By Marcus Varner
We all know we need more of it and to do it better. We know it could be the very key to our company's survival. Developing a knack for collaborating with your team and across teams and departments is now just a part of doing business.
Organizations must be able to excel at working together while giving their employees the tools to foster better communication and access to information. The more the workplace becomes connected by open offices, distributed teams, and remote technology to get things done, the more that effective collaboration becomes as critical a skill as organization or critical thinking.
Those teams that excel at collaboration tend to innovate better and respond to market conditions faster. They tend to experience higher levels of morale and, as a result, productivity. Finally, better and more collaboration equals fewer mistakes and surprises (I’m looking at you, Oscar envelope holders).
Yes, we all get it: collaboration is fantastic. Unfortunately, from time to time we all fall short of the promise of collaboration. Even our most sincere efforts at collaboration can cause more harm than good (see my recent post “5 Times We Think We’re Collaborating (But We’re Not)”).
Needless to say, no matter how good we think we are at collaborating, we could all use a reminder and hearty helping of collaboration tips. Here are 40 tips for making collaborating second nature and giving your team an atmosphere for success.
1. Understand the purpose of the collaboration
People on your team, or those involved in cross-team projects, need to know why they are needed. That means helping them understand why the project exists, what it means to the company, and how they can help achieve a positive outcome.
“When each team member understands the purpose and goals associated with their team, they can more effectively visualize what they can offer related to that purpose,” says Murray Newlands, Forbes contributor and founder of www.sighted.com.
2. Define the goals of the work
Once people know the main objective of a project or other work initiative, it’s time to set goals. This helps align everyone right from the start and leads to more effective team collaboration.
Add the goals to your work management tool so people get a visual reminder of what is to be done and what’s at stake.
“This way everyone is reminded of where the company wants to go,” writes Kristie Holden of Marketcircle. She adds that this also helps evaluate whether or not specific ideas or tasks help or hinder the goals.
3. Define roles for the team
Every person on the team contributes specific strengths to the department and company. Collaborating means bringing these strengths to the forefront to make something better than someone could do alone. This works best when each contributor knows how he or she is needed. It’s the job of the project or team leader to make these roles clear at the beginning.
4. Make it clear collaboration is expected
It may seem like a no brainer in today’s workplace, but some team members might need a gentle reminder that collaborating is the default setting for the company. Some people may work faster and do their best work alone, and that’s great for when actual work needs to be done. But there are other parts of work where working together is crucial. Set that expectation and people will get behind it.
“They should know how much work is expected of them and the amount of hours they should put into it,” says the QuickBase blog. “They should also know what part of the project they need to be working on and who they can count on for support and resources.”
5. Identify the strengths of the team
Think about the best teams. The A-Team, The Average Joes, The Dillon High School Panthers, The Rockford Peaches, and The Wonder Pets are all great because each member pulled their weight and played to their strengths.
Real collaboration relies on the fact that, collectively, we are all better than when we’re working alone.
“Part of what makes people so interesting is the fact that we are all different. We have different personalities, strengths, weaknesses, perspectives and ideas,” Holden writes. “When you identify what people are good at, you can set them up for success by pairing them with appropriate tasks and roles that suit their strengths.” She also suggests using personality indicators like the Myers-Briggs test to help team members identify their personality type along with strengths and weaknesses associated with each type.
6. Encourage a creative environment
Brainstorming is one of the most frequent and important parts of work projects, so it’s essential to know how to be creative together. “Allow team members to question and brainstorm in a non-judgmental framework,” Andrew Field, Founder and CEO of PrintingForLess.com writes. “Encourage the team to look at obstacles as being conquerable.”
7. Build a desire for cohesion
It’s often easier for managers to make quick decisions based on their experiences. But being collaborative means setting the quick trigger aside from time to time and involving all team members in some of the bigger, impactful decisions during your huddles and team meetings. Field says that this keeps everyone on the same page and allows them to refocus their time and energy where needed.
8. Relationships are key
We frequently get lost in the day in and day out cadence of getting things done. While this is happening, people can become cogs that churn simply to accomplish tasks. As a team, we need to remember that, as people, we thrive on connection. Dr. Carol Kinsey Goman of Troy Media Corporation says to avoid just putting people together and telling them to get work done. Teams need time to get to know one another, to discover each other’s strengths and weaknesses, to build trust, and develop a common vision for the work to be done.
9. So get to know each other
Because we’re all different, it’s worth it to invest in an appropriate interest level in what makes everyone in the collaborative group tick. This can be done formally, like taking a personality test (mentioned above) and discussing it or informally like playing a game of pool or having team lunches. This knowledge and camaraderie helps us to learn how to best interact when things at work require teamwork.
10. Trust holds things together
Trust is what allows us to have the confidence that our team members will do what they say they will do, so we don’t have to worry about it. Without it, collaboration can’t truly happen.
“Suspicious and cynical employees are disinclined to collaborate – sharing knowledge is still perceived as weakening a personal power base,” Goman writes. “Too many corporate leaders still don’t trust employees with the kind of open communication that is the foundation of informed collaboration.”
11. Be transparent
We all make mistakes. We all need help sometimes. True collaborators are honest when they need an extra hand or some extra time to finish a task. They also come to the quick aid when someone else needs to solve a problem.
Being transparent breeds trust and allows the team to fix issues before they become critical.
“The more you hold back the more it will impede collaboration between the team,” the QuickBase blog observes. “People love transparency because it makes them feel like they are part of a team … If something goes wrong, bring it to their immediate attention so they can help you solve the problem.”
12. Address conflict quickly
When conflict comes up, and it will, get to the bottom of it fast. Healthy conflict can actually make the project better if it’s resolved fairly and with some professional finesse.
“It can be a way to disrupt a project and generate something new or change a team member’s perspective for the better,” Newlands writes. “Pay attention to team dynamics, body language, and dialogue between team members so you can push the conflict to the surface and diffuse it before it breaks down team productivity.”
13. Hold an annual gathering
Some organizations, especially those with employees who spend the majority of their time working remotely, find meeting in person once or twice a year really helps to foster team identity and a spirit of working together.
Mat Atkinson of ProofHQ writes, “Having the entire team in one location creates the perfect opportunity to review company strategy, as well as reinforce the company culture by sharing the vision of the type of company we want to be and what our values are as a team.”
14. Give individual praise
“Nice work.” We usually hear these broad sweeping words at the end of a large meeting or project where everyone is in attendance, if we hear them at all. But to get the best out of people, a regular habit of giving encouragement on an individual level can go a long way. It boosts confidence and morale.
“Instead of applauding the entire team at once, make individual comments about your team members and explain what you liked about something they did, and how it helped you,” writes Daniel Schwarz of SitePoint.
15. But still celebrate team success
During a project, be sure to tell the team or department when they are doing well and why.
If you give authentic individual and team kudos, you will find each person keying off of that and giving you more of their best, cementing the team collaborative environment.
“Celebrate when, as a team, you have reached your goal … It’s good to have a leader of a team, but everyone should feel like they have a voice that matters,” says Holden.
16. Make meetings count
Like we’ve written many times before, some team members may consider meetings a four-letter word, often rightfully so. According to one Salary.com survey, 49% of workers consider unfocused meetings to be their biggest workplace time-waster. But even the biggest meeting-haters have to acknowledge that meetings hold an indispensable place in creative teams. The trick is to use them sparingly and then, when they are used, to make them lean and purposeful.
“You should leave each meeting with an actionable take away, something that can advance the team’s efforts towards the finish line,” writes Schwarz.
17. Don’t use meetings for status updates
A collaborative manager avoids using meetings for status updates. They use meetings to address issues that apply to all attendees, so no one’s time is wasted. Use strict agendas to keep the conversation on point and the pace quick. Again, structured, time-compressed meetings are the most effective.
18. Avoid email for collaborating
Email, often the go-to tool for communication, takes up critical work time and creates situations where important details get lost. Brainstorming ideas and following through on work isn’t effective in an email chain among a narrow list of recipients.
19. Be patient
Like we addressed here, being asked to collaborate on a project or new initiative feels good. But be careful. Collaboration is a two-way street. It’s just as much about fostering others’ ideas as it is about making sure our own move forward.
20. Use visualization techniques together
Whiteboards, huge sticky notes, PowerPoint visuals, or even some guided team meditation might bring out some much needed team conversation.
“Provide team members the opportunity to use visuals to clarify and share their ideas at the simplest level,” says Nicole Fallon of Business News Daily. “You can do this with anything from rough sketches to full-scale presentations.”
Collaboration, at its core, is effective work communication. To clarify, this doesn’t mean we should interrupt each other whenever we have a thought about something. We should still use communication etiquette and boundaries.
But, as we work, team members and managers can rarely trust that information is shared in an effective and timely manner among team members. This issue is so widespread among enterprises that, according to one survey, 57% of project managers cited poor communication as the leading cause of project failure. The solution is better, frequent communication.
22. Actively listen
Listening intently and actively is probably more important than speaking when it comes to true collaboration. This means being patient and making a conscious effort to really hear what the other person is saying.
“Allowing each team member to have their say ... is the best way to work together,” says Newlands. He adds that managers and leaders can step in to facilitate sessions where everyone gets a chance to be heard if listening becomes an issue during work collaboration.
23. Offer rewards and incentives
Offering specific awards for teamwork well done can further breed an environment of collaboration. Make these awards or small parties that happen with each milestone. “These are just opportunities to leverage positive reinforcement mechanisms to change individual behaviors,” says Newlands.
24. Be authentic
This one is simple. People trust each other more and work better together when we are exactly who we are with everyone we work with. Do what you say you will do. Speak up when you disagree. Admit your faults. Honestly offer praise.
“We must always expect authenticity across collaboration efforts. We have to be who we say we are and not ‘role play’ to expectations or false projections,” writes Chris Jones, an IT Strategy and Change Management consultant.
25. Drive a positive vibe
Work can be difficult, especially when things aren’t going smoothly. The best collaborators bring an attitude of positivity to the table. “We all want an upbeat work dynamic. It’s more fun to have fun, after all. Though culture is often hard to define, I find that it is a key factor in the way people behave,”Jones writes. “Incentives can help, but with collaborative teams, sometimes the only incentive is the value of insights or friendships gained by being there.”
26. Break down silos
We’ve touched on this in other posts, but, when it comes collaboration, sharing is caring. Walling off and putting our heads down to work may seem individually productive, but truly collaborative teams:
- Keep their project information in shared drives or in the cloud.
- Send out regular notifications to managers, team members, and stakeholders on the progress of their projects.
- Share information regarding who is working on what and when those projects are due.
Because teams that do this already know what’s happening, collaboration gets right down to facing challenges and solving problems.
27. Syncing up face to face isn’t always collaborative
“Let’s sync up real quick.” To those working on an important task, those are dreaded words. But some team members love to meet face to face about everything. Sometimes it’s because we feed off of the energy of others, and there’s no doubt that the nonverbal communication of face-to-face meetups can convey volumes that text messages and emails can’t. But, unscheduled interruptions harm collaboration and can leave everyone feeling like they didn’t accomplish anything at work.
A recent Forbes article explains: “When people get interrupted frequently, there’s only a 44% chance that they’ll leave feeling like ‘today was a really successful day.’ By contrast, when people can block out interruptions at work, there’s a 67% chance they’ll leave feeling like ‘today was a really successful day.’”
28. Use video chat and conferencing apps
With so many of us working on teams distributed throughout the globe, real collaboration can bring its own unique challenges. To more effectively work together, we should use video communication tools to better bring remote workers into the loop.
“We push people to use video calls rather than voice or chat only,” writes Kelsey Uebelhor of ProofHQ. “Video calls help people get to know each other while avoiding potential communication issues that can occur when only using chat.”
29. Set boundaries, but be available
We’ve already talked about unscheduled check-ins and how it can be a detriment to productivity. But once we’ve communicated blocks that we are available, it’s important to stick to them, making time for those who want to collaborate with you.
“If you turn off communication, you completely turn off the opportunity to work collaboratively, let alone effectively,” says Stephanie Irvine of ThinkApps.
30. Learn to get out of the way
If you are a manager of a team, sometimes your best move to foster collaboration is to enable your teams to do it well and then get out of the way.
“By trying to enforce and police everything, you stifle collaboration within your organization,” writes Jacob Morgan, contributor at Forbes.com. “Some best practices and guidelines are fine to have but let your employees do what they need to do.”
31. Be persistent
Fostering an environment of teamwork and collaboration has to be cultural and come from the top down. But the entire organization has to make the commitment to being more open to others’ ideas and working together. It will be difficult often. But persist.
“These efforts can certainly take time but if the organization makes the decision that collaboration is the direction they want to go down then that’s it,” Morgan says.
32. Adapt and evolve
Once your organization is committed and implementing tips like the ones in this article, it’s time to make adjustments as you go. Evolving what works and changing what doesn’t will give you new strategies to use in the workplace.
“It’s important to remember that collaboration is perpetual…Keep a pulse on what’s going on in the industry and inside of your organization,” says Forbes. “This will allow you to innovate and anticipate.”
33. Report abundantly
Sharing project information between members of an organization is crucial. But offering that information to management in frequent, accessible, clear-cut reports is even better. The best technical solution is one that allows team members and management to see, at their leisure, what is happening with each project or portfolio in real time.
As we said in previous posts, this kind of reporting, that constantly streams information back and forth between you and management, makes work connected and better for all.
34. Measure what matters
The only way to know if what you’re working on together is working is to focus on the metrics that matter to the efforts you’re all putting in. Avoid focusing on vanity or busy-work metrics. Focus instead on milestones or engagement for example.
35. Make sure executives have access to project and work dialogue
Reporting is one thing. But often managers and executives will want to see day-to-day efforts. Making this information available will help them help you. After all, collaboration can be done with your bosses too, right?
Using a centralized location for work history allows everyone to keep track of all the components of a specific project, for new members to get up to speed, and for the executive team to help remove roadblocks for the team.
36. Keep approvers to a minimum
As we pointed out before, one of the most common ways in which teams are asked to collaborate is during review processes. While approvals are crucial to the success and timeliness of a project, they’re also one of the biggest challenges teams face. Collaboration does not always increase in value as the number of collaborators increases.
Rather than involving every stakeholder in the review process, during the project planning phase try to agree on a small number of people to give final sign off on all items needing approval. If that’s decided early, it streamlines the approval process. You get the thoughts of key contributors and stakeholders, but you also get peace of mind knowing that they can’t singlehandedly derail the timeline with their feedback.
37. Don’t automate bad processes
Not everything should be automated. Examine current manual processes to make sure you’re doing it the right way to begin with. Automating a poorly designed process with a work management platform won’t make it easier to work with others, it will only make it worse. The right kind of automation facilitates collaboration by freeing up time to align and brainstorm about critical work.
38. Choose the right tool for the job at hand
Using email, spreadsheets, or offline notebooks makes it almost impossible to understand who has done what or who has made what changes. Instead of trying to make another tool into something it’s not, choose a purpose-built platform that’s designed for work management and collaboration.
39. Avoid a collaboration tool free-for-all
Tools used to collaborate can be wonderful. But permitting work teams to use any tool they want creates problems such as missing information, duplicate files, redundant communication, and longer times to project completion.
Workfront CMO Joe Staples puts it this way: “If only 80 percent of work is done in the platform, you’re still missing that 20 percent, which could be very important. It has to be all or nothing.”
40. Commit to one platform for work management
Finally, make a commitment to keep all work, individual or collaborative, inside a robust work management platform. Typically, once the team starts to reap the benefits, there won’t be any problem getting everyone fully on board. If you’re curious, this is how Workfront’s solution makes this possible.
Collaboration makes everything better
Collaboration makes employees more productive and creative. It helps us feel connected to our work and the people we work with. In general, it makes us happier people. Using these tips will all but guarantee better collaboration and a work environment that gets the best out of everyone in the organization.
About the Author
Over the last 9 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront. His focus is always on breaking through the clutter while engaging audiences with brands' most foundational messaging. He currently oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content at Workfront.Follow on Twitter More Content by Marcus Varner