Fostering collaboration

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Collaboration is essential to the success of multi-discipline and multi-departmental projects. It serves to provide different types of perspectives and expertise on any given problem or project. Indeed, it enhances the effectiveness of problem solving when done well. It also provides great opportunities for learning and growth.

Collaboration is more than just teamwork. Teamwork requires knowing your role, the steps to do it and who and when to hand off. Collaboration requires sharing perspective, opinion and experience. Without collaboration, a group of people is only as strong as each person’s individual contributions. A collaborative team however, represents more than the sum total of its members.

As a manager or project manager, collaboration starts with you. The first step to fostering collaboration is to solicit it yourself. If you are open to listening, understanding and applying others’ expertise, you can leverage their strengths. When you have a new project, idea, problem, take it to the team and ask for input. Encourage questions and facilitate brainstorming sessions to solve problems. Demonstrate by example how you strengthen your decision-making with others’ expertise. Be careful, If you invite other’s opinions but consistently ignore them, the team will be likely to mirror your behavior and stay entrenched in their own views.

Sharing expertise is the most empowering benefit of collaboration. Encourage it by establishing where expertise lies in the team. Who is the expert in key tools, processes, and skills? Communicate that expertise to the whole group. Ask experts to give their input when their domain is involved. Invite experts, in your team and in others, to share their expertise with the broader team. When new tools and processes are established, ask for a volunteer to become the focal point and expert.

Provide a forum to share best practices. When you see something particularly well done, innovative or effective, ask the team to create a best practice and share it around. But don’t only share successes. Share stories about issues and problems so the team can learn from past mistakes and help solve current problems.

One of the critical elements in collaboration is trust. Trust that a person, team or group is fully sharing knowledge, will do what they say they will do and has no hidden agendas. Reputation and personal experience govern trust in general. If you have a reputation for being a straight shooter and a good listener, open to discussion, you’ll begin new collaborations with an advantage of additional trust. If you are known as closed minded and unwilling to discuss or negotiate, you’ll find others less willing to work together.

Collaboration can also get out of hand. Not every topic needs to be debated and decided on in a group. Determining what decisions, problems and projects require collaboration and which ones don’t is an important first step. Where you, or your team, have ALL the expertise required to make a decision - no collaboration needed! If problems and projects require cross functional expertise, you’ll need to have the perspective of other teams and disciplines – thus collaboration.

When you are bringing together large groups, there are a few ways you can manage collaboration so it does not get out of control. Establish the expertise of each person in the group at the outset. When decisions present themselves, explicitly designate the experts who will have the final say/decision. That could be a combination of a sponsor/project manager and an expert, or several experts. The larger group can be asked for input and should be given an explanation on the key points which influenced the decision.

Finally, when very diverse groups meet together on a regular basis, it’s key to establish an agenda for meetings and clearly define what topics will be covered and decisions are needed.  This allows collaborators to know when they can safely bow out of a meeting where their expertise is less in demand.

It’s quite amazing to see a team start to get more autonomous about problem solving – going to one another for insights and advice before coming to the team’s or project’s manager. It takes some time to instill an overall sense of collaboration in a team. If you’re just getting started, be patient. It’s up to you to start by setting the example and then encourage others to follow suit.