Nothing says "collaboration" quite like the launch of a space rocket.
Space rockets wouldn’t have even made it off the launching pad without the input of multiple teams. Just think of the time, energy, and resources needed to undertake such a venture. It’s mind-blowing!
Elon Musk's SpaceX company, in collaboration with NASA, had to overcome immense obstacles to find success. SpaceX became the first private company to send astronauts to the International Space Station. And that’s just one among many other firsts. The company’s impressive achievements sit squarely at the feet of its almost 10,000-strong workforce.
SpaceX is an incredibly diverse company, with 12.3% of its workers being female and 50.1% ethnic minorities. Getting so many people from different backgrounds to work together effectively wasn’t easy and working with NASA offered even more challenges. Their epic partnership overcame immense cultural and procedural differences.
"A company is a group organized to create a product or service, and it is only as good as its people and how excited they are about creating." – Elon Musk
Collaboration can achieve far more a-ha! moments than individuals working alone. Think of any invention or discovery and you’ll find that they were seldom made by just one person. The car, the transistor, the computer, the internet, the space rocket. All game changers were achieved through collaboration.
Many businesses strive to become the best at what they do and to be the leading force in their market or industry. Many aim to create or discover the "next big thing", especially in the tech industry. Creating new products and services that customers want means bigger profits and increased value. None of this is possible without a considerable amount of collaboration. And at SpaceX creativity and passion helped the company achieve its goals against all odds. They made it despite many people thinking they would fail miserably.
When interacting with NASA, SpaceX experienced an extreme clash of cultures. Cautious and procedural, NASA regarded SpaceX with suspicion and distrust. They were alarmed at the pace that SpaceX worked at, without as rigorous a testing regimen as NASA was accustomed to. This escalated to such an extent that Elon Musk and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine took their "war of words" to Twitter.
Success can't be achieved without the willingness to embrace change, take risks, and listen to alternative points of view. At the heart of all success lies a competent and cohesive workforce that is as collaborative as it is agile. So how do leaders activate collaboration, especially in diverse teams?
"If something is important enough, you do it, even if the odds are not in your favor." – Elon Musk
Create a supportive and collaborative environment
The most important thing leaders can do to achieve their goals is to establish a collaborative culture within the organization – from sharing ideas to working together to solve problems. Embrace the notion that no idea is a bad idea. Your team will know that you are open to suggestions and that sharing ideas is encouraged and supported.
A collaborative environment makes employees feel as if they are part of something special. It makes them aware that they are working together towards a common goal and can activate their creativity and problem-solving skills. Even if they face incredible obstacles, a culture of collaboration can make workers feel supported. It can make them feel that together, they can achieve anything.
If you want to build a culture of collaboration you need to provide opportunities for teams to work together. Brainstorming sessions, group meetings, and open projects are a great way for teams to collaborate. But it’s also a good idea to create chances for employees to just hang out and chat. This helps to establish trust and allows teammates to bond. Informal gatherings can help stimulate creative conversations and spark ideas.
This is also achieved by giving everyone a voice and a platform to experiment, seek help, and share insights. You can't have collaboration if everyone feels as if they're working in a vacuum. When working with NASA, SpaceX had to learn how to navigate its systems and procedures which had been established over decades of operation. Musk and his workers also had to deal with politics and with the attitude that they were new and inexperienced – they hadn’t "grown-up" as NASA had. The fact that they managed to overcome this disparity and learn to work together is a testament to perseverance.
"Constantly seek criticism. A well-thought-out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold." – Elon Musk
Build in opportunities for feedback
When it comes to creating an environment of collaboration, feedback is essential. Leaders should actively pursue feedback from employees, mentors, and those closest to them. How will you know how you and those around you are performing if you don’t hear it from multiple sources? You don’t want to wait until you've failed before realizing that your team was experiencing issues.
In return, you should practice constructive feedback too. Let your teams know how they are doing, what can be improved, and ask them what they need to achieve their goals.
When collaborating in diverse teams, leaders need to be sensitive to different ways of thinking. You need to be open to different ways of expression and different approaches. And when it comes to giving and receiving feedback from diverse teams, you need to practice patience, keep an open mind, and listen!
"People work better when they know what the goal is and why. It is important that people look forward to coming to work in the morning and enjoy working." – Elon Musk
Establish clear parameters for success
It may sound obvious that you need to establish goals in order to achieve anything. But more than that, employees need to understand how their particular role fits into the bigger picture and contributes to the final outcome. Ensure that everyone has clear goals and objectives and knows what they need to do to achieve these. Track each team’s progress, let them know how they are doing, and acknowledge their successes. Regular updates and open channels of communication increase transparency within the organization while also increasing clarity and reducing ambiguity.
It’s fairly obvious that often in business, things don’t always go as planned. As a result, plans change, adaptations need to be made, and goal posts need to be shifted. But ultimately, if employees do not know what they are working towards every step of the way, they are at risk of failure.
It is this synergy and common purpose that fuels an organization and propels it towards success. It's this that inspires workers to show up day after day and give their all – and what provides job satisfaction and happiness at work.
"I think it's very important to have a feedback loop, where you're constantly thinking about what you've done and how you could be doing it better." – Elon Musk
Everyone has different ways of thinking and tackling problems. So it follows that the more diverse a team is, the greater the difference of opinion. True collaboration acknowledges and embraces these different perspectives. Listening to points of view that are different from your own allows you to see things through fresh eyes and to look at problems from a different angle.
SpaceX’s approach to everything they do is one of continual improvement. It could just be a small tweak here and there – or giant leaps – from time to time. One of the greatest gifts diverse teams can give to an organization is by diverging from old ways of thinking and doing.
"If you want to grow a giant redwood, you need to make sure the seeds are ok, nurture the sapling and work out what might potentially stop it from growing all the way along. Anything that breaks it at any point stops that growth." – Elon Musk
One of the most fundamental actions a leader can take is to build trust and positivity within the organization. Just like nurturing a tree from seed, building a winning team takes a lot of care. It takes empathy, accountability, and cohesion. Leaders need to be accountable for the decisions and actions they take. And teams need to take responsibility for mistakes, failures, and poor outcomes. It is the only way to learn, grow, and develop as an organization.
Clear communication is crucial
When conflict arises within a team, it needs to be tackled head on and dealt with. Tension and unhealthy conflict within a team can cripple collaboration and productivity. Deal with problems and help team members activate behavior change that benefits the whole team.
And lastly, for a collaborative culture to stick within an organization, it needs to be celebrated and rewarded. Success cannot be attributed to one person alone. It is a group effort and wins should be celebrated and acknowledged as a team.
In Elon Musk’s own words, "Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up." Great leaders inspire their teams to reach for the stars and never give up, from blast off to splashdown.