collaborating with. We need to recognize that we may make mistakes, that we may misunderstand an instruction, or simply need to do something in a way that works for us. As different human beings, it is vital to be able to give one another the flexibility to work in the way that we work best while still all working towards the same goal.

  • Emotional Intelligence.

We all face times when we simply are challenged, whether it be emotionally, physically, psychologically, or some other way. For me, there have been days when I have been particularly emotional due to high stress. I had a boss once who while one of the toughest people I know also had a high degree of highest emotional intelligence and was always there to support their team including me. During one of my high stress days, this person took me aside in their office and we talked for twenty minutes about stress and what they could do to help me. It was refreshing and impactful. We remain in contact to this day.

Sometimes referred to as EQ, emotional intelligence is at its most basic level, treating fellow humans as humans. Human beings are emotional creatures. We also are not static creatures. We sometimes let our emotions dictate how we act. We may fervently believe in one way of doing something and the next day rethink and propose a new way of doing that same thing. When we are collaborating with others, it is important to recognize that those we work with will sometimes be stressed out, will not have a lot of time for you, or will otherwise be pre-occupied. It’s up to you to recognize these times and tailor your asks of others accordingly.

These skills are somewhat easy to learn the basics of and yet are hard to get right consistently. They are also the types of skills that are ones needing constant attention and refinement. Not every collaborative situation will entail taking the same approach. It falls to each of us, especially during these times, to do our best to take up the mantle to be collaborative as those who are will likely stand to benefit more than those who do not.