Prerequisites for team collaboration
Collaboration is dependent on a large number of variables that determine the course and the success of the working relationship. While a big percentage of those variables resides in the unpredictable realm of the ”human factor”, many impactful factors are of a structural, procedural, and organizational nature.
There are never guarantees that a collaborative relationship will result in overwhelming success, but there are steps that organizations can take to establish the collaboration on healthy fundaments and enable team members to collaborate successfully. These steps are there to ensure that the collaboration is set up to remove institutional obstacles and set the team up for success.
Over the following lines, we will examine some of the most important prerequisites for collaboration that shape and greatly determine the course and the outcome of the joint work.
The first and arguably most important factor may seem a bit self-explanatory and redundant because we all want to hire and designate the best available personnel for any given project. However, this is not about any specific individual personnel choices, but about team structure. When setting up a collaborative team, it is important to understand what we wish to achieve and how to best achieve it – team structure should reflect that understanding as a practical realization of the defined best path forward.
How many people do we need on a team to achieve the defined objectives? Which skill sets should the team incorporate? How will these skill sets interact for the best possible outcome? People responsible for creating and organizing collaborative teams need to have answers to these questions beforehand to establish teams logically and functionally.
Additionally, team structure needs to be accompanied by an organization-wide support system for collaboration. This support system should include an inclusive, trust-based organizational culture, the availability of all necessary tools and resources for quality collaboration, formal and informal coaching and mentoring practices for the improvement of individual skills (both professional and interpersonal), as well as a mechanism for recognition and reward of positive collaborative practices.
Collaborative teams can be established with varying degrees of structure regarding the individual roles and responsibilities of team members. No two teams are quite alike, and while one team might excel in a strictly defined and structured framework, another may benefit from a more loose and improvisational setting. Different styles fit different groups and different types of work, and if you believe that a more informal and improvisational setting would suit your team, there’s no reason not to give it a go.
However, empirical evidence suggests that a clear and structured division of roles generally produces better results. Based on extensive research, renowned author Tamara J. Erickson states that “collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood.” Erickson proposes that a clear definition of roles and responsibilities enables team members to conduct significant portions of their work independently. On the other hand, a lack of such clarity can lead to negative scenarios such as negotiating roles or protecting their perceived positions, which is not only time-consuming but can also seriously deteriorate working relationships.
Clear and understood role division is not the same as role rigidity. Having clearly defined roles and responsibilities does not impede teams from adapting to new circumstances and evolving the individual roles of team members. However, even through any such changes, it is important to fully communicate the new roles and responsibilities of the team members in order to ensure that everyone is on the same page and everyone is aware of what’s expected of them.
Before the process of collaboration can begin, organizations need to provide the collaborative team with all the necessary technological tools. Aside from any industry-specific tools relevant for the functioning of the team, the primary concern of organizations should be communication and collaboration technology.
Active and healthy communication between team members is the foundation of quality collaboration. All processes relevant to collaboration – work coordination, decision-making, brainstorming, problem-solving, and so on – are done by communicating.
In order to properly collaborate, team members need to communicate in a variety of ways – both directly and indirectly, through email, chat, video calls, document annotations, etc. The technology needs to allow both one-on-one and team-level communication. Additionally, teams will probably need technological platforms enabling them to exchange files and work on them, both independently and simultaneously. Team-level communication needs to be efficient and time-sensitive, but also flexible enough to accommodate team members in different geographical locations and time zones. It is up to organizations to provide a comprehensive technology package that allows teams to communicate and collaborate in a variety of manners, depending on their specific needs and circumstances.
Collaboration thrives on spontaneity and improvisation, but it should not be entirely guided and ordered by these virtues alone. Quality collaboration requires a certain degree of moderation and facilitation to ensure that everyone is on the same page and that the process runs productively.
According to one definition, team coordination is “a process that involves the use of strategies and patterns of behavior aimed to integrate actions, knowledge and goals of interdependent members, in order to achieve common goals”. On collaborative teams, individual team members work both independently and interdependently, and all these activities need to be orchestrated in a way that brings them together for the best effect.
The importance of coordination grows even further in large teams, on complex projects, and in situations of rapid changes. In such situations, a lack of coordination would unavoidably lead to chaos and disarray.
The responsibility of coordinating a team effort is most commonly entrusted to a team leader, but on teams with a less hierarchical structure, it can be also done by a team coordinator, or by consensus. Regardless of the person or an entity placed in charge of it, team coordination should involve the following activities:
- Making efficient use of personnel and team resources
- Scheduling activities in a way that prevents delays and time-wasting
- Creating contingency plans for unforeseen obstacles and emerging situations
- Involving team members in possession of relevant expertise in planning team activities
- Organizing team meetings for collective planning and problem-solving
- Monitoring and steering the work of the team and its individual members
There is no collaboration without a common vision shared by all participants. At the very core of collaboration lies the intent to come together and pool resources in order to achieve a shared goal. It is the binding thread between team members that steers their individual efforts towards a collective achievement. Authors Widmeyer and Ducharme define goals as “guides for action”, principles that inform all team activities.
Before collaboration can commence, there needs to be a clear and collectively accepted purpose behind it. This purpose (or vision, as it is more commonly called) serves not only to align the team around a shared objective, but to also inspire and motivate team members towards the realization of said objective. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery had famously stated, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”
It is important to distinguish the team vision and the overarching shared goals from specific periodic goals that team members set throughout the course of their work. While the latter are also important to the success of the collaboration, they represent the practical dimension of the overarching vision and its segmentation into individual and collective tasks and responsibilities, through different techniques such as SMART goals, for instance. In other words, they are defined throughout the process of collaboration, and not before it.
Shared goals, as a prerequisite for collaboration, need to be communicated clearly – both what they are and why they are important, and understood and embraced collectively as a compass for all future activities.
In order to thrive, team collaboration requires a supportive environment. The creation of this environment is a multi-faceted process that begins even before the start of a collaboration. By focusing on the areas of team structure, role division, the necessary technology, proper coordination, and a unifying vision, organizations can empower their collaborative teams to pursue their best efforts and work together harmoniously.
- Widmeyer N. & Ducharme K. (1997). Team building through Team goal setting. From the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, Volume 9, Issue 1
- Rico R. et al (2011). Coordination process in work teams. Papeles del Psicologico 32 (1)