Creating an environment where teams can collaborate effectively and efficiently is key for any successful business. By using the right strategies and tactics, collaborative teamwork can make a team more productive and fuel the success of your entire organization.
However, there seems to be a bit of a myth that collaboration is always a plus – that two heads are always better than one or that a group of people working together is greater than the sum of its parts. This is certainly not always the case. Many of us have experienced just the opposite effect. For example, we might butt heads with someone when trying to work on a task that never gets done or waste time in meetings that go nowhere.
Just because two people are on the same team, does not mean that they must spend very much time working on tasks, deliverables, or creative endeavors together. Quite often individuals or smaller groups of people are more productive working separately most of the time and only meeting with their complete team for shared decisions or progress updates that impact dependencies for each other’s success.
Great teams cooperate, support each other, and trust each other to do what they do best, but they do not always require constant collaboration. And even when people do collaborate and co-own a final decision, product, or solution, the effort may still require a good amount of alone time - i.e., using the divide and conquer approach - in between collaborative sessions.
Knowing when collaboration is a beneficial approach and how to set the right expectations and agreements for collaborators are two basic foundations for a successful collaboration. Here are 3 tips to improve team collaboration that build on these foundations:
1. Identify when your team requires collaboration and create the necessary agreements. Working together on the same output is collaboration. On some level, any team working toward a common goal is a collaboration, but if people are primarily working on their own deliverables and tasks, the collaborative pieces are often short touchpoints, handoffs, approvals, and communication. Identifying the required collaborative steps - like conducting team meetings to solve issues or confirm plans, or communicating mission-critical information, approvals, or handoffs – and assessing where conflicting work styles and disagreements are causing stress and productivity loss, can uncover immediate opportunities for improvement. For processes that are owned across team members, the team must agree on the steps, ownership, communication methods, turnaround times, and deadlines to avoid delays, errors, wait time, and related frustrations. And when collaboration is more prevalent for a particular project, product, or solution, even more expectations, agreements, and ground rules are typically needed to increase productivity and prevent stress. Meetings with no clear purpose or boundaries, for example, are particularly stress-inducing for people for this very reason.
2. Determine the goals of the collaboration. In operational teams that require light collaborative touchpoints, the goals are usually more straightforward – most commonly, goals are to exchange information, deliverables, and data to complete processes and resolve issues. In these environments, meetings are probably the most common activity that can be much more successful when everyone understands the goals and their individual responsibilities in reaching them.
However, when considering a wider or deeper collaboration, the question is why? Are you trying to get something done faster or better or more holistically? Are you considering bringing in a larger group to cover more points of view and arrive at a consensus among many stakeholders? Are you putting a team together to work on a specific task like creating a plan or brainstorming innovative ideas or building something tangible? Once you know why you are collaborating, you can begin to determine who is the right fit for the collaboration.
When the goal is completing a specific task, it can be beneficial to put people with similar problem-solving approaches together, and when the goal is to create a more holistic solution or make a final decision that impacts a larger group or several groups, it can be beneficial to put together a group with more diverse problem-solving approaches. Evaluating how much diversity is needed in terms of experience, knowledge, perspectives, and values is also important in both types of scenarios.
Alternatively, if you determine that you are collaborating out of necessity because you are short on staff or have people picking up the slack and jumping in when others do not have the capacity, knowledge, or experience to fulfill the needs of their role, it’s probably a good idea to re-define roles and realign people with what they know and do best so that you can create consistent processes, expectations, and goals for collaboration.
3. Know the individual strengths of your team members to assign the right roles. Even when people are motivated and equipped with the knowledge to reach a goal, their progress is often impeded when they must consistently act against their natural problem-solving strengths. For example, if a person’s natural first instinct is to gather facts and details before answering a question, and they are instead required to answer quickly off the top of their head or improvise solutions under pressure, they will likely burn out in that role. This is true whether someone is collaborating or not. However, in a collaborative effort, the likelihood of someone influencing how and when other people must perform tasks and of people working outside of their natural strengths to accommodate others increases. When teams have the knowledge of their team members’ strengths, people can be assigned to the tasks and roles that suit them best, and expectations can be set to help each person do what they do best.
As a Kolbe-Certified™ Consultant, I use and recommend the Kolbe A™ Index as one of the best insights for making decisions about when and how to collaborate within a team. Whether your team is a large global team, simply a team of two, or something in-between, knowing the innate problem-solving approach of your teammate(s) via the Kolbe A gives you a quick indication of how likely two or more trained and willing people are to collaborate successfully and productively using their innate strengths and how to prevent conflict if you must collaborate with a particular individual who has a very different innate problem-solving approach. To get an idea of how this works, you and a potential collaborator can both take the Kolbe A and then purchase an A-to-A Comparison™ report, which will give you immediate tips on how to (and not to) work together for the most productivity and least stress. If you want to read more about my personal experience with taking the Kolbe A, I wrote about it in another blog post HERE.
Collaborating is absolutely necessary for great teamwork and it takes great awareness, curiosity, and adaptability to learn how to shift the approach to collaboration based on the goals and the people involved. One size does not fit all when it comes to a great collaborative effort.
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Andrea MacKenzie, Founder of Lead With Harmony, is an MBA, multi-certified coach, Kolbe-Certified consultant, and leadership and team-building expert with over 20 years of combined experience in corporate roles and business consulting. Andrea enjoys working with growth-oriented business owners and executives who advocate for the advancement and well-being of the people they serve, hire, and inspire.