By Katy Tynan

Collaboration, in its simplest sense, means working together to achieve a common goal. When you look for a collaborator, you want someone who shares an idea or a concept, and can work with you in a seamless way because you both understand the desired outcome. Collaboration can take a variety of forms. When two musicians get together to write a song, we call them collaborators. When a family gets together for Thanksgiving, and everyone brings a dish, that’s collaboration. It’s all about working as a team to do something that would be either really hard, or impossible, for a single individual to do.

These days, collaboration is a hot topic in the workplace. And while we do often need to work together to solve complex problems, or achieve bigger goals, collaboration doesn’t always just mean dividing and conquering. Let’s look back at the example from the last section.

When we thought about how a manager would work with their team to produce a customer appreciation event, we first looked at it as a simple collaboration – each person gets a task, and that way all the work gets done. But in looking at the motivations and workloads of each of the individuals on the team, we realized that Emily likely wouldn’t have completed her part of the project, and ultimately the event might have been a disaster.

True collaboration begins with sharing a common goal. When we get together for a holiday meal as a family, we all have expectations of what will happen based on our family traditions, and our own personal preferences. If we put a random group of people together and asked them to collaborate to create a holiday meal, the first thing they would need to do is decide as a group what that meal can and should be like. This shared vision is the foundation of collaboration.

A Shared Vision is the Foundation of Collaboration

As a manager, creating a collaborative environment starts with creating a goal, and then digging into the details of that outcome with your team so that everyone has a complete picture of the result they are trying to achieve, and ideally, everyone on the team shares that vision in a detailed way.

In addition to creating a shared vision, collaboration also means playing to the strengths of the team to accomplish the goal. On a baseball team, each player is a specialist in his role. If you asked an outfielder to pitch, and the catcher to play third base, you probably wouldn’t win many games. But in addition to the players on the field, there are some critical members of the team who don’t show up on the field at all. I’m talking about the team members who make it possible for the stars to do what they do best.

There’s the equipment manager, who makes sure each player has the tools they need to do their job. There’s the pitching coach who works with the bullpen to make sure everyone is warmed up and ready to go when it’s their turn. There’s the trainer, and the team doctor who are on the spot to deal with injuries, and to make sure everyone is healthy enough to play.

Each of these individuals has to perfectly understand their role, and their value in achieving the larger goal of the whole team. If everyone on the team, from the star pitcher to the bat boy, shares that vision, then each person can focus on doing their part, and not worry about the rest. But someone needs to see the whole picture, and make sure that the whole complex process comes together, and that’s the role the manager has in creating a collaborative environment.

In some cases, collaboration means people working closely together on the same part of a project. In the case of planning the customer appreciation event, Marcus needs to work closely with the marketing team in order to make sure the invitations look great, have all the right branding, are sent to the right list, and so on. He may need to schedule update meetings, and communicate frequently to make sure everything comes together.

This process of working closely together is another critical part of effective collaboration. Marcus might be very organized and excited about the event, but if he doesn’t know anything about the technology aspects of sending out a mass email, he’ll need to rely on someone else to help him with that process. He’ll need to clearly understand his own strengths and capabilities, and know when he needs someone else.

Collaboration is the art of working as a team. There are three keys to successfully fostering a collaborative environment:

  1. Shared Vision – Everyone on the team needs to understand the and share a common outcome which is clearly defined.
  2. Focus on Strengths – Each member of the team brings different capabilities to the table. A successful collaboration leverages the strengths of each individual, rather than being a simple division of labor.
  3. Clearing Obstacles – Obstacles to collaboration can be things like a lack of resources, or conflict between team members. As the manager, your goal is to identify and eliminate or resolve any obstacles that are standing between your team and success.

Collaboration can’t happen without the next item on the list of skills for managers: communication. In the next section, we’ll explore how managers can communicate effectively, which in turn facilitates all the other ACCEL skills.