You and your business partner decided to go into business together for a number of reasons—probably in part to leverage each of your strengths so you’re more likely to succeed.
Ongoing collaboration is essential to your mutual success. In this ultimate guide to business partner collaboration, we’ll go over how to improve your collaboration and communication skills so you can grow your business together.
Beyond getting along: Collaboration is key
If you founded your business and then decided to seek a potential partner you probably devoted a lot of time and attention to making sure you found the right one before you made things official. You probably screened potential business partners for evidence that they have good judgment, good communication habits, and a skill set and work ethic that complements your own.
But good collaboration isn’t just about getting along. In fact, for most startups, collaboration is more about bringing together people in an organization for a common purpose. That doesn’t mean you’ll always be conflict-free.
You probably each have individual responsibilities, areas of expertise, and priorities for your day-to-day. The ability to collaborate well enhances each of your strengths and reduces your collective weak points. Hopefully, your partner also shines a light on ideas you haven’t considered and is willing to work together to find the best way forward on a project, strategy, or challenge.
Heidi K. Gardner, a distinguished fellow at Harvard Law School’s Center on the Legal Profession, says successful collaboration can also have a measurable impact on your business’s short-term and long-term growth.
Gardener authored “Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed by Breaking Down Silos.” She has analyzed millions of data records, including timesheet, personnel files, and financial data from dozens of organizations in fields such as healthcare, software, accounting, and engineering.
In one analysis, Gardner found that organizations could decrease the risk of losing customers 62 percent simply by having accounts managed by more than one account manager. In an organization where product development specialists from three business units teamed up, “revenue from their customers was 160 percent higher than the sum of their individual sales in the prior year. Profits climbed even faster.”
Gardner’s conclusion about collaboration? It’s not a woo-woo-filled “soft skill.” Instead, collaboration helps “companies earn higher margins, inspire greater customer loyalty, attract and retain the best talent, and gain a competitive edge.”
It’s probably not really news that good collaboration can make a big difference. But what should you do about it?
4 ways business partners can improve their collaboration skills
“Building an open and honest rapport with one another for everyday business situations is critical to navigating it when the going gets rough,” says Beth L. Buelow, Professional Certified Coach (PCC) and author of The Introvert Entrepreneur: Amplify Your Strengths and Create Success on Your Own Terms.
Business owners can head off problems with these tips:
- No assumptions means no assumptions. “All of the partners need to be clear about their commitment to the collaboration from the start.”
- Establish consistent communication, whether it’s by email, phone, or in person. “Checking in with the big picture and putting out small fires as you go is key to managing the bigger issues that inevitably come up.”
- Have clearly deﬁned measurements of success. “The core metrics—ﬁnancials, reach, engagement, growth, quality— should be outlined and agreed on,” says Buelow. “You don’t have to share every expectation; the more critical point is that you’re each aware of the other’s expectations and its level of importance to the partnership.”
- Communicate early and often about your progress. “You don’t have to agree 100 percent on how you’re going to get there, but you need to understand where you’re going,” says Buelow. “Use those regular check-ins to monitor your progress and course-correct as needed.”
5 collaboration problems and what to do about them
What happens when things start to go south with your business partner?
“Left unchecked, the partnership risks buckling under due to conflict avoidance, unspoken expectations, and resentment,” says Buelow. “When resources—people, money, products, time, reputation—are on the line, nothing can be assumed or taken for granted.”
Here are five common collaboration problems, plus tips for how to resolve and prevent them.
1. Problem: Meetings that waste time
How many meetings are on your schedule today? If your reaction is “too many,” then odds are you’re at risk for spending more time talking about getting things done than actually executing.
You’re not alone. American workers reported that they attend 62 meetings on average per month—and half were considered wasted time. 31 hours per month of wasted time, in fact, meetings are considered a typical office’s number-one time-waster.
At $37 billion in salary cost alone, meetings are also an expensive way to sacrifice productivity for the sake of what looks like collaboration. But also beware of getting bogged down in collaboration tools that are actually meant to alleviate meeting overload. Too many Slack messages and back-and-forths on Basecamp can sometimes be resolved with just 10 minutes in a room resolving details.
Tip: Cut meetings so you can check in with each other, yet still have time to work alone
Meetings, team exercises, and collaboration tools all have their place—but so does solitary get-it-done time where you can focus on your individual tasks and initiatives.
Besides, 73 percent of workers are already doing work in meetings that is not related to the meeting—so maybe you and your partners would be better off making more time for everyone to just get stuff done.
How can your organization reclaim wasted time? Establish a weekly ceiling on time devoted to meetings, says Bain partner Michael Mankins in Harvard Business Review:
“Create a fixed meeting time bank in which all new meetings are funded out of the current bank.
To start, determine the total amount of time currently dedicated to meetings by level in your organization. Then place a ceiling on that total.
Now, for every new meeting an executive requests to schedule, ask (or require) him or her to remove some other meeting of equivalent (or greater) time.”
At the very least, this approach will highlight the total time devoted to meetings at your company. Over time, it may enable your organization to lower the ceiling and liberate countless hours of unproductive time,” says Mankins.
2. Problem: You and your partners are so siloed that you’re duplicating efforts, missing opportunities, and letting things slip through the cracks
On the flip side of too much collaboration, sometimes business partners don’t work together enough. Time demands, conflicting personalities, and other factors can cause business owners to feel like ships passing in the night.
“Warning signs could include projects moving too slowly because you never seem to be able to connect with one another,” says Buelow, “or tension stemming from lack of communication.”
However, a solid business must have shared knowledge, and knowledge can only be shared when people are working together. Organizations that have strong internal connections tend to be more creative and innovative, and that can lead to more success, growth, and profitability.
Tip: Collaborate regularly on day-to-day operations and long-term business development
An open, empowered culture isn’t just for employees—it’s for you and your business partner too. Structure time for weekly or daily brief check-in meetings. This way, each partner knows what the other is working on, what challenges each is encountering, and how your efforts are building the business.
Also, set up regular discussions or retreats to work together on long-term business development. It can be easy to get caught up in day-to-day operations, but business partners need to carve out time so they can look at the big picture together, whether that’s the quarter, the year, or the next decade.
3. Problem: You and your partners avoid discussing conflicting ideas or approaches
Conflict can be as uncomfortable as it is inevitable. It can be hard to face off with different opinions that may be based on different perspectives, facts, or backgrounds. It can also be hard to respect another’s perspective while sticking to your own guns—and even harder to admit when another idea may be better than your own.
“Conflict is one of those words that gets a bad rap,” says Buelow. “It doesn’t have to equal combative. If there’s a shared definition of success, then there’s already a shared stake, something both parties can come back to as a piece of common ground.
There’s benefit to trying to create a culture that knows how to manage conflict, rather than avoid it. The destructiveness we often associate with conflict is less about the differences and more about the silent build-up of tension that proceeds it when people avoid the conversation.”
When it’s done right, conflict can be a vital part of collaboration. But how do you prevent conflict from becoming combat?
Tip: Constructive conflict can refine ideas and approaches, but that conflict has to be based on mutual respect
For starters, make sure each partner agrees on what you’re trying to accomplish, says Buelow, and on how you can each best facilitate healthy discourse.
- Create a culture that encourages different perspectives, no matter where someone is on the org chart.
- Leave space for people who tend to put on the brakes or poke holes in things. “It might feel frustrating in the moment,” says Buelow, “but they’re providing ballast that keeps a great-but-poorly-constructed idea from going too fast.”
- Accept failure or mistakes as part of the learning process.
- Make it safe for people to speak up without fear of retribution, being shut down, or being ignored.
“Emphasize asking the right questions, rather than having the right answers,” says Buelow. “The importance of approaching disagreements from a point of curiosity, rather than trying to convince someone else of your rightness, cannot be overstated.”
She suggests you begin discussions with common ground, then asking what-when-how questions to explore differences, such as:
- What brought you to that conclusion?
- What has been your past experience?
- How do you see this working?
- What other ways can we look at this?
- When have you seen this approach work?
Diverse opinions enhance creativity, innovation, and productivity, so build in conflict as part of the process. By encouraging constructive conflict and rigorous discussion, you’ll be able to find a way forward that you can agree on.
4. Problem: Your ideas are stale and your business is behind the curve in its market
You and your partners are concerned: the competition is outpacing you, and/or your business isn’t performing with its market the way it should.
One potential problem is that you and your partners are trapped in a perspective bubble. Do you share the overall same outlook on things? Are your backgrounds and perspective similar? Are you relying too much on past experience and not looking closely enough at how the market or your industry have changed?
A perspective bubble can make it hard to innovate or bring a fresh perspective to a new challenge. In turn, that can put your business at risk of getting stagnant and failing.
Tip: Bring in fresh voices and challenge each other’s perspectives—and your own
Getting new perspectives can be challenging, even frightening, but diverse opinions can be essential to gaining the understanding and perspective you and your partners need to break out of your bubble:
- Have a change of scene. Get out of the office for lunch or a day. Sometimes a fresh place helps you understand at a situation differently or see a solution you’d missed.
- Ask questions. Ask your customers, employees, and anyone else who isn’t knee deep in the work you’re doing.
- Talk with a coach, mentor, or other advisors. Their informed (yet outside) perspective can help you and your partners explore new ideas and guide you to solution and implementation.
“Recognize where you feel safe and secure in your knowledge. That’s the place that is most ripe for disruption,” says Buelow. “It’s great to feel and be ‘right,’ but that doesn’t create the conditions for innovation or advancement. Taking regular opportunities to intentionally burst the ‘curse of knowledge’ bubble is one way to invite fresh energy and perspectives into your work and challenge your assumptions.”
5. Problem: Unrealistic expectations are killing innovation, performance, productivity, and profitability
Organizations need expectations and deadlines—but it’s easy to fall into a trap of setting arbitrary or unnecessarily tight deadlines. If someone in the organization is struggling, they may also fear repercussions. In these situations, productivity, innovation, and profitability suffer.
“You as the leader can plow ahead and set high goals, but if that’s at the expense of burning people out or making them miserable, is it really worth it?” says Buelow. “Don’t confuse setting unrealistic goals with being ‘visionary’ or providing an ‘exciting’ work environment.”
Tip: Foster an accountable yet supportive environment where everyone knows that they will get help when they are struggling
Make it clear that you, your partners, and your employees have each other’s backs and will do what is necessary to get people the right timelines and resources.
“If you choose to be not just an owner, but a leader, then you’ll start by creating realistic expectations for yourself and modeling that choice for others,” says Buelow. “There’s always an opportunity to co-create expectations so that there’s agreement on what can be accomplished and by when. Push people’s creativity and sense of possibility, absolutely, and know that they will keep up their energy and commitment to break through barriers if they feel seen, heard, valued, and respected along the way.”
It’s also important to acknowledge that you understand that sometimes the work is hard and it’s difficult to get things done. Support your partner (and the rest of your team) and encourage them. Celebrate when you meet your milestones. Be willing to be frank when things don’t work out the way you hoped.
You’ll work harder for each other, and you’ll be far more likely to push the business forward.
Working together for mutual success
Collaboration can be challenging, but it’s also rewarding.
While tensions and mistakes will happen, any organization can collaborate constructively for its mutual success, says Buelow. “It all comes back to having a clear, shared definition of success and being willing to communicate about it through open, honest dialogue.”