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The Beginner’s Guide to Collaborating at Work

Collaboration at work is messy. Look back at the notes, chat logs, and diagrams that carried any team to a finished project — it’s hardly a smooth, uninterrupted path straight to the final answer.

This is everyone’s experience with collaboration in the workplace. Bringing together people with different skills and abilities to create new products, services and solutions is hard.

There’s never going to be a perfect process, but you can take incremental steps towards supporting and improving collaboration at work that can increase the chance of your teams finding success.

Why focus on collaboration?

Answer: there’s no avoiding it.

The speed of innovation and constant market disruption has shown weaknesses in businesses where siloed departments hand off completed tasks.

The shift away from top-down management toward more networked organizations has been going on for decades, but world events of 2020 have put the transition in fast-forward.

A company with a culture of collaboration is better positioned to respond to the challenges of the modern workplace. It’s characterized by the free flow of information across the company and cross-functional teams. Some of the benefits of this type of organization include:

  • Agility to respond to new problems
  • Resilience in the face of change
  • Engagement among employees
  • Synergy of ideas across the company
  • Retention of your best employees

Millions of managers are working remotely for the first time, and many wonder if they’ll ever return to a traditional office. As they guide teams, departments, and projects under the new paradigm, collaboration leadership becomes essential.

What good collaboration looks like

“One of the keys to Apple,” Steve Jobs told an interviewer near the end of his incredible career, “is that Apple is an incredibly collaborative company.”

He went on to describe how each aspect of Apple was overseen by one person. “We all meet for 3 hours, once a week, and we talk about everything we’re doing. The whole business.”

Jobs described an open discussion, where everyone was empowered to speak their mind, and the senior leadership could figure out the best way forward. As Jobs explained:

“There’s tremendous teamwork at the top of the company, which filters down to tremendous teamwork throughout the company. And teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them the whole time…

That’s what we do really well. And we’re great at figuring out how to divide things up into these great teams that we have, and all work on the same thing, touch base frequently, and bring it all together into a product. We do that really well.”

Apple is one of the most profitable companies in history, as well as one of the most mimicked. Their ability to come up with truly revolutionary products is a function of the company’s trust in collaboration.

“If you want to hire great people and have them stay working for you,” said Jobs, “you have to let them make a lot of decisions, and you have to be run by ideas, not hierarchy. The best ideas have to win. Otherwise good people don’t stay.”

Jobs was certainly a unique character, and trying to establish an Apple-like culture of collaboration at your company isn’t something you should expect to happen overnight.

Getting your team ready for collaboration

The two biggest things you can focus on as you prepare your company to organize under a more collaborative framework are creating ideal conditions and incentivizing positive behavior.

Creating ideal conditions for collaboration

In order for people to work together, they need tools to communicate and share their ideas. While collaborative teams are loaded with people who have different skill sets, they all need to work on the same problems.

Using the best task management apps or project management software is one way to make sure that the group understands the common goals, especially if some or all members are remote.

Additionally, you want to make sure that individuals are not cut off from the larger company. Inter-team and cross-company communication is vital in a collaborative workspace.

Ensuring that whatever platform you use allows users to exchange ideas with anyone in the organization goes a long way towards promoting the information flow that is so essential to companies like Apple.

Incentivizing positive behaviors

As Jobs said, you have to trust that everyone is going to do their part. Gone are the days of micromanagement. Great employees won’t stay if they aren’t allowed to make decisions.

So how do you promote behaviors you want to see without mandating specific actions?

Wikipedia is a prime example of how to set a positive tone for collaboration, even in the most divisive of situations.

The vast majority of editors on Wikipedia are volunteers, and there is simply no way for the relatively small paid staff to adjudicate every disagreement that comes up in the collaborative editing process. Instead of management per se, Wikipedia relies on a shared set of principles and some very basic frameworks that lay out how disputes should be handled.

Yes, there are occasional edit wars and other issues that arise, but on the whole, Wikipedia has become a trusted resource for people around the world. Despite the differences of the hundreds or thousands of people who work on a page, it works because everyone subscribes to a shared set of values and ground rules.

In short people know what’s expected and acceptable. As disagreements arise, people have a non-emotional set of standards they can appeal to. This encourages both collaboration and cooperation, especially when people don’t see eye to eye.

Even if you aren’t navigating 310 different languages, you can benefit from outlining the values, principles, and rules that govern how people work together. This creates an objective point of reference for people to use during the thorny situations that arise from different people working towards the same goal.

How to become a collaborative team: 5 areas of focus

Establishing a shared means and motive for working together is only the first step in making your organization more collaborative.

In order to reap the benefits, you won’t be able to cling to a static process framework. Instead, you will have to constantly reassess how your teams are working together as projects and constraints change.

By focusing on these 5 areas of collaboration, you can continually improve processes by capitalizing on the positives and not repeating the pitfalls.

Culture

Building a thriving culture of collaboration is a long process. Depending on the current structure of your company, you may need to make deep changes to the perceptions people have about their role at the company.

I recommend creating a task force that can help you identify and institute the changes necessary. You’re not starting from scratch — people are already working together — the goal is to amplify the collaborative tendencies that are productive, and re-route those that aren’t.

Consider rolling out changes incrementally, over the course of several months, collecting feedback along the way to make informed decisions about how to proceed.

Training

One of the easiest ways to support your teams in their work is to provide collaboration training. There are courses and certifications available that can help you deliver consistent knowledge and practices to new hires, and further develop leaders that are looking to expand their domain.

Generally speaking, there are two types of training resources you can use to bolster collaboration:

  1. Educational training: Courses that focus on problem-solving in a collaborative work environment. They cover things like conflict resolution, meeting organization, consensus building, emotional intelligence, and teamwork.
  2. Product-specific training: Courses that focus on team collaboration within a specific product. You can find collaboration-specific training for Microsoft 365, G Suite, WebEx Airtable, Notion, and a growing number of products teams use to carry out their work.

Don’t wait for something to go wrong before investing in collaboration training. Assume that people are constantly learning, and try to support that.

Some courses are free, and many online learning platforms offer free trials, so you can get a sense of what will work best before you commit.

Skills

Distinct from technical knowledge are the interpersonal skills that enable people to work together effectively. Several of these so-called “soft skills” are absolutely critical to the success of any collaboration, regardless of the talent present in any group.

By deliberately promoting collaboration skills throughout your organization, you can normalize healthy and productive forms of engagement between employees. Tolerance, consistency, and emotional intelligence may seem like qualities people can’t work on — you either have them or you don’t.

It’s not true, though.

By encouraging company-wide practice of the skills that underpin collaboration, it will alter the tenor of thousands individual conversations. As people come into conflict, they will have a number of productive options at the forefront of their mind that they might not have considered without prompting.

Tools

In order for teams to organize and track their work, they’ll need to make use of shared platforms and tools. The best collaboration tools are going to vary from team to team, and there are always new options on the market.

Collaboration in Google Docs, for example, allows people to co-edit documents in real time, suggest changes, and leave comments. While the right tool can empower collaboration, you need to make sure that your apps aren’t creating new silos.

Even at companies with a shared productivity suite like Microsoft 365, different parts of the organization use software and apps to coordinate their work that are essentially foreign to their colleagues in other departments. Ensure that your teams have the tools they need to accomplish their specific work, but also means to stay connected to the rest of the company.

Meetings

Ideally, collaboration means less meetings.

As Jobs said, “Teamwork is dependent on trusting the other folks to come through with their part without watching them the whole time.” Productive collaboration requires a balance of close communication and employee independence.

In such a setting, meetings are composed of people with different roles and responsibilities. The purpose is to generate new knowledge and solutions that the individual members couldn’t on their own. Such synergy is the product of diverse ideas coming together, but it’s not easy to manage the necessary conflict that emerges.

In large part, the success of individual meetings will be driven by your investment in other areas: tools, culture, training, and skills. At the same time, having a thoughtful collaboration meeting agenda can help the team prioritize its problems and build consensus toward a solution.

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