Collaboration stands at the center of good teamwork and is key to high performance. But successful and effective collaboration means not simply more of it. In fact, if not managed properly ineffective collaboration can quickly get out of hand: in some companies, collaboration takes as much as 80% of working time leaving employees and leaders with not enough time for deep concentrated work.
Team-time is a very valuable resource and should be used as such. Successful collaboration means: 1) defining what needs to be done together and 2) making the best use of this time. Both require a good understanding of the nature of work and the organizational specifics of teams, as they can differ greatly in their demands and benefits of the team-time.
So, let us think about how collaboration could be organized in different types of teams.
Teams of (relatively) independent players:
This is more the type of a team where people are looking in the same direction, rather than each other in the eyes. In such a team, members perform the same basic activities independently of each other. For example, sales reps, call center agents or project managers, where each person leads a different project. In these teams, participants don’t need input from their immediate colleagues. They have individual performance targets and can perform well as individuals even if their colleagues underperform. Collaboration in here is less in the focus and is often limited to (mostly boring) status meetings, where one person speaks, and the others multitask while waiting for their turn. In such teams, time together should by no means be ballooned, but it still can lead to greater motivation, greater sense of togetherness and better results. Collaboration here can be created around the following areas:
- Activities around sharing knowledge and experience, giving advice or moral support. A truly powerful format here would be peer coaching.
- Efforts directed towards improvement of processes and tools used by the team or towards organizational redesign in the relevant area.
- Defining common standards for excellence in their roles.
- Aligning the common goals and calibrating common understanding of the tasks and priorities – for example regarding the scale of work, product specifics or customer segment.
- Skills development.
In addition to collaboration on the whole team level, more time should be spent here with the manager in one-to-ones, to ensure optimal personal career development of the team members.
Interdependent teams. T
These are collaborative teams, as we know them: an organizational unit, a project core team, an agile software development team. In an interdependent team, no significant task can be accomplished without the collaboration, coordination, or input of other members. Team members are often specialized in different tasks and hold individual roles (like in football, forward, midfielder, goalie) and the success of the team is determined by the quality their interactions. Like in football, they can either play perfect passes or be stepping on each other’s toes. Such a team can only win – or lose – as a team.
Different kinds of interactions are crucial to success of such a team. Both, working as the whole team as well as frequent collaborations among 2-3 colleagues in changing constellations, are important depending on the tasks. The focus of collaboration should be on fostering healthy team dynamic, aligning on rules and expectations, creating psychological safety and open feedback culture. An interdependent team benefits highly from getting to know the other personally, socially, and professionally, from understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses, from developing trust in each other, and from continuous learning trough daily experiences.
These are the senior leaders of an organization, that provide strategic and operational directing the company. They set goals, develop strategies, and ensure that these strategies are executed effectively. They too need to invest time to form a strong team, get to know each other personally and professionally, develop trust and ability to make aligned decisions. Their time together is essential to what they then then can execute in their areas of influence. Apart from making decisions, executive team provides the organizational and cultural DNA for the company. How well this team functions as a collective leadership body, and how its members interact, serves as the model that teams throughout the organization will follow.
Effective executive teams focus their collaboration strategically around the following areas:
- Strategic direction. Effective executive teams establish a vision for the organization and invest considerable time and energy to form strategic decisions. They safeguard the viability and relevance of the business model, anticipate risks, embrace innovation, and seek to ensure the organization’s sustainability and future readiness.
- Collective Impact. Executive teams need to work together, taking a company-wide perception and acting as a single body of governance. Quality of collaborative behaviour of executive teams has direct and magnified impact on the entire organization. Superficial level of conversation and merely time together will not give the clarity of direction, expected from this team.
- Intentional interaction. Executive teams should put time and effort to intentionally value their differences, listen and communicate well, trust and respect one another. Personal and professional integrity plays here a crucial role, as everyone has such a strong impact. The challenge to achieve both functional and organizational goals can lead to conflict of interests, which should always be resolved in favour of the entire organization.
The world today is very dynamic and connected, with rapid acceleration of technology and people working from different locations, learning new skills, and constantly moving on professionally. We see more and more the new type of teamwork emerging, where teams of multifunctional experts come together for a short time to accomplish a specific task and move on to a different task, with different multifunctional experts. They collaborate with each other in fluid, constantly changing constellations with focus on value creation, excellence, and collaboration. These network teams are designed to be more mission driven, and customer centric, creative, and innovative.
Collaboration in these teams is generally of a yet different type and is characterized by:
- Clear organizational meta-level structure with a central hub that directing and coordinating communication. The goal is to encourage the individuals to stay personally connected. The organizational culture, norms and expectations, the ways of decision making and attitude towards risk taking should be set at this level. Integrity and authenticity must be at the core of such a system.
- Self-organization – once the meta-level structure is in place, the operational level work of teams should be self-sustaining. We can see it as interactions with an ecosystem: natural, self-managed and well-functioning. Employees fundamentally should be seen as resources of the organization rather than as resources of a specific department with a specific role description. The organizational identity of an employee would shift from a somewhat rigid “role description” to an “individual competency” and skills, experiences and perspectives are more important than any formal position.
- Small size – The entire meta-level network can be of any size, though research suggests, that for best results and most stable social relationships, where an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to everyone, the optimal network size should be about 150 people, individual teams should be kept small to ensure meaningful progress – recall Jeff Bezos’s two pizza rule, that every internal team should be small enough that it can be fed with two pizzas.
- Leverage network effects – it is only possible for people to personally connect in a small team over a specific task, when they are already a part of the meta-level organizational culture – they trust each other on following the overall norms, being united by the same overarching purpose and having weak ties among each other personally – in many cases they either have worked together in an earlier assignment or know someone who had worked with that person before.
Intentional collaborations should be integral part of organizational design. This is the best way to create and harness the potential of high performing teams, leverage personal contributions, achieve better results, and build better and more inclusive working cultures. Productive collaboration doesn’t just happen, but such organizational investment brings great return.
 Collaborative Overload (hbr.org)
 The Surprising Power of Peer Coaching (hbr.org)
 Dunbar effect – link to Wiki
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