Now that we've covered the theoretical, it's time to get practical. In this section, we'll delve into the practical strategies you can use to foster a culture of collaboration in your team.
“Collaboration may be a practice—a way of working in harmony with others—but it begins with a point of view,” writes Tony Award-winning choreographer Twyla Tharp in The Collaborative Habit. Effective collaboration begins as an internal state: Thinking in terms of “we,” not “I.”
A prime example of the power of this kind of collaborative thinking is Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Though surveys from the time show that Republicans were more likely to be active internet users, Obama's online campaign generated significantly more traffic than his opponent John McCain's. The reason? Rallying around the campaign slogan “Yes, we can,” Obama's supporters took matters into their own hands—sharing, promoting, and engaging with the campaign online.
Obama's campaign shows the power of a perspective shift—yes, we can. But such collaborative thinking can only occur when team members have a shared purpose. This is where a shared mission comes in. A larger goal, outside of a team's individual members, provides an external focus—something to orient their attention and unify their focus. If your team struggles to function collaboratively, think about your purpose. Do you have a shared mission that everyone understands and supports? If not, work to define it into something that everyone is enthusiastic about.
Teams function best when their members can act as experts of their own domains rather than the recipients of orders. Take the example of Hurricane Katrina. FEMA's response to the crisis has been widely studied and criticized by experts—tangled in a bureaucratic, command-and-control system, government officials were prevented from responding quickly and supplying resources effectively. This exacerbated the disaster and caused needless suffering.
But an unlikely hero emerged in the wake of the hurricane: Walmart. Instead of pushing decisions up the hierarchy, Walmart empowered its staff to act independently. “A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above your level,” CEO Lee Scott told his employees. “Make the best decision that you can with the information that's available to you at the time, and, above all, do the right thing.” Walmart staff set up temporary distribution centers, supplying much-needed essentials to displaced residents. They raided their pharmacies to supply hospitals with necessary drugs. They gave hatchets, ropes, and boots to rescue workers. While the government was still fumbling its response, Walmart employees were taking action.
“The philosophy is that you push the power of decision-making out to the periphery and away from the center,” writes Atul Gawande, in The Checklist Manifesto. “You give people the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is that they talk to one another and take responsibility.” When you push power away from the center, you empower team members to use their expertise most effectively—resulting in a high-functioning team.
By this point, “lead by example” is the stuff of managerial cliché—but it's become cliché because it's true. It's not just anecdotally compelling, there's science to back it up: “For a social norm to be enforced it must be shared by most people in a community. In particular, in a firm, it must be shared and followed by who is at the top,” write the authors of a Northwestern University study on corporate culture. If you want strong collaboration to become a core part of your organization, you have to model that behavior. As the research demonstrates, culture comes from the top.
Boundaries create social norms: This is okay, this isn't okay—here's where we draw the line. In interpersonal relationships, they allow people to feel respected and safe. In the workplace, they also perform the important function of allowing team members to do their best work. Teams should especially consider implementing boundaries that protect employees' time and space. For instance, maybe a team boundary is that no one interrupts their colleagues while they're working with headphones on—allowing them to focus completely on the task at hand. Or in order to set up a meeting, you need to send a brief meeting agenda to all invitees, to ensure the meeting is really necessary.
If your team hasn't clearly defined these boundaries, you can still carve them out gently for yourself. For instance, if someone books a meeting on your calendar without asking you first, follow up and ask what the goals for the meeting are. This ensures you're spending your time effectively and sets a precedent that meetings with you should have a defined goal.
Teams learn from their failures, not their successes. Understanding what went badly—and how you can do better—is typically more illuminating than what went well. In order to encourage your team to be open and honest about their shortcomings, it's key to create a culture that celebrates failure. Failure means that you're trying new things and learning—it's the only pathway to growth. One way to do this is to create an “oops” wall (a chat channel will do as well). Whenever something doesn't go according to plan, make it a practice to record it on your “oops” wall. This helps normalize vulnerability and encourage team members to grow from their mistakes—not hide them or cover them up.
This is a strategy used by surgery teams in the operating room. Because the same teams don't always work together, researchers found that the members of an operating team sometimes didn't even know each other's names. To rectify this, they implemented the check-in: Before an operating team begins a procedure, the team goes around in a circle, introducing themselves and their roles. In addition to ensuring that everyone feels comfortable communicating with one another, these check-ins also seemed to help engage members' participation and encourage less senior members of the group to speak up when they had something important to say—for instance, a nurse contradicting or challenging a senior doctor when they noticed something wrong. Researchers call this the “activation phenomenon.” “Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to activate their sense of participation and willingness to speak up,” writes Dr. Atul Gawade, a surgeon, in The Checklist Manifesto.
Try it yourself: While you might not need to have your team members introduce themselves at every meeting—especially if they always work together, unlike frequently-changing operating room teams—it's still useful to go around and give everyone the chance to give their input. Try starting every meeting by having everyone share a quick progress report or telling the team something that went well in the last week.
“Done” can mean many things to many people. For instance, to a developer, a piece of code might be ‘done' when it's written; to a QA person, when it's tested; and to a DevOps person, when it's shipped. Vagueness associated with a team's responsibilities can result in these kinds of competing interpretations. That's why many teams create a “definition of done”—a technique borrowed from Agile methodology. Your definition should include all the steps a task needs to pass before it can be considered done. For instance, a development team might adopt the following definition.
Try it yourself: Create a “done” checklist that your team members can refer to. If your team is responsible for different kinds of tasks, you may need to create separate checklists for each. That way when someone says, “I'm done,” you'll know exactly what they mean.
Big organizations typically have large and complex hierarchies. There can be a lot of bureaucracy that's beyond the team's control—such as unnecessary meetings or excessive emails—that eat up time and prevent team members from doing their best work. Team members may struggle to voice these concerns as they don't want to upset the hierarchy. Therefore, it's up to managers to empower employees to be able to carve out the time and space they need to thrive in their positions.
Try it yourself: Implement the “law of two feet”—if you aren't contributing or learning something of value to you in a meeting, you are free to go. This gives team members the freedom to absorb value where they need it and prioritize other tasks if they are more important.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, remote working was on the rise—and research suggests the trend will continue after we find ways of managing the virus. But dispersed teams, whether working partially or entirely remotely, face unique challenges when it comes to team collaboration. Here's our advice for instilling a sense of team cohesion and maximizing productivity, even when you're apart.
As noted in the first section of this guide, research has found that professionals find their relationships with colleagues to be some of the most rewarding aspects of their work. Bringing together diverse team members to work with and learn from each other also frequently plays a role in innovation.
In order for remote team members to share in these benefits, it's important to create a sense of community and facilitate spontaneous connections. Remote teams need to be more intentional than in-person teams about facilitating social activities, but these don't have to require a ton of effort or planning. Casual, daily opt-in activities over video chat, such as a team stretch or afternoon coffee break give team members the chance to take a well-deserved pause and get to know their colleagues in a casual setting.
Every team needs a project management framework to understand their tasks and keep them on track—and for remote teams, this is even more essential. Digital project management tools like Backlog provide remote teams with a single source of truth for their work, allowing them to view their progress, collaborate with coworkers, and stay on track. Project managers have the benefit of being able to see everyone's progress on one dashboard, giving them a high-level overview of project status.
But in order to be effective, it's crucial team members are on the same page with how they use these tools. For instance, you can use your shared “definition of done” to ensure team members only check off tasks once they are well and truly complete. You may also need to set expectations around how tasks are added to your task backlog. As a team, set some ground rules about how you will use the tool so you can be most effective.
Video call fatigue is real—and calls can be particularly troublesome to coordinate if your team is spread across multiple time zones. To protect your team's time and energy, save the video calls for important discussions and decision-making. If you simply need to communicate information, try sending an email, leaving a comment in your team's project management tool, sending a message over your teams chat app, or creating an asynchronous video (browser extensions like Vidyard and Soapbox allow you to record your face, screen, or both simultaneously and embed your video message in a link or email).
It can be a challenge to work remotely for the first time—especially if you're doing so with the added stressors of a global pandemic. Have patience with yourself and with your colleagues. Normalizing failure and encouraging vulnerability is even more essential during their time, as we all grapple with the changes to our lives.
As our work grows ever more complicated and specialized, teamwork and the ability to collaborate emerge as critical skills. In today's workplace, we don't need master builders—we need teams of experts who can join forces to reach audacious goals. By learning to implement the teamwork tools, practices, and strategies discussed above, you'll be well on your way to fostering high-functioning, collaborative teams—whether in-person or remote.