Four principles for leading successful collaboration

“Coming together is a beginning. Staying together is progress. And working together is success.” - Henry Ford
Thursday, June 15, 2023

Leading collaboration is an essential management skill. Whether interdepartmental, cross-functional, or with clients and partners, successful collaboration can significantly impact the quality of outcomes, increase buy-in, and enhance team satisfaction. While most leaders recognize the value of collaboration, knowing how to put it into practice can be challenging.

Leading collaboration requires understanding what successful collaboration looks like (it’s not just the outcome), recognizing your unique role as leader, and applying a handful of best practices.


What is Successful Collaboration?

Collaboration is a set of common behaviors driven by the shared belief that people working together create better results than individuals working alone. When successful, collaboration resembles a comfortable team who proactively shares ideas and information, co-creates solutions side-by-side (and safely debate them as they go) and offers feedback in an open forum. This fosters direct interaction and relationship building (empathy), supports generative problem-solving (we learn and build as we go), and leads to effective decision-making (the solution fits the problem).

Leading collaboration is all about ensuring these behaviors take hold and flourish within your team (or organization). Ironically, leading collaboration doesn’t mean just modeling these behaviors for your team. Leading also requires establishing and nurturing conditions where people feel comfortable and encouraged to adopt collaborative behaviors. At the heart of it is trust. Team members must be confident that they are all working toward the same goal and are willing to put the team’s needs ahead of their personal ones. They also need to feel safe to speak and share unpopular views without fear of recrimination.

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

Four Principles to Lead Collaboration

Set a Clear Challenge and Goal

Whether a tactical assignment or a broad cultural initiative, each collaborative project requires a clear idea of what the challenge is and what success will look like. Share this with the team and allow them to ask clarifying questions so that they have an absolutely clear, shared understanding of what they are being asked to do. Sharing a larger vision can also help the team understand and appreciate that the desired outcomes are beyond the reach of any individual. Only successful collaboration will enable the goals to be realized.

Provide Structure and Guidelines

Collaboration isn’t unrestrained brainstorming. It’s OK to provide structure. Establish when and where the team will meet as well as how you’ll approach the challenge. You can also apply guidelines and/or frameworks which ensure the team communicates, exchanges ideas, and actively interacts safely.

Collaboration guidelines and frameworks include:

  • Ground rules — Ground rules define how you’ll interact with each other and are essential for creating “safe space.” Common ground rules include: one person speaks at a time; Be respectful (no interrupting or side conversations); Use “Yes, and…” rather than “No” or “But…” (this is particularly helpful when the team is trying to generate ideas). Establish whatever ground rules the team needs to feel like they can safely participate. Recognize that collaboration is a muscle and team members will need some practice before they can do it easily;
  • Methodology — There are a million different ways to approach a problem. Establishing how your team will tackle the challenge is perhaps the most difficult, but also the most important part of leading collaboration. If you’re clear on the approach, pacing your meetings and addressing the challenge in “digestible” chunks (i.e., solving one piece at a time) becomes easier. If you’re new to a methodology, seek advice from someone who’s done it before. It will bolster your confidence as well as provide a better experience for participants;
  • Governance — Conflict is a part of collaboration. Establish how you’ll resolve differences and know when to escalate a question that requires input from an external player;
  • Success metrics — determine how you’ll measure progress toward the goal and establish consistent measurement intervals;
  • Reporting formats — define how and what you’ll need to share with leadership or other stakeholders and how often.
Maintain Focus

Teams often lose their focus during workshops or meetings, commonly called “going down a rabbit hole.” The leader or facilitator recognizes this situation and guides the conversation back to the main topic. This can be particularly challenging for new leaders, especially when leading a meeting. Balancing the need to address tangential issues briefly to assess their relevance to achieving the vision while promptly refocusing the team can be difficult.

Maintaining focus isn’t just about managing discussion. Maintaining focus requires that the team not lose sight of the vision itself. Your role as a leader is to remind the team to focus on the vision gently. 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 challenge is and whether additional time is needed to clarify.


Remove Obstacles

Keeping an eye out for challenges is part of the leader’s role. Your team may need the cooperation of leaders and other groups outside of their control. 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.

External pressures can also jeopardize collaboration if obligations to other initiatives or parts of the organization create 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 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.

Closing Thought: To Participate Or Not To Participate?

Leaders often wonder how much they should participate in problem-solving with their team. While some may be very hands-on and direct, others may prefer to offer gentle guidance without active participation. Regardless, none of the principles described above suggest that you provide the solution. Leading collaboration means giving your team the clarity of purpose, structure, support and space to get to the solution together. Keeping this in mind while following the principles shared above will go a long way toward enabling your team to realize the benefits of collaboration.

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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