Five Principles for Leading Successful Collaboration

“Coming together is a beginning. Staying together is progress. And working together is success.” - Henry Ford

In recent years, leading collaboration has emerged as an essential management skill. Whether interdepartmental, cross-functional or with clients and partners, working collaboratively can significantly impact the quality of outcomes, increase employee satisfaction and support innovation. Yet, while most leaders recognize the value of collaboration, many struggle with knowing how to put it into practice.

This is the first in a series of articles designed to help interested leaders orient themselves to collaboration. In the first article we’ll address defining your role as leader and share five principles for leading collaboration. In subsequent articles, we’ll explore a framework for identifying participants and examine the pros and cons of different collaboration formats.

Whether you’re taking a “hands-on” approach to leading collaboration or identifying the support you’ll need to build collaboration in your team, these articles are intended to give you a solid foundation upon which to build your collaboration leadership strategy.

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So you’re ready to promote collaboration. Maybe you’d like to generate better ideas among your team or you’ve set your sights on breaking down silos in your organization. Maybe you’re a natural collaborator, but struggle to bring your team along. Or maybe you’ve heard that creating a more collaborative organization has been heralded as a proof-positive way to drive results. Regardless of what brought you to collaboration, before diving in ensure you set the proper expectations for yourself and your team by taking the time to consider what you’d like to accomplish and the commitments required to achieve it.

Collaboration sits on a spectrum, from a basic willingness to cooperate with an eager colleague to a company-wide engine for sharing information, exploring ideas, and achieving better performance. As you might expect, the range of potential collaboration outcomes is equally broad. But collaboration is fundamentally a set of common behaviors driven by the shared belief that people working together create better results than individuals working alone. These include: proactive, open sharing of ideas and information, co-creating solutions side-by-side (to ensure essential debate and informed decision-making), and trusted feedback in an open, constructive forum. These behaviors promote discussion, analysis, evaluation, prioritization, alignment and ultimately, deliver on a shared vision. If you’re trying to set collaboration goals, the presence and health of these behaviors are the best indicator of your potential for success.

When successful, collaboration looks like team members sharing information (and feedback) actively and constructively. It looks like co-creating ideas, solutions even prototypes side-by-side. This fosters direct interaction, problem-solving and decision-making. And it requires trust. Team members must have the confidence that they are all working toward the same goal and that they are willing to put the needs of the team ahead of their personal needs.

 

Ensuring these behaviors take hold and flourish within your team (or organization) is what leading collaboration is all about. Ironically, leading collaboration doesn’t mean just modeling these behaviors for your team. Leading also requires establishing and nurturing the conditions in which people feel comfortable and encouraged to adopt collaboration behaviors.

The leadership principles that contribute to these conditions are:

Leaders cannot mandate collaboration. Instead they should build the conditions in which collaboration can take hold.

 

While much has been written on each of these topics, we will briefly address each of them here to illustrate how they best help create the conditions for collaboration.

A note on your role as leader:

The temptation to support collaboration within your team AND participate actively can be alluring. While you may favor a “hands-on” approach, leading collaboration is not about facilitating or actively participating with the team. In fact, “leading” collaboration often means staying in the background. While you have the option to participate in problem-solving, your primary role should be to create an environment in which team members can exchange ideas, establish trust, and build solutions together. As the leader you are in the best position to make this happen. We’ll talk about this more near the end of the article.

Set a Clear Vision

Whether a tactical assignment or a broad cultural initiative, each collaboration project requires a clear, inspiring vision to give the team (or organization) an idea of what success looks like. Clarity means they won’t waste time debating what they are trying to accomplish or trying to decipher your intent. A clear vision aligns the team on a tangible, specific goal that extends beyond the reach of any individual. This sets the team up to work together and contribute all of their skills and talents. It also enables the team to know when they’ve accomplished their goal. Finally, the satisfaction of reaching the vision as a team often exceeds the pleasure of any single contribution which supports the collaborative mindset: “when the team succeeds, I succeed.”

Maintain focus

Teams can easily lose track of their focus. In a workshop or meeting, many refer to this as “going down a rabbit hole.” Watching out for this trap and bringing the conversation back to the topic at hand is the responsibility of the leader or facilitator. This situation may provide one of the greatest challenges for new leaders—especially if you’re leading a meeting yourself. Providing enough latitude to address tangential issues (just long enough to determine if it is actually relevant to delivering on the vision) before bringing the team back can be difficult.

But maintaining focus isn’t just about managing discussion, it implies that the team not lose sight of the vision itself. Again, your role as leader (whether facilitating or commenting) is to gently remind the team to focus on the vision. The value of a clear vision to which you can continually direct the conversation becomes very apparent during these times. If the team struggles to stay on track, consider how clear the vision is and whether taking additional time to clarify with the team would be helpful.

Provide frameworks and tools

Frameworks come in all shapes and sizes. Most importantly they establish how the team communicates, exchanges ideas, and actively discusses the topic “safely.” This includes ensuring all the involved parties have a voice (they are not overpowered by the loudest or most senior people). It also means that conflicts do not escalate into grudges, but rather focus on developing the best solution.

Collaboration frameworks include:

  • Governance—establish how and when the team should come to leadership to resolve disputes or answer questions;
  • Structure/approach—establish how you’ll approach the problem (i.e., what methodology you’ll use) For example, if you’re using human-centered design or design thinking you might have the team consider the challenge and/or vision, research/investigate, reframe the problem, design, prototype, test and repeat;
  • Success metrics—determine how you’ll measure progress toward the goal and establish consistent measurement intervals;
  • Reporting formats—define what you’ll need to share with leadership or other stakeholders and how often.

Creating a team dynamic through frameworks can be very difficult, especially in teams where a dynamic is already well-established. A neutral third-party facilitator can prove invaluable here, but is not always an option. As the leader, if you’re facilitating, maintaining a neutral position will ensure your team begins to feel trusted expressing their views. Let the team come to their own conclusions. Set expectations about when and where you’ll offer your direction and stick to it. When you do, present your opinions clearly and respectfully. If you’re concerned about being too prescriptive, consider putting your feedback in the form of questions for the team.

Tools (software, resources and best practices) are another key piece to foster sharing, feedback and discussion. So-called “collaboration tools” are often deployed to teams with instructions to “go collaborate with the tools we gave you.” As the leader, avoid this pitfall by actively using them yourself. Lead by example. Start with a single tool and build capabilities and confidence together, as a team.

Collaboration tools appear simple, but incorporating them into daily workflow can be a big challenge. Existing tools may have processes and systems connected to them that do not encourage collaboration. Engage with the team to understand what processes or systems discourage collaboration. Again, as the leader you are in a unique position to help remove barriers and encourage more efficient and effective practices. This may even look like physically locating teams near one another or removing barriers between them.

Supply incentives

While providing a clear vision, maintaining focus and establishing frameworks and tools might seem like enough, often they are not. As the leader, be aware of competing incentives. What are the KPIs of team members? How are they being measured and rewarded? In one case, an entire team was formed to develop a service which would demand nearly all of their time over six months and yet leadership overlooked that their bonuses were not tied to the new initiative—not at all. Once this was brought to the leaders attention, and incentives aligned to the stated priorities, the team’s productivity and focus on collaboration increased dramatically.

Remove obstacles

Keeping an eye out for challenges is part of the leader’s role, and it extends far beyond incentives. Your team may need the cooperation of leaders and other teams outside of their mandate. Your job is to help clear the way so that the people who need to share information and interact with one another, can do just that. The more teams are involved, the more complex and challenging shepherding the effort may be. In fact, many leaders must apply collaboration principles to their work with other leaders as they identify who else they need to get “on board” and what obstacles and barriers they might have to collaboration.

External pressures can also jeopardize collaboration. If obligations to other initiatives or parts of the organization are creating challenges for team members to work collaboratively and manage their regular workload, help them find balance. Resetting expectations (and priorities) for other stakeholders on behalf of your team may be just the support your team needs to relax and focus. Knowing you “have their back” is worth its weight in gold when it comes to creating the right conditions for collaboration.

Finally, advocating for the work your team does is essential. When sharing their outputs with the rest of the organization, give your team credit for the hard work they have done, and do everything you can to support the decisions and results generated. After all, you may not have done the work yourself, but as the leader you set the wheels in motion to make it happen and shepherded it to completion.

 

Download the Collaboration Cheat Sheet

To Participate or not to Participate?

As mentioned earlier, some leaders struggle to determine how much they should participate in problem-solving with their team. While some may be very hands-on and directive, others may prefer to offer gentle guidance without active participation. Regardless, none of the principles described above suggest that you provide the solution or lead the team to answer the questions raised by the collaborative project.

If you have reservations about leading collaboration, think honestly about what you hope to accomplish, your organizational culture, and your personal tolerances. What’s riding on the outcome of collaboration? How much time and effort can you commit to supporting the effort? Will it be sufficient? Are you comfortable with some ambiguity or conflict during the process, or with an outcome that isn’t exactly what you expected?

These questions are not easily answered and you may need to strike a delicate balance. A hands-off approach may test your faith in the team’s ability to problem-solve. Conversely too much direction may create frustration or sabotage the team’s efforts, which can cause more damage than not collaborating at all.

Regardless of your choice, applying the five principles for leading collaboration will go a long way toward establishing the environment and conditions to implement and realize the benefits of collaboration.


Matt Morasky

Matt Morasky

Co-founder and Partner at Territory, Matt focuses on helping organizations approach, develop and execute co-creative solutions to strategic challenges of all kinds. A veteran visual thinker and consultant, Matt works shoulder to shoulder with leaders and their teams to provide the insights, skills and tools to keep pace with increased complexity and accelerated change. He is also co-author of The Art of Opportunity, a practical guide to identifying, developing and seizing growth opportunities through strategic innovation.


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