“Collaboration is the essence of life. The wind, bees, and flowers work together, to spread the pollen.” Amit Ray

The above quote succinctly captures the complexity of nature's work: The collaboration of organisms and forces that we experience as the beauty of a flower, the buzz of a bee or a gentle breeze. The quote also reminds me of the forces that have to align for a successful human collaboration.

My first article in this three-part series on collaboration for home builders outlines the structural elements needed for a successful collaboration: clear goals, a process for reaching those goals and a framework in which that process can unfold, and the right people.

The second article describes the traditional culture of the home building industry and suggests ways to determine how collaborative your company is.

The structural elements outlined in those articles are the hardware needed for a successful collaboration. But you still need "software." In the case of collaboration, software consists of emotional issues you might prefer to overlook, but they have the ability to sabotage the collaborative effort if not taken seriously.

Emotional issues fall into three categories: Permission, incentives, and trust. Your people must feel like they have permission to collaborate, incentives must be in place that support collaboration, and they need to trust their leaders and co-workers.

Let's take these one at a time.


There's more to permission than meets the eye, and simply telling people to collaborate isn't enough. Permission granting is an active process that includes identifying the inherent barriers to collaboration, and working to neutralize those barriers.

For example, one of my clients wanted superintendents to collaborate more effectively with key trades. They required supers to attend a monthly trade council meeting and then take follow-up action to drive the improvements agreed on in those meetings.

Sounds reasonable, right? Unfortunately, the builder wasn’t getting enough supers to attend the meetings let alone take ownership on follow-ups, despite the requirement. Why was participation so low?

After talking with the superintendents and conducting a brief workshop with several of them, we identified three issues:

1. The notion of "collaborating" with trades made many supers skeptical. Their careers had played out in the industry's traditional adversarial culture, and they didn't understand what the builder expected.

2. They sensed a threat to their position as sole jobsite authority. They worried about losing control of jobs if trades saw the council or the company executives as alternate authorities.

3. They didn’t have time! Supers already have to address the needs of customers, suppliers, and trades. Constant schedule updates, phone calls, texts, emails and other demands made it difficult to take a bathroom break, let alone attend monthly meetings and drive improvements.

The super is just one example of how organizations rarely make sure their key people are able to say “yes” when given “permission” to work collaboratively. Company executives must address these concerns if they expect their people to embrace the collaboration effort.


Incentives can work for or against collaboration. The most powerful incentives affect how an individual is compensated and/or evaluated by the company.

If you compensate salespeople only for the sale, it's in their interest to let buyers choose custom design options. The architects will need to figure out how to draw those designs, the purchasing managers will need to get the right materials and labor in place, and the project managers and job supervisors will have to figure out how to build it. The salesperson gets extra commission, while everyone else gets extra work.

Say also that you have goals for the company such as reducing cycle time, which require collaboration among all parties. Failure to rein in the sales force and eliminate custom options will make it difficult for the collaborators to achieve that goal.

Leaders need to have realistic conversations with one another and with staff about how their incentives drive behavior, and to re-think incentives that run counter to the collaboration process.


A Google search I did on “trust and collaboration” returned more than 56 million results. No surprise there—anyone who has had a relationship with another human being knows that trusting relationships are more successful, and that those without trust can devolve into costly failures.

Trust is like the pollen spread by those bees mentioned in the quote. Without it, nothing will grow.

Trust is built relatively slowly as the members of a relationship prove themselves trustworthy. As a good friend of mine once said: “You can’t think your way into good acting. You have to act your way into good thinking.”

You can also lose trust in the blink of an eye. And when lost, it's very difficult to recover.

In our industry, establishing trust is complicated business. That's because collaboration usually involves several parties including trades, suppliers, technology partners, marketing partners, and others. A breach of trust—even the perception of a breach—can affect all of these parties.

So what’s the solution to the risky proposition of trust? The answer is to trust. As Nike says, “Just Do It.”

Do it blindly? No, of course not. Do it forever, no matter what? No. But do it. Vet your collaborators, set up your collaboration structure, make sure your people know they have permission, and do what you can to align incentives. Then make sure your company's leaders model the trust they expect from their collaboration partners and that communication between leaders and collaborators is clear and continual.

One of my builder clients had productivity issues coming out of the downturn. Trust with suppliers and trades was at an all-time low. In an effort to survive the worst housing market in memory, the builder had taken an aggressive approach to selecting and managing trades. When the market began returning to health, something had to change, and fast.

We helped the builder stage a turnaround. The CEO called a meeting where he gave a heartfelt and genuine presentation that included taking responsibility for the past policies, acknowledging that those policies had not been good for suppliers and trade partners, and making it clear that he wanted things to change. We then conducted a workshop with trade partners and suppliers to determine the most critical issues, and we brought the builder and key trades together to begin addressing what needed to be fixed and how to do it.

We didn’t talk too much about trust at first, but instead focused on the collaboration structure, permission, and incentives. As the months went by, the builder began earning trust back by following through on the suggested improvements, including better scheduling to reduce dry-runs by trades and drastically reducing material shortages by making purchase orders more accurate. When the trades saw their ideas being implemented, their relationships with the builder improved.

One of this builder's division presidents recently told us that the collaboration had paid off by shortening cycle time and reducing variances. And he understood how important a role trust had played throughout the process.

During my 20 years consulting with home builders, I have found that a structure that includes clear goals, a process for reaching those goals, a framework in which that process can unfold, and the right people will help a collaboration get organized and started. But unless the organization helps employees feel they have permission to collaborate, builds the right incentives, and creates a culture of trust, the collaboration won't succeed.