Key elements of (good) team collaboration
The ever-evolving nature of work has gone through its most dynamic period of changes at the turn of the millennium. Fueled by an array of technological advances, the working experience has been fundamentally transformed in recent decades. The combined effects of automation, unparalleled connectedness, increasingly specialized individual roles, and increasingly complex collective work have made organizations, as well as entire industrial ecosystems, more interdependent than ever before.
The digital revolution has placed collaboration at the forefront of the working experience as the key enabler and prerequisite to the success of organizations. Modern-day technology enables never-before-seen levels of collaboration spanning different geographies, time zones, and industries, allowing an unprecedented exchange of knowledge, ideas, and experiences.
And while the importance of team collaboration has been universally recognized, the approaches to its implementation are significantly divergent, as are the degrees of its success. Simply put, some teams collaborate and perform better than others.
In this article, we will highlight and provide information on the most relevant principles and practices of successful team collaboration.
Table of Contents
Basics of team collaboration
Before we get into the defining characteristics of successful collaborative teams, we must first lay down the basic terms and concepts of team collaboration. As a number of these terms and concepts are often used interchangeably and considered synonymous, it is important to make a few distinctions in order to ensure clarity and understanding.
What makes a team
In “The Wisdom of Teams”, a seminal work dedicated to team management, authors John Katzenbach and Douglas Smith define a team as “a small number of people with complementary skills who are committed to a common purpose, performance goals, and approach for which they hold themselves mutually accountable.”
This definition already implies a number of team characteristics relevant to this guide. Let’s break it down to its individual elements…
A small number of people
While the definition does not specify a concrete number of participants, it considers a limited number of collaborators as an important factor both for team identity and its effectiveness. The small number of collaborators is relevant for the ease and frequency of communication, the efficient discussion and exchange of ideas that is the foundation of collaboration.
This implies the multidisciplinary nature of collaborative teams, where individual members possess diverging professional skill sets and personality traits necessary for the collective delivery of defined team goals.
Whether explicitly stated (through organizational mission/vision, for instance) or communicated in a more informal manner, a shared and mutually agreed team purpose is a defining trait of collaborative teams that ensures that all team members are on the same page regarding the course of their work. The common purpose should be clear and actionable, serving as a compass that guides the course of the shared project work.
The practical, deliverable dimension of the common purpose, performance goals are clear, simple, and measurable objectives agreed by the team. Properly defined team goals ensure that everyone is aware of their responsibilities, expectations, and priorities and that the collaborative work remains on course.
Different teams have different ways of going about their work. While there is no one universally accepted approach to work, it is relevant that the team-level approach is collectively understood and agreed upon, in order to ensure the consistency of demands placed before each team member. The agreed approach should also be flexible enough to allow for modifications and improvements over the course of collaborative work.
The final part of the definition implies that shared responsibility is the crucial aspect of team-level collaboration, with the focus firmly placed on team results rather than individual achievements (or lack thereof). Mutual accountability requires all team members to hold themselves and each other accountable for the realization of performance goals and the upholding of the common purpose and approach.
Phases of team development
In 1965, American psychological researcher Bruce Tuckman authored a theory in which he outlined four separate phases of group development: forming, storming, norming, and performing. Tuckman has identified these four stages as universal to all groups on their journey from inception to high performance (in a later revisit he would add the fifth and final stage – adjourning, describing the terminal stage of a team’s existence).
In order to better understand how teams function, let’s take a closer look at Tuckman’s four stages.
The initial stage of the team’s development is marked by team members grasping the boundaries and the framework of their work: the nature of the task, the approach to work, models of acceptable behavior, etc. This is the most dependent phase of development, as team members look to procedural rules and guidelines, team leaders, and other team members for guidance.
This stage is marked by internal conflict, as the initial excitement of the honeymoon phase is replaced by first disagreements. Team members begin to experience frustration with various aspects of work, be it its progress or process, goals, roles, responsibilities, etc. During this stage, it is often necessary to make adjustments to the approach, revisit and clarify individual roles and responsibilities, and redefine the shared purpose or refocus on the existing one. The conclusion of this stage is learning how to deal with differences and resolve conflicts, although some teams never truly overcome the challenges of storming. (more on this later)
Armed with the experience of resolving conflicts and communicating in a healthy manner, in this stage team members become more accepting of their framework and begin to develop mutually agreed standards of interaction and task management. Team members embrace their differences and grow more comfortable expressing their opinions. Team cohesion is increased and communication is more substantial and meaningful.
In this stage, the team has achieved a high degree of cohesion and clarity regarding its structure, purpose, and goals. With all of the common growing pains now firmly in the past, the focus is entirely placed on the tasks at hand. This doesn’t mean that conflicts don’t arise, but the team collectively embraces differences and has proven mechanisms for conflict resolution. This is the most productive and harmonious stage of development, and, according to Tuckman, can be maintained indefinitely – even through personnel changes, as long as teams are careful not to regress to any of the previous stages.
Tuckman’s theory has been criticized by later authors for its simplicity, stating that it ignores the complexity and the diversity of the working experience. However, it has remained popular to this day for providing a clear, generalized overview of a team’s evolution.
We have already stated that complementary skills among team members are a defining characteristic of teams. These skills are not only a matter of professional expertise. Katzenbach and Smith recognize three separate categories of skills relevant to teams: technical or functional expertise, problem-solving and decision-making skills, and interpersonal skills. According to Katzenbach and Smith, it is important that team members are complementary not only in their professional skills but also in their work-style characteristics.
In his influential work “Team Players and Teamwork”, Glenn Parker identifies four types of team members:
- Contributor: task-oriented, eager to provide technical information and data, dutiful, organized, setting the tone for high-performance standards
- Downsides: a contributor can overwhelm other team members with excessive information, be impatient with other team members and team processes, have a narrow vision that ignores the big picture, and place unrealistic expectations on others.
- Collaborator: goal-oriented, focused on the shared purpose and goals of the team, flexible and open to new ideas, willing to help others out and step outside of their defined role.
- Downsides: a collaborator can be inattentive to basic team tasks, unaware of the individual needs of other team members, and unrealistic in their estimates.
- Communicator: process-oriented, supportive, and encouraging, a willing facilitator of involvement, conflict resolution, and consensus-building.
- Downsides: a communicator can be impractical, unwilling to challenge others, prone to overusing humor, and unfocused on task accomplishment.
- Challenger: question-oriented, willing to challenge the goals, methods, and ethics of the team and its members, candid, and assertive.
- Downsides: a challenger can be stubborn, inflexible, self-righteous, and even aggressive.
Parker does not favor any one of the provided team player styles, as they can all play a positive role on the team. He emphasizes the importance of identifying and understanding the different interpersonal traits of team members. He has even come up with a short survey to make this easier. The Parker Team Player Survey contains 18 questions that help team members identify their primary team player style.
Types of teams
The above-stated Katzenbach-Smith definition of a team indirectly implies that there are other types of groupings of professionals that cannot be considered a team, as they don’t satisfy all the requirements provided in the definition. In order to better understand this distinction, let’s take a look at five different professional groupings identified by Katzenbach and Smith.
- Working group: this is the most simplistic of groupings. A working group is not a team, but merely a group of individuals whose collective results are a simple aggregation of individual contributions. Members of a working group don’t collaborate and have no shared collective goals. The primary purpose of a working group is the sharing of information and practices that enable its members to perform their individual responsibilities.
- Pseudo team: the first link in the evolutionary chain from a workgroup to a true team, marked by arising conflicts and indifferences. A “pseudo team” is parallel to Tuckman’s “storming” stage of team development where team members are unable to resolve their differences and dissatisfaction with various aspects of their work. The team abandons the basic team principles and individual efforts do not deliver any collective benefit.
- Potential team: a step short of a “real team”, this grouping is heading in the right direction, but still lacks collective accountability and full clarity on purpose, approach, and goals. A potential team is a team in transition that can reach a higher level of performance through proper reinforcement and implementation of its guiding principles.
- Real team: the object of the Katzenbach-Smith definition of a team, this is a fully-realized grouping that gathers individuals with complementary skills, a commitment to shared purpose, goals, and approach, and mutual accountability.
- High-performance team: the optimal level of team performance, this type represents a real team further enhanced through strong interpersonal connections and a commitment to the personal development and success of all team members, resulting in the highest degree of motivation of all participants. This type of team is predicated on longevity and highly sensitive to personnel changes.
Key elements of team collaboration
There is no universally accepted classification of essential elements of quality team collaboration. Different scholars and researchers have provided their own vision of the crucial principles and practices of healthy and effective collaboration. However, while the classifications vary in methodology and approach, they generally tend to focus on the same aspects of collaborative work.
For illustration purposes, we will take a look at several most commonly used models.
The Katzenbach-Smith model
We have already detailed the building blocks of the Katenbach-Smith definition of a team, so let’s just quickly reiterate them:
- A small number of people
- Complementary skills
- Common purpose
- Performance goals
- Mutual accountability
The Parker model
Using a different approach to the one taken by Katzenbach and Smith, Glenn Parker has identified what he perceives are 12 characteristics of an effective team:
- Clear purpose
- Civilized disagreement
- Consensus decisions
- Open communication
- Clear roles and work assignments
- Shared leadership
- External relations
- Style diversity
Parker’s classification includes a number of interpersonal skills which Katzenbach and Smith don’t emphasize directly, instead placing them under the collective umbrella of “complementary skills”. The two classifications overlap in several areas, though, such as purpose, complementary skills (style diversity), or approach (roles and assignments).
The convenient acronym model
Just to illustrate the arbitrary nature of such classifications, we are adding one that lists 13 relevant collaboration factors based on the time-tested criteria of initial letters:
As this model is only here for entertainment’s sake, we will not go deeper into its interpretation.
Without one dominant classification of key elements of team collaboration, we have instead chosen to focus on five key areas that play a deciding role in the quality and efficiency of collaboration: communication, coordination, transparency, accountability, and trust.
In its most fundamental sense, collaboration could be perceived as active communication between collaborators. At the very least, it is the driving fuel of healthy and productive collaboration rooted in a free exchange of ideas and constructive debate.
The recent technological advances that have enabled the global shift towards remote work and decentralized teams have only further underlined the relevance of communication on collaborative teams. With this in mind, we must view team communication from two crucial aspects:
The means of communication: the quality and the nature of communication are significantly determined by the medium. The traditional setting of an office space where all team members are present on-site provides a natural, spontaneous environment for team-level communication. However, this type of setting is growing rarer by the day. More commonly, at least some (if not all) of the collaborators will communicate remotely. This obligates organizations to provide reliable and effective communication tools that enable, encourage, and even enhance the team’s collaborative efforts.
The manner of communication: you will have a hard time finding a productive, high-performing team with under-developed communication skills. As we’ve already stated, effective collaboration is rooted in an active and healthy exchange of ideas and opinions, sharing of knowledge and experiences, strong ability to resolve disagreements and reach decisions collectively through constructive discussion. All of this is preconditioned by the collective creation and nurturing of an inclusive and respectful environment that encourages honesty, respects diversity, and enables all team members to speak their minds and have them heard.
Team communication is a broad and multifaceted subject that can hardly fit into several paragraphs. If you are curious to learn more about team communication, we have created an entire library of useful resources located in our Team Communication Hub.
In their work “Two Facets of Collaboration: Cooperation and Coordination in Strategic Alliances”, authors Gulati, Wohlgezogen, and Zhelyazkov define coordination in the professional context as “the deliberate and orderly alignment or adjustment of partners’ actions to achieve jointly determined goals”.
The orderly alignment of activities among team members is the prerequisite for high performance. When it comes to team collaboration, it is not enough for everyone to merely act, but act in a synchronized, harmonious manner that maximizes the individual resources of all team members for the most impactful collective effort.
Coordination goes beyond work organization and task management. It requires a comprehensive collective agreement on all team activities, both in the conceptual and practical sense. The former relates to the shared agreement and understanding of the purpose and the scope of the collaboration, of its goals and its approach. The above-mentioned authors denote this aspect as “cooperation”, defining it as a “joint pursuit of agreed-on goal(s) in a manner corresponding to a shared understanding about contributions and payoffs.” The clarity of vision, purpose, roles, and goals and their collective acceptance are the foundation of successful collaboration, where the team’s day-to-day activities represent their extension and their implementation.
The practical aspect of coordination is the optimal alignment of activities and resources in ongoing work. In this sense, it is closely related to project and task management. The alignment is predicated on the clarity of roles and responsibilities and implemented through a variety of organizational models intended to ensure optimal distribution of efforts and resources
Coordination is a make-or-break aspect of any collaboration. Teams that are able to make all their pieces fit and contribute in the most substantial way become greater than the sum of its parts, while teams that fail to achieve this become mired in inefficiency which, in turn, can lead to a variety of conflicts and other challenges.
A ubiquitous corporate buzzword, transparency is universally celebrated, yet far less commonly fully implemented.
Defined as “the quality of being done in an open way without secrets”, full transparency is the prerequisite for healthy and productive collaboration. In the context of team collaboration, the keyword for transparency is access – access to information, resources, other team members and their work, and even their emotions and motivations.
Transparency on collaborative teams extends to several different aspects:
- Transparency of vision: all collaborators should understand and agree on the defined goals and the reasoning behind them — this ensures that everyone is aligned and gathered around the shared team vision
- Transparency of responsibilities: all collaborators should be aware of everyone’s tasks and responsibilities — this ensures that everyone contributes in the most impactful and efficient manner
- Transparency of work: all collaborators should be aware of the work of their fellow collaborators and be able to access it — this enables continuous feedback, active collaboration, improvements, and adjustments, and helps avoid blind spots and other previously unidentified issues
- Transparency of communication: all collaborators should be open and honest about the status of their ongoing work (or the project itself) and any obstacles they might be facing — this enables teams to respond promptly to any arising challenges and help collaborators perform better
The importance of transparency is best reflected in its absence. Teams that do not operate in a transparent manner are susceptible to a broad range of team malaises, from information silos, bottlenecks, and duplicate work, to mistrust, misunderstandings, and beyond.
On the other hand, teams that operate on transparent principles are better able to share knowledge and ideas, identify arising issues, and ensure optimal allocation of individual efforts.
There can be no true collaboration without the individual accountability of all its team members, as well as the collective accountability for the success of their joint effort.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines accountability as “an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions”. In the context of team collaboration, it means that all team members understand and accept their individual responsibilities in reaching the shared goals, as well as their collective responsibility for the success of their joint work.
Same as with transparency, the value of accountability is only fully revealed when things go wrong. Collaboration is an interdependent process that requires all participants to pull their weight. The lack of responsibility for one’s contributions to the success of collaborative work leads to a number of negative scenarios, from the most obvious like missing deadlines or failing to reach team objectives, to disrupting interpersonal relationships and sowing resentment and distrust, encouraging mediocrity, and placing pressure on team leaders (formal or not) to excessively “police” the team.
On the flip side, accountability enables teams to identify and address improvement areas, identify and respond to arising issues, avoid excessive management, and, in general, create a more respectful and trusting atmosphere.
Collective accountability is all about a shared sense of ownership of the collaborative work, where team members hold not only themselves but their colleagues accountable as well. The shared ownership of the collaborative work can be a great motivating factor, but it can also obfuscate individual responsibility for any negative outcomes. Healthy collective accountability needs to be rooted in a clear understanding of everyone’s responsibilities and the fair assessment of their contributions. Teams can ensure these contributing factors by taking the following steps:
- Clear definition of roles and responsibilities: accountability starts with knowing your responsibilities and the team’s expectations. It is highly important that all team roles and responsibilities are transparent and understood by all.
- Regular feedback: collaborators need to know whether they are meeting expectations or not. Whether through positive reinforcement or constructive criticism (and even corrective actions, if necessary), it is important that all team members are aware of how and to what extent their individual efforts contribute to the overall success. It is important that any criticism doesn’t serve as finger-pointing, but as a starting point for improvements and continued development.
- Collaborative technology: the right collaborative tools can reinforce accountability in different ways. Active collaborative communication clarifies the responsibilities of individual team members, while shared collaborative tools increase the visibility of individual assignments and add greater transparency along the accountability lines.
In a collaborative setting, team members rely on one another to do their part of the job. This reliance is founded on the confidence that the collaborators are competent and motivated to contribute in expected (and, sometimes, unexpected) ways.
At its most practical level, trust between collaborators extends to their ability to fulfill their individual responsibilities in order to ensure that their joined collaborative work remains on course. This degree of trust is necessary for the functioning of a collaborative team.
In a more profound and desirable way, trust among team members can extend beyond the confidence in their technical skills and a general responsibility for their workload; it is a deeper level of trust that represents the foundation of a welcoming and supportive working environment that encourages knowledge-sharing, open discussion and a free flow of ideas, where team members are not afraid to seek out help and support in overcoming their challenges and where the team holds everyone up.
Teams without a high degree of trust among their members are, aside from lacking the ideal collaborative framework, at risk of concealed and withheld information, uncooperative attitudes, the formation of cliques within the team, and other unwanted scenarios.
In a way, trust is both the prerequisite and the ultimate realization of healthy collaboration. Rue trust among team members cannot exist without other elements, such as strong and constructive communication, transparency, accountability, and a supportive and inclusive team framework that nurtures respectful professional relationships. There are no shortcuts to building trust – it is only achieved through a continuous and consistent championing of open communication, individual and collective accountability, and a close and productive collaborative atmosphere that brings team members closer together and fortifies strong interpersonal relationships.
No two teams are quite alike. Depending on their professional make-up, specific combinations of people, unique objectives, and a variety of other factors, different teams will approach collaboration differently and, accordingly, prioritize some of its elements over the others.
With that said, the principles of open communication, strong coordination, transparency of all activities, accountability for individual and collective contributions, and nurturing trust among team members are universally applicable to any professional setting.
Founding team collaboration on these principles establishes a strong and healthy base for productive and impactful team collaboration.