Collaboration. It’s a $1 billion industry, according to an ABI Research study on worker mobility and enterprise social collaboration . And it's projected to grow to $3.5 billion by 2016.
No wonder lots of ink has been spilled on this business buzzword on everything from how to start (hint: build trust ) to doing it better with social platforms , to using it as a way to achieve that holy grail of business : innovation.
Two years ago, the Harvard Business Review even touted the need for another C-suite executive : the CCO. A chief collaboration officer would be charged with integrating the enterprise as companies scramble to innovate from within. Authors Morten T. Hansen and Scott Tapp argued that with a little flexibility, existing execs such as the head of HR or the CIO could take on that task.
But in an ideal scenario, this most critical of business strategies would have a dedicated individual toiling to make collaboration part of the daily doings of the company. The CCO would have their place among the top brass. Despite the highly trained focus on the benefits of collaboration, according to Jacob Morgan, a principal of the social media consultancy Chess Media Group  and scourer of collaboration practices, there’s only one CCO in the U.S . And The Motley Fool  has him.
Todd Etter, one of the founders of the multimedia financial-services company that dishes advice on stocks and personal finance, has held the title for the past two years. Now, The Motley Fool is well known for its tongue-in-cheek approach to management (all the employees are called "fools"), and its “rule breaker” investment  advice, but the company’s stuck to a core philosophy of enhancing productivity through unconventional practices such as unlimited vacation  and an Etter institution, The Foolympics, a two-week event in which employees compete for small prizes (and bragging rights) in challenges that range from brain teasers to business puzzlers to physical competitions. Etter says it’s “silly,” but tapping into the diversity of things the staff loves for five or 10 minutes at a time bonds employees and enhances overall productivity.
They even have proof. Last year, voluntary turnover was 1.6% at the company, as compared to CNN Money findings  of 2% at SAS, 5% at Microsoft, and 8% at Zappos. Not to mention the cost savings. Motley Fool’s head “People Fool” Lee Burbage says the cost to hire and train a new employee averages about 1.5 times their salary.
Tom Gardner, Motley Fool’s cofounder and CEO says that when you're working on a project, the easiest route is often to just do it yourself--but it's not often the best idea.
"You don’t have to compromise, you don’t have to teach someone, you don’t have to deal with other people’s timetables," Gardner says. "Doing it yourself works well for the short-term, but it’s toxic if you’re trying to create a workplace culture that supports learning and employee development.”
With than in mind, Etter --who just happens to have 20 years experience as an improv teacher (we've reported on how well that works in corporate environments ) and is member of the National Puzzlers League-- shared some of his best practices to encourage better collaboration with Fast Company.
Understand What Collaboration Is...and What It Isn’t
Etter says there’s a big difference between working alongside other staff members and actually collaborating. He was surprised to find out exactly how true this was at a recent Foolympics that featured guest speaker Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side. For the event, Etter created a puzzle based on the titles of Lewis' books to encourage engagement between bites of salad during lunch.
Gardner says Lewis's team was a shoo-in to win but they came in dead last. Etter says it was likely because the team hadn’t worked together before and weren’t quick to provide feedback and challenging positions.
Etter says he’s always trying to find a balance between the Motley Fool’s core values of competition and collaboration. So he tries to mix up events and offer only small prizes such a store gift card to avoid overzealous competitors and sore losers. “The reward is the event,” he says.
“Too much of anything will start to be criticized,” adds Etter, so he makes sure to have a variety of events and is careful to do small internal tests before rolling out to the company’s 200 employees. Most companies sign up for a ropes course once and call it bonding. Etter presents such physical challenges in addition to pub trivia quizzes (with financial trivia mixed in, natch) and quick puzzles to start long meetings.
“Brainstorming is a two-way street,” says Etter. One thing he teaches his improv workshops is that you have to create but you also have to listen. The “Yes, and...” technique ensures you are building on an original ideal. “Brainstorming is more than just throwing it all out there. Otherwise you have 30 ideas and picking one may hurt you,” says Etter. Instead try to figure out how to riff off two or three. “That’s fewer ideas but more conversation and thought about what is suggested,” he says.
Hack the “Hackathon”
Though Etter confesses he wasn’t aware of Facebook’s famous “Hackathons,"  a.k.a. cram sessions designed to spur innovative solutions, he does say he wants to start doing more intensive exercises with Motley Fool’s programmers. Taking a lesson from the “marshmallow challenge”  inspired by a TED talk in which teams compete to build a structure out of spaghetti strands holding a marshmallow aloft, he’s intrigued by the results observed so far among his colleagues.
“There are no guidelines, other than the end result to get the marshmallow as high off the table as possible,” says Etter. The lack of instructions is a constant theme in his own puzzles, Etter says, because it pushes the team to discover patterns and come up with creative solutions.
But he’s also found that teams often spend too much time planning and not enough time building. “Kindergarteners are the most successful,” Etter asserts, because they don’t plan they just start on the structure.
“If it collapses they are are only four minutes in and start over.” Conversely, business school students fare worse because they busy themselves drawing up strategies and run out of time before the first strand is place.
This carries larger lessons for collaboration, says Etter. “You have to modify and adapt as you go.”
[Images Provided by Motley Fool]