“Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” – Amy Poehler

Collaboration is essential for project teams. Afterall, no one achieves the goals of the project without the skills and experience of a wider team. The wider team is the group of people inside the organisation and also the extended team of the partners that organization is working with. The word collaboration originates from the Latin word collabōrāre meaning ‘to work together’ or, if you prefer, collaborate, cooperate, contribute.

In my own mind I’ve always held collaboration at the top of this ladder, and cooperation and contribution being steps towards really collaborating with others. The intent being that by collaborating, we are producing something that is greater than what we can individually achieve and that there is some give and take between team members that builds on the group knowledge and problem solving capability.

Collaborate Cooperate Contribute
Research the term collaboration online it often appears alongside ‘innovation’ and it’s this idea that collaboration has a greater creative capacity that is fascinating. Cooperation has the tone of professional helpfulness. The basics of what’s required plus a little context and professional courtesy. Perhaps some assistance on what else outside the boundaries of the exact task or goal could or should be considered. Contribution is like handing over money for a group present. You’ve contributed, it’s not particularly personal, creative or interesting, but it’s ticked the box. There is little emotional investment or commitment to the project or goal. It’s probably a stretch to call present buying a project, but you get the idea.


How do we move toward collaboration?

For collaboration to really work in a project, the people who are collaborating must communicate effectively, share knowledge and be able to act. True collaboration requires lots more emotional and social than technical skills. Social skills are important because they encourage ‘idea flow’ and building on ideas and innovation.

Geoff Colvin author of Humans are Underrated cites research finding that team effectiveness is more correlated with social skills than anything else. The types of observable benefit that these social skills in a team bring.

Members of the very best teams did 3 things:

  1. Generated many ideas with short contributions to conversation (no one went on at great length)
  2. They engaged in ‘dense interactions’ advancing own ideas and contributing to the ideas of others
  3. Everyone contributed ideas and reactions taking turns more or less equally (creating a wide diversity of ideas)

Everyone seems to think that … leadership, mix of technical skills, vision, motivation – are more important. They matter, but not nearly as much as social skills.”

Social safety isn’t enough – we need to elevate our standards too

To bring our emotional best to a work stream or project the base layer of some level of psychological safety must exist. Amy Edmondson who has lead research on teamwork and psychological safety says “fostering a climate of respect, trust and openness in which people can raise suggestions without fear of reprisal. It’s the foundation of a learning culture.”

To create strong learning cultures both high standards and high levels of psychological safety are needed. People must be both comfortable in making mistakes to learn but also creating stretch targets to develop. Project work is often a vehicle for businesses to develop a more learning focused culture. To make a project successful the most capable people need to feel safe enough to contribute ideas and share knowledge with others. They need to feel confident that their contributions will be considered.

They need to believe that their ideas matter and that they will be listened to. This requires leaders to build a team environment where everyone feels respected and trusted.

Some key skill sets that would be beneficial to develop in collaboration are:

  1. Tolerance of others’ views and capabilities, being aware of different cultural contexts and being able to accept and control your own emotions.
  2. Compromise, an ability to choose the best option for the goal or the project ahead the work we are to complete,
  3. Reliability, the act of trusting that when a task is assigned or agreed upon that it will be completed.
  4. Authenticity, bringing your own strengths to the table and respecting and recognizing the strengths of others.

These are emotional and social capabilities that require application in a project team and propel the effectiveness and innovation in a team ahead.

What does useful/effective collaboration look like in practice?

Constructive conflict, or task focused conflict, is debate and difference about the best approach or outcome. It can be heated and at times awkward or challenging, but it doesn’t descend into name calling or personal attacks. People can disagree and feel frustrated, but it doesn’t get personal. My own lived experience on one project team over the last year; there has been much push and pull about the fastest, right, best approaches for various elements of the project. This debate and discussion has, at times, been difficult to engage with as there’ve been parties who are very committed to their particular view of the outcome.

Adam Grant, organisational psychologist and Wharton professor, says “If there’s no data contradicting your viewpoint, you haven’t looked hard enough”. The group has leadership that looks for contradicting data, emotional maturity, tolerance. We have bonded a little over the circumstances of doing everything dispersed and sought clarification and followed up when things have been unclear. The intent is to progress and to raise the standards all the time. The conflict is task focused and doesn’t get personal, people are listening with the intention of trying to gain more information and learn.

Resistance is useless

From the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy
FORD: Alright, just stop panicking!
ARTHUR: Who said anything about panicking?!? This is still just a culture shock.
FORD: Arthur! You’re getting hysterical. Shut up!
VOGON GUARD: Resistance is useless!
FORD: You can shut up as well!
VOGON GUARD: Resistance is useless!

The opposite of collaboration is resistance, and like the Vogon guard says, it’s useless. Useless to the client, to the goals of the project and ultimately to the party that is resisting. However, when we see this kind of behaviour it’s often as difficult to deal with and redirect as the mindless Vogon.

We’ve worked with parties who resist the process or insist on doing things their own way, rather than being able to compromise and reliably build trust with the project team. Resistance creates tension and friction that’s not serving the goal or objective of the project. This kind of resistance can be avoidance or denial of what is logical and likely the knock on impact of continuing ‘as is’. Dealing with resistant parties is a subject to be tackled on another day. Let’s for the moment just recognize it, and in recognizing know that it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong.

I think we need to start thinking about what “true collaboration” looks like when we talk about conflict resolution. It’s not just about getting people to agree on something. True collaboration requires us to work together as a team to make sure our goals align and that we all understand each others’ perspectives so we can move forward together. This type of successful collaboration is easy to talk about but hard to achieve in practice. It’s worth striving for.

True collaboration means being open to changing your mind

Adam Grant in ‘Think Again’ describes the multiple cycles of internal debate and development at Apple that led to the iphone. Jobs as the front man ends up with the credit, but it was actually a team of engineers that challenged him to change his mind as he was set against the idea of becoming a phone company early in the smartphone era, and the result was an iconic product that changed the world.

It’s important to evaluate how you and your teams collaborate. Organizations that collaborate well are likely to be more financially successful, more aligned, and have more engaged employees.

At 6R, we specialize in helping businesses improve and develop communication and project methods.
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[3] Colvin, Geoff Humans are Underrated, Research conducted by Alex Pentland, MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory involved participants wearing tiny cameras on their clothes designed to pick up tone of voice and social interactions between the members and obscure the actual words spoken.