As the world grows increasingly more complex, so will its challenges—both globally and for any given organization. To solve bigger and more complex problems, you need a bigger and more complex team. And to do that, you will need to foster collaboration in the workplace. But the enhanced need for collaboration brings a paradox.
According to a recent study summarized in Harvard Business Review, team success requires teams to be larger, more diverse, more virtual and more specialized. But those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. Increased diversity, in and of itself, can bring more and better ideas—but it can also bring more friction as people fight for their own ideas or more stagnation as people decide to work in their own way and not collaborate with people who work differently.
Larger teams need more collaboration, but their very size and composition makes it harder. In this article, we’ll outline 5 ways to foster collaboration on teams—no matter how large or diverse those teams are.
Make Priorities Clear
The first way to foster collaboration on teams is to make priorities clear. For many employees, it’s surprisingly unclear exactly what the key tasks and objectives are. Especially for those working on matrixed teams, it can become really difficult to decide how best to spend their time each day. They need clarity, and especially need clarity to know who they need to connect with in order to achieve those key objectives. When new tasks come in or when changes are required, that’s when it’s most important to help the whole team refocus by outlining how priorities have been reordered (or stay focused by explaining that they haven’t). Beyond helping individuals know their own priorities, making them clear helps teammates know what each other are focused on in order to better offer them help.
The second way to foster collaboration on teams is to hold huddles. Huddles refers to the regular cycle of coordination meetings on your team—or starting that regular cycle if you’re not. Huddles aren’t long, agenda-driven meetings where everyone delivers slide deck laden monologues. Instead, they’re quick but frequent meetings where teammates take turns stating what they’ve completed, where they’re focused now, and where they need help. In some cases, huddles don’t even need to be a synchronous meeting (especially if you’re team already has too many meetings). The important thing for collaboration is that everyone on the team is aware of what others are working on and kept updated on any changes that have happened since the last time they huddled. They know how their work fits into the larger team objectives, and they know where they can best assist their teammate’s work.
Set If-Then Plans
The third way to foster collaboration on teams is to set “if-then” plans. When planning out a project, and perhaps towards the end of each huddle, it’s worthwhile to look at any possible roadblocks and derailers and determine what changes need to happen if those roadblocks appear. In other words, if this happens then we agree to that pivot. (“If we need to cut the marketing budget, then we’ll focus less on advertisements and more on direct response.”) “If-then” plans can even help individuals plan out their work. After a huddle, they’ll know what each teammate is working on so they can determine what they can start now and what needs to wait until another teammate completes a task. (“If I get the final numbers from Sarah, then I can start working on the slide deck for the report.”) “If-then” plans keep people informed and ready to act when planned for or unplanned or events happen, and that keeps them collaborating.
Write Teammate Manuals
The fourth way to foster collaboration on teams is to write teammate manuals. A teammate manual or “manual of me” happens when teammates reflect on themselves, their work preferences, and their strengths and weaknesses and then report those out to the team. The simplest way is by answering four, fill-in-the-blank questions: I’m at my best when _____, I’m at my worst when _____, You can count on me to _____, I need you too. Once someone shares those answers, her teammates immediately know her strengths and weaknesses and also some of her preferred tasks. That makes it easier to collaborate with her and makes it easier to know when to ask for help—and when to offer it. And when new employees join a team, teammate manuals ensure they get connected to and collaborating with their new teammates quickly.
Find Free Times
The fifth way to foster collaboration on teams is to find free times. It may sound counterintuitive, but for fostering collaboration some of the best time spent is time not working at all. It could be sharing a meal, grabbing a coffee, or a longer more elaborate off-site. But when teams spend time together that’s not work-related, they have broader conversations and start to self-disclose about other areas of their life. That helps them build “uncommon commonalities” that make them feel better connected to each other in the long-term (and gives them reasons to stay in touch with each other more often). Long-term, uncommon commonalities turn into work friendships—and being friends with even just one person on the team increases connection and collaboration to the whole team.
Looking at this complete list, the first three actions seem much more tactical and the last two seem much more cordial. That may make it tempting to start with the “hard” skills practices to foster collaboration. But it turns out the softer, more empathetic activities actually increase collaboration more. Because the “soft” skills practices help teammates better understand how each other works—and that helps everyone know how to support each other to do their best work ever.
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