Now more than ever,  collaboration has become the keystone of successful businesses. But as your company grows, working together becomes harder. As teams diverge, getting buy-in, support, and even just clear lines of communication become a struggle.

After studying 55 of the largest teams from companies like the BBC, Marriott and Pixar, researchers identified 5 things that all successful teams do.

1. They have leaders that champion collaboration

Without the proper support from leaders in the organization, the best planned collaborations are destined to fail. Psychology professor Debra Mashek calls these 'sponsors and champions' --leaders who help articulate the vision of the collaboration.

"Sponsors and champions help articulate, refine, and buttress a shared vision. Without a straightforward vision it's difficult to put together an effective plan enabling you to assemble necessary resources and skills, and to generate incentives for your stakeholders."

This is easy when you're small. However, as a leader of a growing company it can be hard to show your team you're championing collaboration. Yet the researchers found that even just the perceived collaborative behavior of leadership played a significant role in determining how the team worked together.

Make sure whatever your role is that you're showing support for the collaboration. Be in meetings not to judge, but to show that you're around to help if needed.

2. They offer their time and expertise freely

Collaboration depends on shared knowledge and experience. However, the researchers found that rather than a formalized mentorship program, the best teams all had less formal, yet ongoing educational processes baked into everyday activities.

For example, the researchers found that collaborative companies make sure new hires have regular access to a team leader who actively helps them navigate the project -- pointing out people they should meet and offering introductions.

3. They support a sense of community

It's no big revelation that collaboration happens when people feel connected. 

When Steve Jobs designed the new Pixar offices, he set out to create a space that allowed people from all different departments to meet by creating a large central atrium housing facilities we all need to visit, like bathrooms and the cafeteria. According to Jobs' biography:

"If a building doesn't encourage [collaboration], you'll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that's sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see."

If you don't have an office or work remotely, you can still create a virtual version of Pixar's office. Set a channel of your communication tool to be an office "watercooler" and encourage people to post whatever's on their mind or go off on tangents. It might seem unproductive, but those little comments help build real relationships and can even spark big ideas.

4. They have project leaders who are task- and relationship-oriented

What's more important for your collaborative experience: clear goals or good relationships?

According to the research, you need both. Just at different times:

"The most productive, innovative teams were typically led by people who were both task- and relationship-oriented. What's more, these leaders changed their style during the project."

Specifically, leaders need to start projects in a more task-oriented manner -- making goals clear, clarifying roles and responsibilities, and debating about the best way to move forward. However, at a certain point they must switch to being more relationship-oriented.

This structure is important to remember when working through a project. Instead of obsessing over the details and hitting goals, remember to take a pulse of how your team is feeling along the way. Start with clear individual goals but finish with teamwork. 

5. They understand the balance of role clarity and task ambiguity

Ambiguity might not seem like a great quality of collaborative teams, but the researchers discovered collaboration actually improves when only our roles are clearly defined and well understood, not our tasks.

For one experiment, they looked at diverse teams of 100+ people at the BBC, who were covering the broadcast of everything from breaking news to the World Cup. They found that while the team's were filled with people with a wide range of skills (and roles), they actually worked together better than those who simply knew what task they needed to do.

In a lot of modern teams, it can be easy to not discuss roles while being clear about what tasks need to be done. However, to collaborate effectively, we need to be confident in where we stand, what our responsibilities are, and how we can work in relation to everyone else.

Without this, friction arises, mistakes are made, and no one knows who is actually responsible for the final outcome.

Published on: Dec 22, 2017