Collaboration is one of those things that’s easy to say, but much harder to do. It’s not that we don’t know what good collaboration looks like. It’s easy to reel off a list of the basic elements – clear goals, defined roles, trust, good communication. But, according to Harvard Business Review, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional. There’s a gap between saying we need to collaborate and the ability to make it happen in practice.

There are a few factors are at play. Times are changing and teamwork looks very different now to what it did. In today’s fast-paced world, there’s more pressure to innovate and find the next big idea. We can only succeed by bringing together the right expertise at the right time, pooling our knowledge to find and deliver solutions to the biggest problems of our generation. Teams need to be smaller, more flexible, and multi-disciplinary to harness the best expertise. We won’t necessarily find all that talent in the same place. People may be outside of organisations, working as freelancers and located across multiple time zones. The dynamics are more complex, and although we have the technology to connect us, it can’t replace the very human work of building real relationships.

It also doesn’t help that our workloads seem to be ever-growing. Those “team-building” activities seem like an extravagant extra-curricular activity when you have the immediate demands of a task list right under your nose. When we’re dealing with an urgent deadline we’ll default to focusing on the idea and hope that the rest falls into place, and not take time to explore the best way to actually get it done. The reality is that how a team works together has more of an impact on its success than what they’re working on. As Ed Catmull of Pixar said “give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they’ll either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better”. Our laser-focus on the content is skewed in the wrong direction.

A unique approach for unique teams

However, forget about finding a neat, tidy process to conquer all. Creativity is messy, chaotic and uncertain – unique challenges require a bespoke response. Each new team will have a different culture based on who is part of it and the problem they’re solving. Creativity flourishes when people have autonomy and freedom over their work, yet the support to keep making progress. A team environment is a constant negotiation between enabling people to thrive individually, and guiding the whole team to the overall goal. It’s a light-touch approach, with just enough structure to maintain momentum. 

There’s no one size fits all – only tools and frameworks we can call on at the time we need them. With all of this to think about, it seems easier to just get our heads down, let our egos tell us that we know best and storm ahead on our own. But in the work of disruptive innovation, it’s near impossible to get work done without other people. We need to create environments for everyone to do their best work, and together. So the real challenge is to building our awareness of how to make collaboration happen, rather than hoping for a step-by-step approach.

No ego

True collaboration requires everyone to leave their ego at the door – having the humility to know that the seed of an idea can come from anywhere, no matter someone’s job title or level. It means having the vulnerability to say “I don’t know” and then the genuine curiosity to ask the open, ended exploratory questions that will lead to the answers. It takes an ability to listen deeply to people and having the empathy which seeks to truly understand different perspectives. It requires the hard, tricky work of building “soft skills” (which are anything but soft) like self-awareness and emotional intelligence. 

Embracing conflict

It’s also not about creating a harmonious, conflict-free team. Real collaboration in the face of innovation is intense, resonant and energetic. It creates fires in our bellies and ignites passionate, respectful debate. Creating something new means making ourselves uncomfortable. In a great team, it feels safe to challenge our peers, and simultaneously safe to take risks and make mistakes. In their research into high-performing teams, Google found that this – psychological safety (a concept identified by Amy Edmondson) – was the most important factor.

See the bigger picture

To get here, the whole team first needs to believe in the value of collaboration. We each need to be T-shaped – possessing deep expertise, with enough understanding across different disciplines to understand their value. When we can see the big picture and the scope of the challenge we need to address, it becomes clearer why it’s necessary to bring different people, skillsets and expertise together to solve it. This creates a collective direction towards a ‘north star’, and a connectedness to the task at hand, where everyone can see the relevance of their own contribution and involvement.

Time spent upfront building the team pays dividends later

Collaboration starts off in an expansive, divergent mode – exploring possibilities and giving new ideas the space to breathe. At this point, you’ll find out what everyone is bringing, their working styles and the work they thrive on, with discussions about how you’ll communicate, meet, keep the momentum going and share ideas. While it’s tempting to jump straight into the actual work itself, this short conversation is a key part of building the trust that’s so essential to a high-performing team. The discipline to do it pays dividends later on.

Balancing creativity and productivity

A great team will keep this discussion alive throughout its lifecycle in a fine balance between creativity and productivity – both keeping the environment open and inclusive to bring out the best ideas, and building the momentum to deliver on them. As a team swings between ideation and exploration to selecting ideas and making the decisions to move forward, it’s an ongoing task of keeping a close eye on the dynamics, engagement and involvement. Team-building takes on a new meaning, moving from an optional one-off, separate activity to an integrated part of the teamwork itself. 

Valuing time alone

This is just as much about making the time for people to work alone and build their thoughts as it is about making the most of the times when they come together. ‘Always on’ collaboration, requiring team members to be constantly available to respond to messages or for meetings eats into the valuable “deep work” (defined by Cal Newport) – the long stretches of uninterrupted time to get work done – that we need to really master our skills. In any case, Harvard Business School found that “intermittent collaboration” – shifting between bursts of group work and individual working – was most effective for complex problem-solving.

Making meetings matter

Bringing together those individual contributions together is what leads to innovation. So when a team does meet, that’s a precious time for rich debate, exploring ideas and building connections. Yet meetings are an aspect of collaboration that is ripe for improvement. The meeting scheduling software platform Doodle estimated that in 2019 the UK is set to waste £58bn on meetings. Left to take on a life of their own, meetings favour the most confident or senior voices, give too much time to conversations that circle back on themselves and allow the biases to creep in that lead to groupthink. This works against the very nature of great collaboration. And that’s just a few of the group dynamics at play before we even talk about how endless meetings can take over our calendars.

A simple solution?

There’s a simple solution that perfectly meets our needs for collaboration in the modern workplace, and that’s to take inspiration from workshops. A well-designed and facilitated workshop gives us everything we need to make the most of a diverse group of experts – collaboration, creativity, productivity, inclusivity, engagement, motivation and more. Through a narrative of activities with a clear purpose, a team is guided through discovery and discussion towards an outcome which serves the project. Great workshops have value way beyond the post-it notes – not only for producing content but in creating almost exactly what we need for a successful collaborative project. They can be the right vehicle to set the environment that we need for a multidisciplinary team to innovate. 

To disrupt, we need to disrupt ourselves to work in new ways together. We need to be prepared to have the difficult conversations that take us below the surface of superficial collaboration. Real collaboration takes real work.

This article first appeared in FSC Mag Issue 2 “Collaborate or Die”. Download the full issue.

Image credit: Breather on Unsplash.