In his book,
The Fifth Discipline: The Art & Practice of The Learning Organization, Peter Senge writes: “The only sustainable competitive advantage is an organization’s ability to learn faster than the competition.” Good insight, I agree, but how is this done? I believe one way to continually learn faster than your competition is to use the power of collaboration.

Collaboration has always presented challenges to groups and individuals. Too many people are interested in seeing their idea is taken forward rather than implementing the best idea. Others are afraid to contradict leaders or risk speaking out for fear of rejection or reprisals. Less-experienced team members believe they already have the best idea or can come up with the solution on their own.

But think about it: When stuck on a problem, we often turn to someone else for help. We may bounce ideas off them, we may better understand the problem after trying to explain it to them, or their objective point of view may bring forth a better idea that we hadn’t previously considered.

This collective approach to problem solving is effective because it works as a crowd sourcing model. By tapping into the wisdom of others, you not only access a diversity of thought but create a team that can work together on a solution. Doing this at your company may be easier said than done, but the effort will pay out great dividends.

I often do a simple exercise with groups to show the power of collaboration. I give the group a minute to individually identify possible uses for a simple object, like a paperclip. After a minute, we compare lists. Each person generally comes up with between eight to 20 ideas and when we consolidate the list, we find the number of ideas to be more than four times that number, and as the number and diversity of the participants grows, so does the final list. As an owner, it’s important to harness this power for your business.

There are two primary types of collaboration that you should be taking advantage of in your business — external and internal collaboration.

External collaboration. External collaboration happens when you as a leader or members of your team network with their peers and resource experts outside of your company. This can occur informally at professional trade events or through a personal network. More formally it occurs in professionally managed peer groups.

Many leaders read business and trade books, magazines and websites to help solve problems, and to inspire or bring innovative ideas to their companies. Peer groups go beyond just reading about ideas. The owners collaborate with each other on real problems in their own businesses. They bring their experience to share, to challenge, to help and to learn. Talking over ideas with other smart business owners is where the real learning takes place.

Internal collaboration. Internal collaboration is what happens when you empower individuals to seek help, or help others with problems by fostering a sharing and open culture within your company.

Companies will often set up a cross-functional team or task force to work on specific problems, but it is important not to think of collaboration as a tool only to be used on special occasions. It should be part of your culture and used daily to bring the most value to your company.

This year, take the time to collaborate and focus on solving key problems at your company, work together on figuring out how to stay ahead of your competition. Work to build trust, empower your teams to cooperate, and as an owner, learn how to harness the power of resources within and outside your company.

Words of Wilson features a rotating panel of consultants from Bruce Wilson & Company, a landscape consulting firm.