Working together–cooperating, teaming up, joining forces, collaborating–is a quintessential human characteristic.
Our ability to collaborate effectively with each other has enabled humans to do astounding things.
Cities. Cultures. Paradigms. Massive civil engineering projects. Epic oral traditions. Profound artistic explorations. Vast knowledge networks.
Every significant accomplishment of human civilization was made possible by collaboration.
Collaboration is key to all realms of human accomplishment.
Yet the subject of “effective collaboration” is dominated by the drab, corporate power-speak that sees humans as resources to be managed.
Managerial capitalism has practically cornered the market on collaboration, as if that’s the only place where we need to improve our collaborative efforts!
In our heart of hearts we know that’s not the case.
Deep down, we know that our ability to work together–often across seemingly insurmountable divides–will determine the success of the human species in the 21st century and beyond.
What is Collaboration?
Collaboration is when two or more people work together, sharing ideas and accomplishing tasks to achieve a common goal.
The key here is working together.
If you are working together with folks, and your work is highly interdependent and you have a shared purpose, then you are most likely part of a team.
If there is less interdependence, you might be in a larger group of fellow workers or community members.
But a team it is not.
Notice that nothing about what we said there has anything to do with being at work.
A further wrinkle here: interdependence can exist with fellow collaborators in and outside of your group. In her book Teaming, Amy Edmondson studies this type of cross-organizational “teaming” as the future of work.
Although teaming is a super important topic, we won’t go into too much detail on that front here. Instead, this post will be focusing on how to collaborate effectively as an interdependent team, new or old.
Why is Team Collaboration Important and What makes for “Effective Team Collaboration”?
The more effective our team collaboration, the better positioned we are to solve problems and find solutions, together.
And wow, do we humans ever have a lot of problems to solve right now!
So, what makes for effective collaboration?
- Friendliness. Research shows that rapport and friendliness is of paramount importance as it supports the creation of psychological safety for the whole team.
- Enjoy the work. It’s not all about team building activities, it’s also about establishing trust that everyone will do the work. Don’t lose sight of a) why you’re doing the work in the first place! b) the goal, and c) the work that needs to get done to get there.
- Do the work, together. The more reliable team members are to each other, the more team members will trust each other.
So simple! And yet there’s (obviously) so much more.
What Are the Elements of Effective Team Collaboration?
Google’s Project Aristotle is a great place to structure these elements, because this project was an in-depth summary and application of research on effective collaboration. Project Aristotle studied all of Google’s teams (180 at the time!) and compiled and analyzed the known scientific research on the topic against the data gathered. (1)
So, to help structure this very large topic, let’s unpack each of the “Dynamics of Effective Teams” with specific interventions and practices you can try for each:
How to Foster Meaning
The meaning of work is personal. It varies between finding purpose in the work itself and the output of the work.
We believe that this element is a lot harder than folks make it out to be. Especially if your team members’ values are not entirely reflected in the work and its results. Your bias to conform with the group could be in constant conflict with your values, for instance (the best reason to quit a job though).
And while ideas like those in Simon Sinek’s book Start With Why are inspiring to some, we think that there is some work that simply cannot be ethically redeemed, no matter how big we make our WHY.
Sure, a big oil company or a social media mega-company have big WHYs associated with delivering the world’s energy needs, or connecting humans together. But in actuality, their work has terrible effects.
Having a big WHY does not mean that you also have a big moral compass.
Charismatic leaders who create cult-like followings around their big WHY carry tremendous power. And with that power there can be a dark side to creating a ‘tribe’ of followers.
Now instead of focusing on framing a purpose or a big WHY for everyone’s work together, Project Aristotle identified a handful of things that one could try. “Give team members positive feedback on something outstanding they are doing and offer to help them with something they struggle with.” OR, “Publicly express your gratitude for someone who helped you out.”
By demonstrating encouragement for good work, and lending a helping hand when work is hard, you strengthen a team member’s feelings that their work is meaningful, and that you are thankful that they are doing it.
But we believe that this is only the beginning, and it is a narrow approach to the topic. Why?
Well, it reiterates the conventional workplace dynamic between a leader and a subordinate. And it reinforces the boss’s control over recognition, and the subordinate’s desire to please the boss.
“It’s an important day in everyone’s life when they begin to work for what they want to build rather than please a boss.”
-Bill O’Brien, Fifth Discipline Fieldbook
And so, what about teams in flatter organizations? Community members striving towards a common goal? Teams that have many different shades of leadership? Teams that are trying to shirk a bit of hierarchy from within a controlling environment?
Why can’t we have a shared WHY? A shared vision or purpose? Shared values, principles, or recognition/gratitude? Why can’t we find meaning together?
You can – by practising rounds.
Rounds are simple – you ask a thoughtful question and then you invite everyone to take turns reflecting on the answer.
- Purpose: Where do you find purpose in your work? Why? OR Why is the work important to you and the larger community? (taken from Purpose to Practice)
- Vision: Imagine our shared efforts having a big impact, 10 or 20 years in the future. What does this look like? What is happening? How are we working together?
- Values: What core values guide your life and work? Why?
- Principles: What rules must we absolutely obey to succeed in achieving our purpose? Why?
- Gratitude: What are you grateful for and why? OR Who on the team are you grateful for? Why?
How to Foster Impact
This is where we differ in opinion from Project Aristotle’s suggestions.
They suggest that co-creating a vision is one way that a team can foster impact. But we think that’s putting the cart before the horse! Vision is all about meaning, whereas impact is all about traction in reality.
Impact is an individual’s subjective judgment that their work is making a difference by contributing to the team’s shared goals.
It’s about having traction in the real world through your work.
As part of fostering impact, Google also suggests to: “Reflect on the work you’re doing and how it impacts users or clients and the organization.” And then “Adopt a user-centered evaluation method and focus on the user.”
This is more about fostering an evaluation, or an awareness of impact, rather than impact itself. It’s also easy to lie to yourself about what constitutes a positive impact.
For instance, you can read more active user engagement with a social media app both positive and negative.‘Isn’t it amaaaaazing how many connections are being made between strangers!’ OR ‘isn’t it terrible that nobody knows how to look up from their phones and strike up a conversation anymore!’
This isn’t to say that evaluation isn’t a key part of this. It is. But there’s something more to this. So, the question should be: ‘how do we foster shared impact in itself?‘
Well, you’ll want to make sure that you are working on something that you believe in. Something that is aligned with your shared values. Doing otherwise makes your work meaningless, and makes nothing more than what we call ‘wrong traction.’
Concept / Wrong Traction
So much of the work that gets done in this world has tremendous traction, but it is aligned to the wrong vision, values, etc. or it’s “radically indifferent”. Through wicked problems like climate change and environmental degradation we are living through the results of decades and centuries of the wrong kind of traction… and future generations will suffer further unless we stop. Wrong Traction and big, amoral “WHYs” go hand-in-hand.
Concept / No Traction
And then the opposite problem happens, especially in more progressive lines of work: we might have a powerfully honest vision, with clear values associated with it, but our wheels are spinning in the mud (or they’re not even making contact with the ground).
So, impact is all about traction. The ability to make things happen, to make an objectively positive dent in the fabric of the cosmos. How do we do this? Well, aside from simply doing the work, together, we can…
- Build traction using How Might We (HMW) Questions. With HMWs you not only generate myriad implementation strategies and tactics, you’ll deal with all the things that stand in the way of ‘getting sh*t done.’ Years ago I wrote a ‘how to’ about HMWs on Medium here.
- Understand the difference between lead measures and lag measures. And then evaluate your indicators accordingly. A lag measure tells you if you’ve achieved the objective (i.e. the number of accidents on a building site is a lagging safety indicator). A lead measure tells you if you are likely to achieve the goal (i.e. the percentage of people wearing hard hats on a building site is a leading safety indicator).
How to Foster Psychological Safety
OK, now we’ll get to the one we’ve all heard about: psychological safety.
Psychological safety is “an individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive.”
Basically, when there’s a lot of psychological safety, teammates feel both safe and confident:
- Safe to take risks around their team members.
- Confident that no one will embarrass or punish them or anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.
In other words,
“Team psychological safety is not the same as group cohesiveness… [which] can reduce willingness to disagree and challenge others’ views, such as in the phenomenon of groupthink (Janis, 1982), implying a lack of interpersonal risk taking. The term [psychological safety] is meant to suggest neither a careless sense of permissiveness, nor an unrelentingly positive affect but, rather, a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject, or punish someone for speaking up. This confidence stems from mutual respect and trust among team members.” (2)
So how do we foster psychological safety? It starts with the leader, and if there is no formal “leader” in the group, someone must lead by example.
Amy Edmondson’s Tedx talk has some helpful mindset shifts and practices to try:
And if you don’t have time to watch Edmondson’s talk, here are the top three things she suggests trying. (3)
1. “Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.” You can approach this by adding a bit of appreciation of complexity and uncertainty, along with the recognition that this is as much about shared learning as shared doing.
As Edmondson puts it: “Recognize the enormous uncertainty and enormous interdependence: we have to have everyone involved.”
2. “Acknowledge your own fallibility.” Try saying something like: ‘I may miss something, I need to hear from you.’ Or – especially if you’re the leader – inject some self-deprecating humour into the mix. Remember, you are a perfectly fallible human, and so is everyone else. Play this up for comedic effect.
3. “Model curiosity and ask lots of questions.” Practice active listening, and demonstrate that you’ve heard and understood. But don’t just mindlessly reflect back: ‘What I’m hearing is… Am I right?’ That’s a great first step, but it’s a bit prosaic. What you really want to strive for is to be fully engaged in the conversation with the team – to be curious… because you are.
Otto Scharmer is known for his concept of the “Four Levels of Listening”, which provides a helpful model for deeper curiosity, listening and reflection.
Concept / Psychological Safety
“An individual’s perception of the consequences of taking an interpersonal risk or a belief that a team is safe for risk-taking in the face of being seen as ignorant, incompetent, negative, or disruptive. In a team with high psychological safety, teammates feel safe to take risks around their team members. They feel confident that no one on the team will embarrass or punish anyone else for admitting a mistake, asking a question, or offering a new idea.” (4)
How to Foster Trust
This one is important for everyone, and it’s fairly straight-forward.
When you have a dependable team, everyone strives to complete quality work, on time. And most importantly, everyone feels they can depend on everyone else.
Having a dependable team is another way of saying you have a team you can trust.
The opposite of a dependable team is a team dynamic where everyone is “shirking responsibilities.” (5) This can be happening because of a toxic team environment, or just a simple lack of clarity, which can cause a lot of the sort of fight, flight, freeze or fawn responses associated with being on the defence.
Surprisingly, Project Aristotle doesn’t mention that many tips for how to foster dependability or trust, aside from pointing to Paul Tough and other’s findings that the character trait of conscientiousness “consistently leads to success” across the lifespan. (6) Perhaps this is because they believed that by fostering psychological safety, one will also be fostering trust?
But there’s more to this question of trust than simply being dependable and conscientious towards your colleagues. Bart de Jong has done a lot of research on trust. (7) Here are some key things from his work to consider:
1. Ask yourself: is this a long-term team, or a short-term team? “The effects of trust are more pronounced in ongoing teams than in short-term teams.”
Investing time and energy in improving trust is less effective if you are working in a short-term team. Put simply: trust matters less if your team is temporary, more if your team is permanent.
2. Ask yourself: is my team highly interdependent, or not? If your team works in a highly interdependent manner, “with other members who possess unique skills and have different levels of authority in the team” it will be more important for an atmosphere of trust to be established.
If not, de Jong et al. suggests that establishing trust is less important for your team’s performance (and think back to our definition of team at the beginning – it’s all about interdependence).
3. Actively think of ways that you can foster interpersonal relationships within your team (it’s all about fostering friendship). Whether it’s by creating opportunities to get together socially outside of work, or taking a break for refreshment with everyone in the middle of the day, facilitate opportunities for friendships to develop and deepen. And of course, there’s always planning actual team-building events, too.
4. Do. The. Work. The last thing you want is people on your team shirking responsibilities. If you’re striving to achieve something, you can’t forget the important part in that sentence: striving. (They don’t call it work for nothing.)
And yes, research shows that folks who score high on the character trait of conscientiousness are also fairly organized, and dependable. A conscientious person would always strive for the team (and never shirk responsibilities).
5. Listen for ‘the vibe’ of your team and invite each other to share what’s going on – at work and in their lives. Don’t get complacent with work for work’s sake. Colleagues and friends used to make fun of me for talking about ‘the vibe’ of my teams! But it’s so important not to let the logic of capital triumph over our collective spirit. I’m serious.
Life can be gruelling.
It’s important to know that you can show up with your teammates as a real human being.
The simple practice of giving everyone a turn to check-in at the start of every meeting with a question does wonders (e.g. ‘what’s on top for you as arrive?’), same with checking-out (‘In a few words, how are you leaving today?’). Over time, these simple practices accumulate a shared sense of everyone’s unique story.
Completing the necessary work, on-time, can be greatly improved by designing practices and processes – as simple as a check-in or check-out – that encourage productive collaboration. And this is where it becomes important to learn…
Project Aristotle didn’t see team size as a significant dynamic in their analysis, but we think its key. They pointed to some helpful studies that demonstrated how small teams (of less than 10)…
- …are more beneficial for team success than larger teams (8),
- experience better work-life quality (9),
- have better work outcomes (10),
- experience less conflict, stronger communication, more cohesion (11),
- display more “organizational citizenship” behaviours (12).
(For the curious: Jim Rutt has a great episode with Robin Dunbar on this.)
Basically, smaller teams make it easier for individuals within the group to make sense of the group itself. There’s less cognitive load needed to create a schema of the group itself, the varied relationships between people in the group, what’s happening next, who’s doing what, etc.
This is why facilitators use breakouts for larger team meetings: to enable participants to have more interaction with fewer participants. Chris Corrigan’s thoughts on ‘group edge’ are insightful here.
How to Foster Structure and Clarity
This is all about clear purpose, roles, plans, goals, practices, processes, etc.
This one requires some forethought and self-facilitation, as it’s about mutual agreement. It also shows up differently in each organization.
For Project Aristotle, structure and clarity involves the following aspects: “the individual team member’s understanding of job expectations; the agreed-upon process for fulfilling these expectations; and the consequences of one’s performance.”
Project Aristotle also adds that structure and clarity can also involve setting goals (at the team or individual level).
Concept / Group Facilitation Processes for Structure and Clarity
Google doesn’t mention this, but one can foster structure and clarity through processes as well. In particular, group facilitation processes. You can use group processes for coming up with ideas, dealing with disagreements, making collective decisions without a boss, and on and on.
We won’t explore this lengthy topic here, because there are many processes–all fit for purpose and adaptable to circumstance–our favourite library being Liberating Structures.
Because structure and clarity require a bit of work to ‘get everyone on the same page’. To do this, you have to… well… make a ‘page’ to work from as a group.
‘What are we not clear on as a team? Roles? The purpose of our team? What’s our cadence for meetings?’ Etc.
Every team I’ve worked in or with—whether it was an internal team, a multi-stakeholder team that stretched between different organizations, or a group of collaborators—has required mutually agreed-upon structures to get everyone on the same page.
Of course, there are variations depending on the context. With Greaterthan, we help orgs with the countless practices they can use to get a handle on their work in a self-organized context (where structure becomes an essential ingredient for a more “leaderful” group). With a/sync, we help globally distributed teams identify and develop structure and clarity using digital tools and simple practices. But across all these specific contexts, there is a general framework to consider:
Concept / The Backbone of Structure and Clarity
Everyone on the team feels more oriented and psychologically safe when you take the time to make explicit agreements around the “5W1H”: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How
The Backbone of Structure and Clarity, but in this order:
1. Where are you? Try using a thinking tool like Cynefin to step out of a disordered approach to your shared work, and understand whether you are working in an obvious, complicated, complex or chaotic context. How we approach our work changes in each.
2. Why are you a team? It’s a simple question, but we often assume we all agree on the purpose of the team. It’s worth checking. Try the Liberating Structure 9 Whys with a group of any size.
3. What do you have to do? This is simply the things that need to get done to deliver on your purpose. But we can get more complicated with different strategies and tactics too. Usually the “what” of our work is shared between different roles, so it’s a good idea to know…
4. Who is in the team? And who is holding which roles in the team? If there’s work that needs to be done, but no one is doing it, you need to find someone to fill that role! Or you need to agree as a team that this work can come later. Also, whoever is on the team has their own relational needs. We are human after all. So, it’s a good idea to ask yourselves a question like ‘what do we expect from ourselves and each other?’ Try using 1-2-4-All to structure these conversations.
5. When do you do the work? This is all about getting clear on how the team uses it’s most valuable shared resource: time. When are we aiming to get what done? How frequently do we meet? What is our cadence for checking in with each other? Are we adopting an Agile Framework? Etc.
6. How do we do the work? This is where you plan how to tackle the work – and it connects with the ‘where’ too. You might also make agreements with your team on practices for collaborating asynchronously – more on this in future posts 🙂
Making Team Collaboration Effective, in a Nutshell
To end this epic post, we’re not going to summarize everything here. Effective team collaboration can be as simple as:
- Approaching your collaboration with friendship in mind;
- Generating shared enjoyment towards the work, and;
- Having a bias towards getting the work done.
Easy to see it written here, but nothing beats practice. And so on that note, I’m going to end by emphasizing the importance of practice. You know,
- Real life.
- Messing around and fumbling together.
- Stepping on toes awkwardly.
Please just go and try these practices. Adapt them. Shoehorn them. Whatever you need to do to get you over ‘the hurdle of first action.’
Concept / The Hurdle of First Action
It’s all well and good in theory, but until you try it, we believe that you’ve learned 20% of a thing. The “Pareto Principle” applies here the other way too: an ounce of practice is worth a ton of theory, etc. Go and jump that hurdle of first action, and if you fumble and fall, that’s even better. As a good friend of ours says of his improv and drama coaching with actors: failure is a better outcome – it’s where the most learning happens.
You can only make team collaboration effective, by applying the research and practices above. That means intentionally planning for collaboration in the ways we’ve identified above (of course this is only one recipe among many).
We emphasize make, because the practice of team collaboration is an ongoing, iterative effort akin to making! For all the science shared above, the practice of team collaboration has many parallels with crafting and art.
And in this way the practice of team collaboration is yet another expression of our ongoing evolutionary process of learning, discovery and creation.
We wish you, dear reader, success in your own collaborative journey!
- Charles Duhigg, Smarter, Better, Faster, chapter 2; Google re:Work.
- Amy Edmondson, “Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams”, p. 354.
- Project Aristotle has a one-pager of practices that you can get here. Many marry nicely with Edmondson’s top three.
- Google re:Work.
- Gareth R. Jones, “Task Visibility, Free Riding, and Shirking: Explaining the Effect of Structure and Technology on Employee Behavior.”
- Paul Tough How Children Succeed, particularly chapter 2; and Drake Baer, “This Personality Trait Predicts Success.”
- Bart de Jong and Tom Elfring, “How Does Trust Affect the Performance of Ongoing Teams? The Mediating Role of Reflexivity, Monitoring and Effort”; and Bart de Jong, Nicole Gillespie and Kurt T. Dirks, “Trust and Team Performance: A Meta-Analysis of Main Effects, Moderators and Covariates.” The latter summarizes a substantial data set of 112 independent studies, equalling about 7,763 teams!
- Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith, The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High-Performance Organization; and Moreland, Levine and Wingert, “Creating The Ideal Group: Composition Effects at Work” in Erich Witte and James Davis’ Understanding Group Behaviour: Volume 1.
- Michael A. Campion, Gina J. Medsker and A. Catherine Higgs, “Relations Between Work Group Characteristics and Effectiveness: Implications for Designing Effective Work Groups.”
- Aubé, C., Rousseau, V., & Tremblay, S. “Team size and quality of group experience: The more the merrier?”
- John Mathieu, M. Travis Maynard, Tammy Rapp, and Lucy Gilson, “Team Effectiveness 1997-2007: A Review of Recent Advancements and a Glimpse Into the Future.”
- Craig L. Pearce and Pamela A. Herbik, “Citizenship Behavior at the Team Level of Analysis: The Effects of Team Leadership, Team Commitment, Perceived Team Support, and Team Size.”