To Collaborate or Not to Collaborate…Is there really a question?

As market demands shift, organisations are ever-changing. The idea of ‘team’ is not just in the traditional term of a group of people who are all physically in the same location, reporting to the same manager, working to the same timeframes for similar goals.  Today, the idea of ‘team’ can also include a cross-functional project team working for a defined period of time on a specific project, or a virtual team who do not work in the same location and may not even work during the same hours of the day, or various teams combined through matrix reporting functions.  Despite the shifting defining elements of an organisational team, there is one thing that doesn’t change: collaboration is key to a sustainable, high performing team.

What do we mean by ‘team collaboration’?

You walk into a project ‘war room’ and you can feel the hum of energy.  In one corner, a group of team members are huddled around a white board, each one with a whiteboard marker in their hand, jumping in to contribute to the brainstorming session they are having on the creative name for their newly-developed product.  In another corner, the rest of the team are working together to map out where they are at on the project timeline, drawing in the information each has gathered from the group to build the inevitable Gantt chart.  The groups then come together to replay to the others what they have achieved, challenging different views, all whilst continuing to build on the ideas of the others and finish with a shortlisted proposal for the new product name and a finalised list of end deliverables for the project, to be presented to the Project Board the next week.  The effectiveness of the team is palpable.

As Aristotle said, ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts’.

This is workplace team collaboration in motion.  Technically, it can be defined as where ‘the members of the group are known, there are clear task interdependencies, expected reciprocity, and explicit time-lines and goals’[1].  In practice, the synergy achieved through a collaborative team is noticeable through the team’s high levels of achievement, innovative and constructively challenging culture and positive energy.  The collaborative team is the team we all want to be on.

Why collaborate?

Or, should we say: Why not?  Through team collaboration, organisations can harness their competitive advantage – you can’t sell, copy or steal genuinely collaborative relationships that have been built within a team.  You build an agile organisation that is not dependant on hierarchy, but empowers ownership and accountability for success at the team level. You establish a learning organisation, constantly hunting for continuous improvement through learning from each other, building cross-functional and cross-skilled teams who thrive on developing the team’s success.  You can ensure that more complex issues are solved more easily and in a shorter time frame, based on a collection of thoughts and inputs from a diverse range of individuals who respect each other for their different experiences and backgrounds.  You also develop a group of people who positively challenge the boundaries to grow and develop your business.

A truly collaborative team doesn’t prioritise hierarchy, but does have very clear set roles and responsibilities.  This means that the team focuses on a decrease of power-based influences (whether this power is derived from status, tenure, age etc) and an increase in informational influence, based on what each person can bring to the table in their skills and experiences.  This, in turn, increases an organisation’s capacity to serve its customers, employees and stakeholders to achieve greater success.

If your focus is more on the ‘dollars and cents’, then here are some figures for you: a study completed in the USA found that, by focusing on the establishment of collaborative teams, organisations were able to increase the productivity of those teams by an average of 50%[2].  Imagine what you could do with a 50% increase in your team’s productivity …

So, again, the question begs: why not build collaborative teams?

The success factors

It can be easy to talk about wanting to build collaborative teams; generally we accept the benefits of collaborative teams in any size or structure of an organisation.  The clincher becomes the question of ‘how?’.  We have taken the opportunity to pull together some success factors in building a collaborative team, which will hopefully start and/or continue your journey to collaboration:

  • Increase informational influence – When a team forms, take the opportunity to discuss the relevant skills and experiences each member brings to the table.  Everyone has the opportunity to have equal input.  This shifts the balance of the participants from social influence (based on factors such as role status, tenure, organisational experience, gender or cultural background), to informational influence (based on relevant knowledge, experience or skill, to the team goal at hand).[3]  This reinforces the notion amongst the team that everyone has input and everyone’s opinion is valued.
  • Knowledge is power – allow teams to know themselves and their colleagues and you will unleash the power of collaboration.  Encourage, promote and champion diversity of thought and style. Through the understanding of different work preferences of the team, team members can understand how each other makes decisions, relates with others, gathers and uses information and how each person organises themselves (and/or others!).  A great diagnostic tool to build this awareness is the Team Management Profile™, by Team Management Systems.   PEEL HR can tailor a Team Collaboration workshop for you, that draws on the individual Team Management Profile of each member of your team; to create your high performing team.
  • Trust is key –  Patrick Lencioni builds his theory of the Five Dysfunctions of a Team[4] on the idea that trust is the foundational characteristic of any high-performing, collaborative team.  Without trust in each other, team members cannot be functional or perform at their best; it’s a distractor to the end game.  Trust involves being vulnerable, to enable the building of trust in and of each other. It takes courage to be vulnerable; it takes vulnerability to achieve.
  • Have a clear, common goal that everyone can ‘buy into’.  Each team member needs to understand how their role and performance contributes to the team, and the organisation’s, ultimate success.
  • Permit conflict – you don’t need to agree on the outcome, however to build collaboration everyone needs to have a voice.  If people disagree, they need to and are encouraged to, raise it.  No ideas are bad ideas; they should engage in health conflict.  However once a decision is made by whomever is responsible for making the decision, the team supports that position.  If further debate is required, it is done constructively and openly in the right arena; not in whispers and behind closed doors.
  • Have clear team priorities – what are the outputs that, if the team as a whole doesn’t deliver, will be considered as unsuccessful.  Name the top 3 to 5 priorities and everyone contributes towards these priorities.  All scarce resources are diverted (as needed), to these priorities.  The team has clarity on what they are doing, what success will look like, and why they are doing it (what’s the end game?).
  • Look after each other – professionally and personally.  We all have a responsibility to our peers to watch out for their safety, including their psychological safety and wellbeing.
  • Inspire the yearn to learn – from each other, and from people external to the team.  Promote and reward continuous learning – think, do, reflect, learn, do differently.
  • Have the right systems in place – reward systems, performance management systems, communication systems – all of it.  At every point, ask the question: “Does this go towards building the team?”  Each needs to contribute towards building a culture of collaboration, so that open collaboration within and across teams simply becomes ‘How we do things around here’.  Minimise individual rewards; focus on team rewards.  By being clear on the performance goals, behaviours and values that the team are adhering to, you can use the performance management system to ensure all team members are contributing appropriately. One way of doing this is through aligned team values.
  • Aligned team values – This could be a team charter, or it could be a handful of key words that have a commonly understood meaning.  The team values should be particular to the team and align with the organisational values, if they exist.  The values should be underpinned by behaviours, so the team members know how to demonstrate the values.  One or two ‘Focus Values’ or behaviours may change each year, to enable you to maintain the focus of the team.  Ensure all members of the team understand the values and behaviours that are expected of each other; and that every colleague has the authority to hold each other member of the team accountable to demonstrating those values and behaviours.
  • As Jim Collins said in Good to Great[5]: Get the right people on the bus.  Not everyone will be a cultural or team fit; they may have competing priorities, ambitions, expectations or experience.  Having a constructive and supportive conversation with a member of your team who is currently experiencing ‘Square Peg, Round Hole Syndrome’ enables them to find the right role for them, which will be a more fulfilling outcome for the individual, as well as the team.
  • And, last but absolutely not least: Ensure your Leadership Team is leading by example; by promoting a respectful workplace that engages in constructive conversations in everything they do.

At PEEL HR, we are passionate about collaboration.  We love to partner with organisations who want to build collaborative workplaces, so if you believe your organisation could benefit from our passion and experience in building collaborative teams, call us on 1300 665 1441300 665 144.

[1] Anecdote Whitepaper, by Shawn Callahan, Mark Schenk and Nancy White. Published 21 April 2008.

[2] Beyerlein, Freedman, McGee and Moran; Pfeiffer, 1st Ed. 2002, pg.27

[3] HBR article Sept 2014 – ‘Bring Out the Best in your Team’, by Bryan L Bonner and Alexander R Bolinger.  HBR Reprint F1409B

[4] The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni; Jossey Bass, 2002

[5] Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … And Other Don’t  by Jim Collins; HarperBusiness, 2001

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