Aside from learning to share toys in kindergarten, formal education gives very few lessons on how to collaborate.

At a time when teamwork is becoming the norm and teams are more often than not made up of contractors or consultants from outside the organization, collaborative skill improvement can be a unique and effective way to dramatically increase team performance.

Authors Rob Cross, Rob Enderle and Adam Grant noted in a recent article in Harvard Business Review, "Collaborative Overload" that, “over the last two decades the time spent by managers and employees on collaborative activities has ballooned by 50 percent or more. In many companies collaborative work can be up to 80 percent of work, and can provide 20-35 percent of value, but in general it comes from only 3-5 percent of employees. This virtuous cycle can also become a vicious cycle of workflow bottlenecks and employee burnout ....”

It seems clear that distributing collaboration across a larger number of employees would help remove some of the bottlenecks and cut down on employee burnout from collaboration.

Are You a Good Collaborator?

Walk around any organization and ask the question “are you a good collaborator?” I would bet that, to a person, they all say “yes.” 

This is one of the biggest collaboration problems. And no one wants to talk about it. 

Collaboration doesn’t have a unifying methodology — it is situational. Most people make poor collaborative choices every day without knowing it, and believe they are still good at collaborating.

Better collaborative tools won't solve this problem. Look at the over 2000 solutions flooding the marketplace today. To paraphrase Einstein, “you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that got you into it.” Although technology may have gotten us into this problem, technology can’t get us out. It is a behavioral issue, and one most vendors of collaborative software solutions want nothing to do with.

I did a straw poll last June, calling about 40 people, about half who work in management for collaboration software vendors. One hundred percent of them saw and agreed that the lack of collaboration skills was a problem, yet only two of the vendors thought they could fix it through better technology. Aside from those two, everyone else acknowledged the problem, but had no idea how to fix it.

How to Develop Better Collaborative Skills

The atomic unit of collaboration is an interaction between two people. But knowing how to interact and what to do in each situation requires judgment and skills which need to be taught and experienced. We can teach skills, but judgement in a collaborative situation comes from experience.

I define collaboration as a series of interactions between two or more people for a specific purpose or goal. The chart below shows how I differentiate “collaboration” from many of the other terms used for it.

collaborative levels of commitment

Figure 1: How to differentiate between different terms for “Collaboration”

This definition brings up a number of questions:

  • How do you measure it?
  • How do you determine how good your own collaborative skills are?
  • And how do you improve your collaborative skills?

Measuring Collaboration

Collaboration itself is a behavior, so it takes a behavioral metric to measure it. Our research shows that people try to have metrics for meetings, but these are really meta-metrics (i.e. how many people, how long it lasted, etc.) — providing easily measurable, but not valuable information about a meeting. And only about 40 percent of meetings even have this level of metrics.

Creating a behavioral metric — especially an objective one — is hard. Many years ago I created a more subjective metric for collaboration called TCEP (Technology, Culture, Economics, Politics) based on my experience working with large organizations all over the world. Those four factors had the most to do with collaborative success. This initial metric is a quick way to see how collaborative your team is, and how critical better collaborative skills are to your bottom line.

Hands-On Approach to Collaborative Skills

PlaybookAs with any other skill, collaboration takes practice. 

Whether it's throwing a football to a receiver, or running through tacklers, all football players need to keep their skills sharp, and learn new ones. New skills are often introduced in the form of a play. We define a play as “A coordinated pattern of moves that achieves a specific outcome.” Plays are small changes in behavior that sometimes require new skills.

The same is true in collaboration. It is unfortunate, but we often get more training in football in our developing years than collaborative skills. We’re taught to share toys in kindergarten, and further lessons if we played a team sport or participated in a team activity in high school, but that was it. Even business schools, where collaboration is critical, don’t offer much (if any) instruction in collaboration. 

And it doesn't get much better when you enter the workforce. I have taught many instructor-lead half or one day classes on collaboration, and I can tell you that if I asked the class the next day what they remembered, it would be very little.

Collaboration is a “hands-on” activity. One of my most successful consulting assignments was when I took my years of Dungeons and Dragons experience and applied it to a business role-playing game. The game used a variety of collaborative tools, and encouraged the players to work together to solve the challenge the scenario posed. This was so successful, that some of the people who played the game approached me a decade later at a conference to discuss the experience.

Twenty years later the technology has changed, but the lessons haven’t. The best way to learn new collaborative skills is a hands-on approach, where each “play” helps teams learn or perfect a new collaborative skill.