Coach’s Challenge for January 13, 2008

Good morning, team,

Team collaboration continues to be an important topic for me in my coaching practice. In the course of my research, I recently read a study conducted jointly by the Concours Institute and the Cooperative Research Project of London Business School. They sent surveys to team members and leads, executives, and human resources leaders at a variety of companies in different industries. The results surprised me in some cases and in others confirmed many of my observations about effective team collaboration.

Many companies rely on large, diverse teams of highly educated specialists to complete major projects. These teams consist of people from diverse backgrounds, often from many different locations, who are brought together to meet an urgent need. They work together virtually, collaborating online and often over long distances.

However, in the above-mentioned study an interesting paradox became clear. Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse and composed of highly specialized professionals seem essential to major projects, these are exactly the factors that make it extremely hard to get anything done.

The study showed that once the team increases beyond 20 team members, the level of cooperation decreases substantially. Members are much less likely to share knowledge freely, to learn from one another, to shift workloads flexibly and to identify bottlenecks and help each other move through them. And, in my experience, sub-teams that are asked to work on a portion of a major initiative get folded into a much larger corporate team and often get lost in the shuffle.

The study further discussed how the strengths of a team can become its weaknesses. Diverse knowledge and views can spark new insights and innovation. However, the less people were familiar with others on the team (their background, history with the organization, views and behaviors), the less likely they were to share knowledge.

Virtual participation is a way of life in all companies these days. In the study, 40 percent of all the teams researched had members all in one place; the other 60 percent did not. The research shows that as a team becomes more virtual, collaboration declines. Unfortunately, the old saying "out of sight, out of mind" applies.

Highly educated people with a specific area of expertise do bring a lot to the table in terms of knowledge and experience. However, the greater the proportion of highly specialized people on the team, the more likely the team members were to argue from their sole viewpoint. In other words, if team members think they know it all, they’re often unwilling to learn from others or experiment with new ideas.

The study offered eight recommendations for successful collaboration:

  • Invest in environments that encourage strong relationships, such as open floor plans that foster communication; increased travel budgets so people can interact face to face; and meeting spaces that encourage activities beyond just sitting around the table, so people can interact on many different levels. Anything that demonstrates a commitment to collaboration sends the right message.
  • Model collaborative behavior. At companies where the senior executives demonstrated highly collaborative behavior, the rest of the team members did too.
  • Create a "gift culture" rather than a "tit for tat culture," that is, a culture based on coaching and mentoring. Such a culture helps team members build networks across the organization that they can use to do their work. Daily coaching increases people’s level of cooperation, their ability to feel empowered and take ownership. The study demonstrated that in such an environment, team members were less likely to blame others when things didn’t get done and more willing to help them out when they needed it.
  • Teach people relationship skills, such as appreciating others, being able to engage in purposeful conversations, resolving conflicts productively and creatively, and managing programs.
  • Support a strong sense of community. When team members feel that they are part of a community, they feel more comfortable reaching out to others. When a situation is not emotionally safe, people are reluctant to participate.
  • Assign team leaders who are good at getting tasks done and building relationships. The study found that focusing on task orientation at the beginning of the project and later focusing on relationships is most effective. Regardless of seniority, those team members who weren’t willing to take on tasks and deliver results were seen as untrustworthy.
  • Build on the existing relationships within the team, that is, include a few people who already know each other. This sets up a model of behavior that new members can emulate.
  • Be very clear about roles, responsibilities and tasks. The study showed that cooperation increased dramatically the more sharply defined these elements were for the team members.

This week, consider the size and effectiveness of your teams. Are you investing in their ability to relate and collaborate? How well are your team members exchanging ideas and being open to each other? Is everyone on the team aware of roles, responsibilities and ownership tasks? Do they feel safe working together?

Don’t assume that just because a bunch of people are assigned to work on a project that collaboration will occur automatically. Try using some of the above suggestions to help your team work more successfully together.

Have a great week!


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