Your work culture is ready. You've got unified collaboration software tools in place. The stage is set, you've done the groundwork. 

And then .... 

Your team doesn't collaborate.

Even if you've laid the foundation for collaboration in your organization, it can still be a challenge getting teams to change work habits. But a few strategies help mitigate typical problems when nurturing and building collaborative teams.

Goals, Not Roles

What are the business goals of the work to be done? Who has the interdisciplinary skills to best achieve those goals? 

Collaborating effectively requires people to go beyond their traditional roles to take responsibility for the entire product they are building as a team. This means focusing on the goals and objectives of the project, over and above who is responsible for or expected to do what. Selecting the right resources can be tricky, and depending on the person, may require more or less mentoring to begin.

When choosing a team to achieve the work at hand, pick people with interdisciplinary skills in more than one knowledge area. Whoever has been tasked to do X is also capable of contributing, reviewing, supporting and critiquing Y and/or Z. 

On a software team, this could mean putting a back-end developer with a serious eye for user experience together with a business analyst who used to code front-end. You'll need to know your people well: what skills and aptitudes they possess, what else they want to learn. 

Based on these ingredients, put your collaborative team together with a focus on goals, not roles.

Interdisciplinary Teams

On an interdisciplinary team, the project work is still split up among resources who will lead in their specialty or depth of knowledge area. But each resource should also have capabilities in other skill areas too. 

T-shaped skills" or “T-shaped people" is a metaphor to describe people who possess broad skills across a number of (related) competencies PLUS have depth of skill in one competency. On a software team, the project manager can also do business analyst work; the business analyst can also do UX or IA work. In your organization, this means nurturing people who are generalists vs. specialists, or generalist-specialists in more than one competency.

People who can collaborate widely across knowledge disciplines are extremely valuable, and on a collaborative team, their value is two-fold. Not only do they support the quality of the end-deliverable, functioning to review for gaps and problem solve, but can also mentor less experienced team members, helping them develop professionally. 

After you've worked this way for a while, you should find people who can do many things, but also enjoy doing many things, while being supported by their teammates to ensure success. The management benefits are powerful.

Learning Opportunities

Iterative / Agile Methods

A healthy team environment must be nurtured such that everyone is welcome — and expected — to comment and contribute. This is how problems are discovered sooner, and resolved faster and better: everyone's eyes, each bringing unique perspective, looking at the same objective or problem statement, at the same time. 

Your collaboration software should give you the transparency required: centralized, shared communication, project tasks, scheduling, documentation, feedback mechanisms ... but your tools mean nothing without the spirit, effort and content of everyone involved. How do you execute on project tasks in a way that gets and keeps people involved? Agile methods can inform us nicely here:

  • Break up the work to be done into small, executable components, or pieces
  • Execute each piece within a short time frame (usually two weeks)
  • Review (retrospective) after each component is completed: What did we do well? Not so well? What could we have done better?
  • Iterate: Inform and adapt for the next round.

Work done in short execution cycles means frequent communication becomes a regular, if not daily, necessity. This alone keeps your team working tightly together and fosters collaboration naturally. Frequent short meetings (5-10-15 minutes daily for example), demonstrations, walkthroughs and regular status updates keep communication open and flowing.

Remember in all this that your client isn't the only stakeholder. The team itself is also a stakeholder and should be looked after. This requires mutual trust and empathy for each other. Make sure they know that questions are welcome and making mistakes is part of the process. Encourage sharing knowledge, arguments and positions.

Strong, benevolent leadership plays a huge part, serving to trickle down values and expectations throughout the team.

Achieving Mastery

They say you need to do something three times before you remember it. Reaching a level of mastery takes years of practice and reinforcement. 

Experimental approaches to problem solving and shared consensus on solution building are both hallmarks of healthy collaborative teams. This will take time to realize if you are trying collaboration for the first time. Start by piloting collaborative teams on small projects, and spread out from there. 

When you reach the point when these behaviors are institutionalized, you can start to move beyond "mere" project work and begin to foster innovation. At that point, the sky's the limit.

Title image "ingredients" (CC BY 2.0) by  Andrea Goh 

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