Obstacles to successful collaboration

If you have dug deep enough into the process of collaboration to arrive at this address, chances are that you are already well aware that collaboration is a delicate art sensitive to a variety of factors. In order for it to blossom and yield its many unquestionable benefits, it must first satisfy a number of criteria and sidestep a number of potential barriers and obstacles. 

As we have already covered the interpersonal dynamics that can cause team dysfunction, in this article we will focus on the most common organizational barriers that can significantly undermine collaborative efforts.  

Organizational areas relevant to collaboration

Before we dive deeper into the systemic flaws that hinder collaboration, let’s first see what are the areas of organizational operations that greatly influence any collaborative efforts. From an organizational perspective, there are four primary aspects critical to the outcomes of collaboration: 

  • Physical spaces
  • Technology
  • Policies and practices
  • Organizational structure and culture

Let us briefly see how each of these areas impacts the course of the collaboration.

Physical spaces

Even with the fallout of the Covid-19 pandemic and the seismic changes it has brought to workspaces and the work itself, physical facilities still play an important role in shaping the overall work experience. The organizational desire for collaboration needs to be reflected in the physical setup of the workplace in ways that enable and encourage flexibility, active communication, and free flow of information while allowing a certain degree of autonomy. 

In practical terms, this means plenty of formal and informal meeting spaces, as well as the removal of any physical barriers between different teams and departments (open space).

Technology

The dramatic rise of distributed teams and remote work in recent years has dramatically altered the technological needs of organizations. Reliable and effective communication and information technologies have become essential to the success of many organizations. Active communication is the driving fuel of collaboration, and organizations should embrace any technological tools that enable collaborators to pool individual resources and combine their unique skillsets and perspectives. 

Policies and practices

As collaboration thrives on the interplay of diverging skillsets, organizations must introduce and/or maintain work policies and practices that allow the professionals with different roles and functions to easily engage in joined work. In general, collaboration-friendly policies and practices need to overcome the boundaries of rigid hierarchies and team structures and avoid departmental tribalism. The goal is to achieve a degree of flexibility that supports greater workplace mobility, a fast exchange of ideas, and the overall capacity to quickly form new workgroups or expand and alter the existing ones when the circumstances call for it. 

Organizational structure and culture

Quality collaboration requires a step away from the traditional, rigid hierarchical structures and organizational principles. Organizations can not adhere to the inflexible division of roles and responsibilities accompanied by the traditional modes of supervision and performance measurement. Collaborative workgroups need to be freed of the strict work requirements and given the space to step away from their primary responsibilities in order to engage with others. This is not only a matter of work organization but also of the overall culture – collaboration thrives in the atmosphere of trust, transparency, effective knowledge and information sharing, and a dedication to team efforts over individual contributions. 

What are the most common collaboration obstacles?

There are many ways collaboration can fail, but organizational obstacles are very common and fairly universal. Therefore, any organization that wishes to reap the benefits of collaboration must be ready to evolve its old ways to accommodate a more inclusive and flexible approach. 

Now that we have highlighted the key operational areas that shape and impact the collaboration, we can examine some of the most common systemic glitches and inherent flaws that can hinder the process. 

Insufficient information and knowledge sharing

A free flow of information and effective means of sharing knowledge are essential prerequisites for fruitful collaboration. 

The causes of breakdowns in information and knowledge exchange are always a combination of structural and interpersonal factors. Authors Cindy Hubert ad Brittany Lopez identify the ten most common barriers to effective information and knowledge sharing:  

  • Awareness: employees are not made aware of the available tools and resources
  • Culture: various cultural factors (organizational disregard for knowledge sharing, team tribalism, language barriers, etc.)
  • Distance: physical or structural separation between individuals or groups resulting in infrequent contact
  • Experience: collaborators with little experience reluctant to participate or highly experienced collaborators “monopolizing” the knowledge exchange process
  • Knowledge hoarding: the unwillingness of individuals and groups to share information, most commonly out of fear of decreasing their own value
  • Misaligned measures: conflicts between individual performance measures and desired knowledge sharing behavior (ie. direct competition, conflicting incentives, etc.)
  • Relationships: lack of connections and trust between collaborators
  • Sponsorship: lack of support for knowledge sharing from senior leaders
  • Time: lack of efficient and convenient information and knowledge sharing mechanism, as well as work organization that leaves little to no time for the exchange
  • Trust: lack of confidence in the colleagues’ expertise and the credibility of the information they share

How to overcome this obstacle 

Before organizations can attempt to overcome the lack of effective information and knowledge exchange, they must first identify their most pressing obstacles. Once they are able to pinpoint the root causes of this dysfunction, they can address them individually. 

Lack of clear decision making

In a collaborative environment, as well as in any other work process, decisions can be made in a variety of ways, most commonly through full consensus, a majority vote, or an individual decision. Additionally, individual decisions can be made by formal authority figures or influential collaborators. Furthermore, it is important to know not just who makes the decisions, but how the process goes (who is consulted, when they are consulted, what are the deadlines for the final decision, etc.).

Lack of clarity regarding the decision-making process can significantly hinder collaboration. Not only can it be time-consuming, but it can also cause ambiguity, confusion, and conflict. 

How to overcome this obstacle 

The first thing teams need to do to avoid ambiguity is establish and clearly communicate a decision-making mechanism (as well as contingency options) and set clear procedures and timelines to ensure that the shared work is not bogged down by indecision. For instance, if an agreed mechanism is consensus, collaborators need to know what happens if consensus cannot be reached. 

Inflexible business processes

Depending on the degree of predefinition of everyday activities, business processes can be classed as rigid (highly predefined), flexible (loosely defined), and ad-hoc (not predefined). 

Collaboration is rooted in improvisation, in pooling diverse skillsets to formulate new answers and new solutions. This improvisation cannot be achieved if the business processes are too rigid. We cannot predict innovation, but we can encourage it by freeing the collaborators from a rigid workflow and providing room for improvisation. 

On the other hand, a completely loose and undefined process can easily slip into inefficiency and chaos. Therefore, successful collaboration requires a fine balance between flexibility and control.

How to overcome this obstacle 

In structural terms, two key factors for collaboration are the degree of the organization’s control over work activities and the degree of connection between the collaborators. The ideal scenario for collaboration is a low degree of control coupled with a high degree of connection. However, organizations must also ensure a certain degree of control to prevent the collaboration from slipping into ineffectiveness. This can be achieved by defining boundaries and constraints not related to work tasks but to other aspects of collaboration: participants, allowed timeframe, resources, transparent activity history – all with the intention of maintaining focus and efficiency. Additionally, collaborative teams need to have a clear shared goal and an awareness of the dependencies between their work and the work of others.

Insufficient feedback

Timely and relevant feedback is important in any work setting, but particularly so in a collaborative arrangement where there is a lesser degree of measurable individual contributions, and even more so on distributed collaborative teams where there is a lower degree of interaction. 

Constructive feedback (both positive and negative) helps us modify our approach and improve our contributions to the collaborative group. On the flip side, lack of feedback leads to uncertainty and fails to address any potentially damaging activities and practices.

How to overcome this obstacle 

Feedback is a sensitive area that can easily lead to hurt feelings and bruised egos. However, we can rely on an immense body of collective experience translated into universally accepted best practices:

Plan and prepare: feedback should be provided in regular intervals, and not just in problematic situations. The person providing the feedback needs to be well prepared and thorough to provide fair and relevant feedback.

Mind the differences: it is important to avoid generalizations and not approach everyone in the same manner. Team leaders and managers should understand the people that they’re addressing and adjust their approach accordingly.

Discuss issues, not people: feedback can be a learning opportunity, but it can also become a personal conflict. It is important to address specific issues and situations without attacking the people themselves, instead engaging them in a dialogue and allowing them to clarify their perspectives.

Be precise: one of the key responsibilities of a person providing feedback is to avoid ambiguity as much as possible. Feedback needs to be clear and precise, specific and supported by examples, letting the other person know precisely what they do and don’t do well and how they can improve.

Give and receive: at its best, feedback is a two-way dialogue. Team leaders should not only provide feedback but also ask for it. This principle encourages honesty and trust and leads to stronger relationships and a greater readiness to accept criticism. 

Conclusion

The course and the outcome of collaboration are always unpredictable. Organizations can never fully account for the totality of individual traits of collaborators and how their interplay will impact the partnership. However, there are certain areas that organizations can control and improve. Focusing on these areas and removing any potential obstacles to collaboration ensures a healthy foundation on which to base future success. 

References:

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  • Finch E. (editor) (2011). Facilities Change Management. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell

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