The Elements of Collaboration
By Dr. Francis Eberle
These days we hear and read a lot about collaboration. Organizations say they value collaboration, and teams want more of it. Most of the time collaboration is a good thing. But sometimes it isn’t the best approach.
There are different ways to solve a problem depending on context, relationships, tools and platform. Context has to do with the outcome desired and by when. Consider if the problem is large enough to warrant bringing in additional people. Or can it be quickly solved by a few? A quick decision can sometimes be the best choice. If there is lead time and the problem is complex, requiring varied input or expertise, then it is likely that multiple parties are needed.
When collaborating, start by ensuring everyone involved has the common goal in mind. This seems simple enough, yet it is worth the time to confirm that everyone is on the same page. This will make the project proceed more smoothly. If there are a variety of misaligned goals among the team, collaboration will be difficult. Or if a member of the group is collaborating only to get a promotion or be noticed, he or she could derail true collaboration.
While in general, more brains are better than one, if there isn’t alignment of purpose, then collaboration is a challenge when those brains want to go in different directions. This outcome can sometimes be seen on sports teams. Superstars do not necessarily add much to a team when their focus is to be a star rather than a team member. Ben Lyttleton talks about this in his article, “Collective Functioning.” He points out that the challenges seen in modern sports are similar to what is experienced in the workplace. Stars often look out for their own success while team members looks after the success of the team. The term collective functioning is a great way to think about collaboration.
Common values are another helpful precursor to collaboration. Every value of each participant doesn’t have to algin, but critical values for the project should. This will allow for a solidification of purpose, particularly for long-term collaborative efforts.
There are also a list of skills needed for effective collaboration, such as listening, empathy, feedback, communication clarity and frequency, vulnerability and negotiation. Helping a team increase these skills can build its capacity to collaborate. These skills are described in much more detail in Francesca Gino’s 2019 HBR article, “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration.” Much more can be learned about each of these skills on www.thecompleteleader.org.
Before jumping to collaboration on every project, be wary of collaboration overload. To examine whether there is too much collaboration happening at your organization, look for the following: too many meetings with too many players, wasting time always working toward a full consensus decision, the tendency to “reply all” in emails, and requiring a group of people to solve every problem. None of these are necessarily bad, but they can get out of control without being intentionality. These and other traps that increase individual workload are described well by Rob Cross in his book, Beyond Collaboration Overload.
Here are some ideas to consider for beginning and building effective collaboration, while also reducing collaboration overload.
- A meeting doesn’t always mean you’re collaborating. It could be to inform and get ideas. To build a collaboration, you need the groundwork around common purpose, skills and values.
- Determine who should be involved in the collaboration. And then ask if they need to be a part of some meetings or all of them.
- Determine if the problem likely could not be solved unless all of these people were involved.
- Determine who is an essential participant for a meeting and invite only them. Keep others informed about the progress and look for opportunities for them to contribute or when to bring them in.
- Determine if you must be at a meeting or could the group accomplish its agenda without you.
- Determine what communication format is best for the message and who really needs to know it. There may be multiple formats for the same message, depending on the person’s position.
These all may seem straight forward. With the pace of business today and the use of technology making communication almost ubiquitous, simplifying and developing clarity around projects is important. Understanding “the why,” who should be involved and at what stage, and knowing your limits and those of others will make for a more productive and effective collaboration.
These fit into a broader leadership context I call “when to step up and when to step back.” Every person in a collaborative effort needs to know the goal, and their role allowing the leader to be comfortable stepping back and letting others lead.
I am a strong believer in collaboration, even when I think I can do it myself. Now I think about who can help—and then I step out of their way. Being thoughtful and intentional before beginning a collaboration can make the work deeper and more rewarding.