10 Things Every Manager Should Know About Team Collaboration

The term collaboration is thrown around so frequently it is becoming a corporate catchphrase. That’s a shame. It’s a shame because even though the term has been bastardized as of late, it’s a promising concept and the benefits are real.

With effective collaboration, teams become more efficient because they are able to troubleshoot, learn work habits, and foster innovation more effectively. If you want to help your team become master collaborators, here are 10 things you can do:

1. Give People Some Alone Time

Apple’s founder Steve Wozniak wrote, “work alone… not on a committee. Not on a team.”

Best selling author Susan Cain echoed Wozniak in a New York Times essay, “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.”

Collaboration is premised on individuals getting together to find creative solutions to problems, but creativity is sometimes best achieved by letting people put their heads down and finding a quiet space to get things done.

Cain’s essay offers an excellent example – the Homebrew Computer Club. The club was a group of engineers who shared a love for a primitive computer called the Altair 8800. The machine inspired the Woz to create a much more user-friendly computer.

He disappeared, worked lots of long hours all alone, and finally, three months later, showed his creation to his friend Steve Jobs.

Cain aptly observes:

“The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration. Mr. Wozniak wouldn’t have been catalyzed by the Altair but for the kindred spirits of Homebrew. And he’d never have started Apple without Mr. Jobs.”

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Be Social

Of course all collaboration has a social component, but what I’m talking about is technologically enabled sociability. It’s the use of social tools like wikis, chats and project management software to increase team effectiveness and cut down on unnecessary communication.

Many managers hear “social business” and “social technology” and automatically tune out because they can’t get passed Facebook, or angry birds or Pinterest. Those managers, their companies and their teams are suffering because they can’t expand their outlook.

Take Xilinx, a chipmaker, for example. The company used a series of social tools, like internal wikis, to enable collaboration. Their payoff? A 25 percent increase in productivity among its engineers.

3. Provide Clear Roles, But Provide Few Directions

Teams become more collaborative when the roles of each person are clearly defined, but their directions aren’t too strict. When directions are too structured and exact, it limits a team’s ability to be creative and innovative.

What you need to do as a manager is when you are getting ready to set the ground rules for your team, make sure that each person knows what they are responsible for and then hand over the reigns to the group.

In fact, the big benefit of giving them the freedom to work on the process is that the team stands a better chance of finding a new, innovative way to get things done than you couldn’t have originally imagined.

4. Build a Diverse Team

Thomas Edison believed that, “It is not always necessary, perhaps not always desirable, to be a specialist in a subject in order to make suggestions to it which starts useful angles of research.”

He added, “We specialists are likely to get into ruts of our specialties out of which it is difficult to progress.”

He’s right.

Though it’s not always the case, finding someone who’s an “expert” in a particular field might also mean finding someone who offers up conventional wisdom and stymies innovation.

This doesn’t mean you don’t include them in the team, but it does require two things from you as a manager. First, make sure your team is diverse enough to offset the “expert” in the group. Second, if you’re going to place an expert in a group, make sure there are enough people willing to stand up and question his or her advice.

5. Answer: What Can We Do Together That We Cannot Do Alone?

When a group of people come together to try and solve a problem it can get messy if each person stays mired in their day-to-day responsibilities. You need to force people to look beyond their personal or departmental goals and focus on the bigger, bolder ideas at hand.

You need to find ways to have people broaden their focus for the same reason you need to let your team define the path from assignment to completed task – they become more innovative and creative.

6. Develop a Trusting Workplace Culture

Collaboration without trust won’t be very effective.

Larry Prusak, writing for HBR, says, “If I had to pick the one thing to get right about any collaborative effort, I would choose trust. Yes, trust. More than incentives, technology, roles, missions, or structures, it is trust that makes collaboration really work.”

He’s right. Why would I go out on a limb if I didn’t think my boss and my team would have my back?

7. Know When to Focus on Quality and When to Focus on Quantity

Roberto Vaganti believes there is a time for collaboration quantity and collaboration quality. “A large quantity of collaborations is useful to create ideas,” he writes. “High-quality collaboration is useful when it comes to make sense of all these opportunities.”

The key to collaborative success is knowing when to tap each kind of collaboration. Remember: quantity creates and quality focuses.

8. Develop a Shared Mental Model

“Everyone who dies out there dies of confusion.” – Laurence Gonzales

Businesses or teams who fail, generally fail of confusion, too. The one way to avoid such failure is for your team or your business to form a shared mental model.

Jason Green explained mental models, “Simply put, a robust mental model eliminates internal confusion. The mental model is a framework that simplifies a potentially complicated strategy, allowing everyone in the organization to internalize the strategy and be guided by it.”

If you want your team to form a shared mental model, you can have them answer certain questions and share their answers with the group. For example:

  • Who are our most profitable customers?

  • How well are we suited to speak to their needs?

  • How can we stand apart from our competition while still appealing to their needs?

  • How will we win this customer?

9. Create Regular Touch Points

Regularly checking in is a friendly way of forcing people to sync up and provide updates. It helps identify areas that haven’t been addressed and, more importantly, it can serve to refresh and revive teams that might be a bit stalled.

This strategy can be as simple as arranging a physical meetup of your team at the same time every week or arranging a video conference for your virtual staff.

10. Know What Problems are Best Addressed Collaboratively

Sure, most problems can be addressed by a team. However, there are some problems that naturally lend themselves to being addressed by teams:

  1. Problems that don’t have a natural solution

  2. Problems that lack structure

  3. Problems that require some kind of collective decision-making

Collaboration is an asset, but it works best when its done right and when it’s used to address the appropriate problems.

Have you tried any of these approaches to improving team collaboration? Which have worked best for you? What have you tried that we didn’t mention here?