Best practices for productive team collaboration

Collaboration is a delicate, sensitive process whose outcomes are determined by an indefinite number of factors. It doesn’t only need to be properly organized, but also carefully curated, modified, and maintained throughout the various stages and aspects of its course. 

While our previous resource articles have already covered the organizational and individual qualities necessary for healthy and productive collaboration, this article will focus on the practical applications of collaborative work and the key practices and principles that can help raise it to a higher level.

If you spend enough time involved in collaborative work, its numerous benefits will surely reveal themselves. However, we will almost certainly also experience the stress, frustration, and inefficiency that unavoidably arise from time to time when working with others. Collaboration itself does not inherently remove any of these downsides. Instead, it is up to teams and organizations to create an environment that makes it easy to eliminate, minimize, and/or manage them.

Five principles of good collaboration

In his highly influential work “How to Make Collaboration Work”, author David Straus had set out to provide pointers for the creation of a productive collaborative environment that sidesteps the negative side effects of the process and emphasizes the values of collaboration and the joyful aspects of working together. A lifelong explorer and practitioner of “collaborative problem-solving”, Straus has relied on decades of his experience as a leader, consultant, and trainer to distill five key principles of effective collaboration. This article is primarily based on his teaching, as we find that it comprehensively addresses the organizational framework and the interpersonal dynamics specific to collaborative work.

Straus’ five principles are: 

  • Involve the relevant stakeholders
  • Build consensus phase by phase
  • Design a process map
  • Designate a process facilitator
  • Harness the power of group memory

Over the following lines, we will take a closer look at all of them. 

Involve the relevant stakeholders

“The power of collaboration comes from inclusion, not exclusion.”  – David Straus

At first, it may seem obvious that collaboration should include everyone with an active interest in its outcome and/or the relevant expertise. In practice, however, this is often not the case. Individuals and groups that can significantly impact the course of the collaboration are often excluded from the process. This can happen unintentionally, when an organization fails to properly identify relevant participants, or intentionally if a person or a group in question is deemed to be confrontational or opposed to the collaboration or the planned activities, despite possessing the relevant expertise or a say in the decision-making process. 

To properly identify all relevant parties, Straus has come up with four categories of relevant stakeholders: 

Those with the formal power to make a decision

The involvement of formal decision-makers gives weight and relevance to the collaborative process. The more involved they are, the collaboration will be stronger and more impactful. On the other hand, lack of involvement of decision-makers devalues the collaboration, as any decisions made jointly by the collaborative group can be dismissed on a higher level. 

Those with the power to block a decision

Unlike the first type of stakeholder, this type has no formal decision-making power, yet still has the power to significantly hinder the implementation of any decisions or block it entirely (by failing to act, withholding information, phoning in work, opposing through formal channels, etc.). Gaining the support of such individuals or groups can be crucial to the success of a collaboration. Getting potential decision-blockers involved in collaboration makes the process stronger, while their exclusion will inevitably lead to resistance and threaten the implementation of the joint effort. While the thought of excluding potentially troublesome collaborators may sound tempting, it would only give the blockers more power, as they could rightfully claim that the process wasn’t fair and inclusive. Conversely, their participation can lead to their full adoption of the process, if the rest of the team truly listens and considers their input.

Those affected by a decision

The broadest group of stakeholders by default, those who are affected by the outcomes of the collaborative process, can involve an entire organization or a community. In most cases, however, it includes a more narrow subset of individuals directly affected by the outcomes or concerned for them. Involving this group is essential for several reasons. If their input is considered in the decision-making process, they are more likely to support the decisions, while the exclusion of their viewpoints can easily turn them into decision-blockers. Furthermore, as they will be most affected by the decisions, it is not only respectful but also highly practical to consider their input. If the affected group is too large for practical matters (meetings, consultations, etc.), its voices can be heard through a chosen representative who will provide the group’s perspective.

Those with relevant information or expertise

In most cases, the inclusion of the first three groups will provide the collaborative team with sufficient expertise. However, this might not always be the case. It is important to properly assess the resources at hand and determine whether any additional expertise is required. If the required expertise can not be found within the organization, it should consider hiring outside expertise. 

Build consensus phase by phase

Decisions reached through consensus carry great importance for the collaborative process. If decisions are made collectively, all participants will have a higher degree of investment in their implementation. Additionally, consensus decisions tend to be better than decisions reached through a majority vote or hierarchical decision-making. 

Reaching a consensus is not always a straightforward and easy process. Straus suggests that it is often due to the collaborative team being presented with a proposed solution without any previous involvement in the earlier stages of its formulation. Instead, he proposes the involvement of all participants in the entire process of defining a problem and formulating potential solutions.

Six stages of building consensus

Straus identifies six distinct stages of reaching consensus: 

  1. Perception: Is there a problem and should it be addressed?
  2. Definition: What is the problem?
  3. Analysis: What is the cause of the problem?
  4. Generation of alternatives: What are the possible solutions?
  5. Evaluation: How do the proposed solutions compare against one another?
  6. Decision making: Which solution can we agree on?

Consensus on the ultimate course of action will be reached more easily if a team continually makes “smaller” consensus decisions throughout the earlier stages of the process.

Six stages of building consensus

Fallback mechanisms

It is not always possible to reach a consensus. Alternate viewpoints are sometimes too far apart to find any middle ground. In such situations, insisting on consensus can be time-consuming and ineffective. Collaborative teams should devise a fallback mechanism for decision-making in situations where consensus is impossible. These mechanisms can be a hierarchical decision or a majority vote, a game of rock-paper-scissors, or any other pre-agreed model. 

Having a fallback mechanism not only keeps the decision-making process on course, but it can also motivate the participants to work towards consensus, as consensus will always be perceived as preferable to the alternative. It is important that the fallback mechanism is fully communicated and that the participants are aware of the consequences of failing to reach a consensus. 

Design a process map

Collaboration does not take place spontaneously. It needs to be planned, structured, and facilitated. 

Before collaboration can even begin, there is a multitude of information that must already be in place. To fully commit, participants need to have a full understanding of how the collaboration will be conducted: how will the process function, who will be involved and in what capacity, what are the specific responsibilities, timelines, resources, etc.  

While it is impossible to fully foresee the course and the outcomes of collaboration, we can (and should) define the procedural framework and plan the processes of reaching consensus and implementing the agreed solutions. Put simply, we define the pathway towards action without knowing what the action will be. 

Straus defines this procedural framework as a “process map”. It is a collectively defined and agreed set of roles and processes that predicts the steps in the collaborative process. Think of it as a well-structured meeting agenda, only on a higher level. 

The process map needs to be sufficiently detailed in terms of the mechanisms of collaboration, yet flexible enough to facilitate the unpredictable trial-and-error nature of collaborative problem-solving. If we take the meeting agenda as a micro-example of a process map, it does not predict the course of the discussion and any conclusions, but it can define the talking points, specific roles, timelines, and other details that ensure that the meeting is conducted in an efficient manner. The process map defines the pathway towards action without predicting what the action will be. 

A process map can be a highly detailed document or a diagram, a combination of both, or even an unwritten verbal agreement between all participants. The important thing is to collectively define and clearly communicate the processes and the mechanisms of collaboration. Aside from the obvious organizational benefit of having a structured process, it also enables the participants to fully commit to the shared work with the assurance that it will be conducted in an organized manner. 

Designate a process facilitator

In most collaborations, the shared problem solving and decision making are done in meetings. As so, meetings are a critical part of the collaborative process and their effectiveness is essential to the success of the joint effort. 

Conducting a meeting includes multiple responsibilities: defining an agenda, making sure that everyone has a chance to speak their mind, record keeping, decision-making, etc. It is a big ask to expect someone to assume all these responsibilities AND actively participate in the discussion. 

To relieve one individual of such a heavy load of responsibilities, Straus proposes the idea of shared responsibility for the success of the meeting between all participants. This involves differentiating roles and having different people attend to different aspects of the meeting. 

Straus defines four distinct roles in a meeting: 

  • Facilitator: a neutral, impartial participant focused on the process
  • Recorder: a person responsible for keeping records of the meeting
  • Leader: senior manager, responsible for making sure that the team stays focused on the task at hand and, most commonly, making a decision if a consensus can’t be reached
  • Group member: active participant focused on problem-solving

All participants are responsible for making sure that others don’t step outside of their roles: the facilitator prevents the leader from dominating the meeting, the leader and group members ensure that the facilitator and the recorder remain neutral. 

While we will pay closer attention to the role of the recorder in the following section of this article, we will now focus on the facilitator.

Ideally, a facilitator is someone outside of the collaborative group not immediately affected by the outcomes of the collaboration – for instance, an HR staff member. This is important to ensure neutrality and their focus on the process, and not the content of the meeting. 

Facilitator functions

The facilitator has four main functions: 

  • Process guide: responsible for the process of collaboration without evaluating or providing personal input to the discussion, as well as developing a meeting agenda and handling meeting logistics.
  • Tool giver: responsible for offering process suggestions (different problem-solving and decision-making methods) and making sure that everyone is clear on the chosen method.
  • Neutral third party: responsible for removing any conflicts of interest and excessive exertion of influence by honoring the process and ensuring that everyone’s input is heard and understood.
  • Process educator: responsible for educating the participants about the process while they facilitate – demonstrating techniques (process planning, role clarification, basic problem-solving tools) that lead to consensus and productive collaboration

Harness the power of group memory

Record meetings play an important part in the collaborative process. They not only serve as a record of the key talking points for later consideration, but can also play a role in moderating the meeting in real time. 

Straus proposes a neutral role of a recorder whose sole responsibility is to capture the key ideas and conclusions presented in a meeting. Additionally, all participants are responsible for the content of the record, as the recorder captures the key talking points in a transparent manner visible to all (i.e., on a chart pad, a whiteboard, or an interactive document). The recorder should not paraphrase what’s been said, and the participants should correct the recorder if they disagree with the records. Straus dubs this collaborative approach to record keeping as “group memory”.

Keeping transparent meeting records in real time helps keep an efficient discussion and meeting objectives on track by providing clarity and avoiding repetition, confusion, and ambiguity. 

In practical terms, Straus proposes that the meeting room seats are arranged in a U-shape facing a chart pad, so that all could follow the creation of records and make any corrections. Of course, collaborative teams are free to explore and devise their own specific methods of keeping meeting records, providing they ensure transparency and the input of everyone involved. 

Conclusion

Productive collaboration is a delicate process dependent on a variety of factors. There is no such thing as universally applicable best practices guaranteed to deliver positive outcomes, but we find that Straus’ five principles come pretty close to that target. While some of these practices may not be ideally suited for every collaborative team and environment, the fundamental principles on which these practices were built provide valuable insights that can help inform the definition of any specific collaborative process. 

References:

  • Straus D. (2002). How to make collaboration work: Powerful ways to build consensus, solve problems, and make decisions. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishing Inc.
  • Straus D., Doyle M. (1993). How to make meetings work: The new interaction method. New York, New York: Berkeley Books
  • Susskind L., McKearnan S., Thomas-Larmer J. (Eds.).(1999).The consensus building handbook: A comprehensive guide to reaching agreement.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications

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