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Characteristics of Effective Collaboration

written by: Bruce Tyson • edited by: Ginny Edwards • updated: 5/19/2011

Collaboration methods are techniques intended to enable people to work together to achieve goals that they could not reach individually. The results of these methods should be evaluated to determine if they are characteristic of effective collaboration.

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    Collaboration Defined

    Collaboration joins the efforts of team members to share their perspectives and opinions to create an expanded vision of the problem orcollaboration  mission at hand. This effort should produce solutions and achievements that are greater than anyone could produce individually. Although methods to introduce collaboration into an organization often begin and end with the deployment of software, collaboration requires a much stronger foundation. Software by itself is not characteristic of effective collaboration. Methods of collaboration that are effective work with individual conduct, personal and team work ethics, organizational culture, team management, and organizational values and goals to produce exceptional results. If any of these characteristics of effective collaboration are lacking, executives and managers can take steps to improve collaboration methods.

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    Personal Conduct

    Effective collaboration depends on the behavior of team members. Teams will generally reflect the character and behavior of their members. This means that how each person behaves is important to the outcome of the mission. Until an individual is prepared to behave in a collaborative manner, the efforts of the team will be limited. People must learn to trust each other and recognize that efforts in support of the team are more valuable than efforts that promote themselves. Teams with members that are unwilling to share information or coordinate their efforts with others are a sign that ineffective collaboration methods are in place. Here are just a few personal attributes that are characteristic of effective collaboration.

    - Reconciliation. A person who is not prepared to apologize is not equipped for collaboration. In a truly collaborative environment, feelings are going to get hurt and people will be offended from time to time. People who collaborate must be prepared to recognize when they’ve hurt a team member and make things right. Grudges and other hard feelings stifle the collaborative process.

    - Respect. Team members should be able to promote their perspectives without offending others on the team. This involves self control and a genuine respect for the opinions and feelings of others.

    - Self Discipline. Self discipline means that you have to recognize when your emotions are getting out of control and how to disengage until you can proceed with a meaningful, constructive attitude.

    - Listening. Perhaps the most important element in communication and collaboration, listening skills are often lacking among team members. Responding to opinions without taking the time to understand the feelings and perspectives behind them will undermine the collaborative process.

    - Mutual intent. Successful collaboration depends on making the mission of the team personal to each member. Once a feeling of mutual intent is established, the team is assured that each member is committed to its goals.

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    Work Ethic

    Good work habits are essential to effective collaboration. Individuals need to be able to direct themselves to accomplish their responsibilities and teams must collectively do the same. Flexibility becomes important as the mission of the team progresses: individuals need to easily adjust between independent work and collaborative work as conditions warrant. A team that is consistently on schedule and reaching or exceeding objectives is a characteristic of effective collaboration. Each member should have a sense of responsibility for the profit and loss of the team's effort and the team should share responsibility for its profit and loss to the organization. When teams are struggling in these areas or where teams are being supported by just a few productive members, the collaboration methods employed are ineffective.

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    Organizational Culture

    Many organizations have attitudes toward collaboration that suggest that they think people can be programmed to work together. That's why collaborative initiatives often begin and end with the installation of a software program. A characteristic of effective collaboration is a culture that gives more than lip service to the ideal. Traditional management practices that foster competition between individuals, micromanagement, and exploitation are incompatible with collaboration. Effective collaboration methods create an environment where team members feel secure sharing their opinions, skills, and knowledge without fear of becoming marginalized. Efforts by one team member to sabotage another through behind-the-scenes interactions with management will only stifle collaboration. Team members also need to know that their input to the team is valued and that the outcomes of collaboration will be utilized in practice. In short, leadership with the organization is needed to demonstrate that its commitment to collaboration goes beyond words.

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    Team Management

    Another characteristic of effective collaboration is good management. Team leaders must be held accountable for achieving profitable results through the collaborative effort. Without a clear structure of accountability outside and inside the team, collaboration efforts could lose focus and jeopardize the team and the organization's mission. The expectations of collaborative efforts should be carefully documented and communicated and team managers should make sure that their teams as a whole are collaborating with other teams and with management, especially when important decisions or obstacles arise.

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    Goals and Values

    A final characteristic of effective collaboration is the production of outcomes that are compatible with the organization's goals. Collaboration can produce outstanding results, but if those results are contrary to the mission of the organization, they are worthless and potentially destructive. When this happens, team leaders are often held responsible for failing to hit an invisible target. Managers should realize that a team will rarely work to deliberately subvert the organization it is expected to support. More likely is the case that the goals and values of the organization have either not been defined or have not been effectively communicated. Environments where such vital information is obscure are places where ineffective collaboration methods are in play.

    Expecting teams to effectively collaborate in support of unknown objectives is frustrating and unfair. Principals and other stakeholders in the organization should make it a priority to define, document and disseminate organizational goals and values before expecting any collaboration method to be effective.

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    Summary and References

    The behavior of people within the organization, the work habits of individuals and teams, the culture in the workplace, the management of collaborative resources, and relevant goals and values all offer clues concerning the collaboration methods in use within an organization. If any of these areas reveal weakness, corrective action should be taken. Once effective methods are in place, collaborative technologies can be explored to enhance and facilitate collaboration throughout the organization.

    References:

    Callahan, Shawn, Mark Schenk, and Nancy White. "Building a Collaborative Workplace." Anecdote. April 21, 2008. http://www.anecdote.com.au/whitepapers.php?wpid=15 (accessed May 5, 2010).

    Coleman, David, and Stewart Levine. Collaboration 2.0: Technology and Best Practices for Successful Collaboration in a Web 2.0 world. Sillicon Valley: David Coleman and Stewart Levine, 2008.

    Gibbs, Richard, and Andrew Humphries. Strategic Alliances and Marketing Partnerships: Gaining Competitive Advantage Through Collaboration and Partnering. Philadelphia: Kogan Page, 2009.

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