Getting teams to collaborate successfully

Nurturing creativity is a puzzle that stumps even the best companies. Those able to do it earn a reputation for their forward-thinking and modernized management approach. The ones that can’t tend to stagnate and suffer higher turnover. Excellent products come from excellent teamwork, and while good project management can get teams on task and working effectively, the quality of their work often hinges on being creative and improving each person’s individual contributions.

The best way to boost creativity and employee engagement? Introduce people to new ideas, usually through collaboration with their coworkers.

Managers of productive teams nurture and encourage creativity by creating regular opportunities for collaboration. Whether it’s a team project, a regular part of the work week, or a more annual occurrence is up for interpretation, but giving team members a chance to generate and refine ideas together in real-time leads to many benefits for their individual work.

In this blog, we’re talking about the nuts and bolts of effective team collaboration—how to make the most of people working together.

Helping everybody win

A strong collaborative environment starts from the top down. For teams to feel comfortable getting into collaborative mindsets, their leaders must show a willingness to be part of the team as well.

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It isn’t always easy to go out on a limb and show the kind of vulnerability required for effective collaboration—sometimes it involves trying new things and listening to people you normally wouldn’t. This is precisely why collaboration works.

When done right, teams feel comfortable sharing ideas and are clear about how each person will bring those ideas to life. Poor team collaboration, on the other hand, leads to wasted time and frustrated workers—people who feel that their ideas aren’t being heard or that their efforts aren’t being put to good use.

Collaboration doesn’t have to be a formal undertaking. Opportunities for collaboration can include:

  • Coming together for a problem-solving session

  • Brainstorming sessions for new ideas

  • Knowledge sharing and tutorials

  • Team-building exercises like games or escape rooms

  • Surveys on upcoming changes

  • Regular team meetings

While large companies tend to lack the agility needed to make these opportunities happen, smaller businesses can use annual meet-ups to break out and give teams a chance to show what they can do on their own.

What good collaboration looks like

As any high schooler can attest, a group of people working on a project doesn’t automatically mean good collaboration. In the same way, group activities in the workplace can become a headache if not prepared and handled improperly. For example, turning a boring project into something the whole team has to work on will probably be counterproductive. Administrative tasks, for example, are not a good team assignment.

It’s also not ideal for managers to hover and nitpick the work of their teams as they collaborate, usually leading to less team member engagement as they defer to their boss for which direction to go.

Collaboration puts imagination to work, with peers and team members finding the way forward—not managers. It’s important to keep that open-minded attitude throughout the group undertaking.

Here are a few things to avoid when teams are collaborating:

  • Don’t do someone else’s job. Clarify roles and ensure each person understands their role individually as well as within the group.

  • Don’t mistake bossiness for leadership. Some people have a tendency to commandeer a directing role while working with others, which makes it important to establish early on that there will be no team leaders and that all contributions are to be valued and heard.

  • Don’t offer too much direction. Collaboration is a chance for team members to share insights, ideas, and approaches with each other, all of which can be spoiled if they become worried about pleasing an overly involved boss.

  • Don’t make the activity too long. At the end of the day, all members of the team have their own work to do, so allowing time for collaboration to run its course and end naturally will help people get the most benefit from it.

  • Don’t take creativity for granted. You may hear some pretty bizarre ideas in group efforts, but that is the best sign that the collaboration is working and that real imagination is taking place.

Groups that work well together help everyone come away feeling better about their abilities and their place within the team. It’s a beautiful thing.

Using the right tools

Remote work seems like it was designed to ease collaboration, given the sheer number of apps and team collaboration software programs that have emerged in the last few years.

The internal communication capabilities of Slack and Microsoft Teams create a perfect space for people to share ideas quickly and privately. Project management tools like Asana, ClickUp, and even Dropbox allow for inline commenting and attachments so teams know exactly what’s needed to get across the finish line.

Companies need these tools if they want successful collaboration to happen—especially among remote teams—but preferences vary and technology changes. There’s no need to blow the company budget on the latest and greatest trend (unless pricing isn’t a concern or you’re convinced it’s the perfect fit).

Collaboration tools should provide an easy solution for:

  • Communicating through text or video calls as needed

  • File sharing, updating, and comparing

  • Designing many different forms of media

  • Reviewing drafts and providing feedback that is easy to understand and follow

  • Restricting asset access to specific people and groups

Unfortunately, the information overload of the internet renders sites like Google obsolete when finding the right tool for your specific needs. Ask peers and colleagues from other companies about their favorite team collaboration tools.

You could also put the question to public forums such as Reddit or LinkedIn, though it remains to be seen how long those websites will remain free from the grasp of corporate ad budgets…

Encourage constructive feedback

One awesome benefit to teams collaborating is peer-to-peer feedback. Rather than receiving correction or criticism from a boss, collaborative teams get to hear and share knowledge with people they are more likely to trust. Sorry managers, it’s the truth—people who have similar tasks and responsibilities are able to share information less formally.

However, managers can streamline the feedback process by asking team members what they learned or thought. Ask them to express both what they liked and what could use more development. Just jotting things down can help employees find a stronger connection to the work they do on a daily basis.

Giving and receiving feedback is also a great way to open one’s mind and exercise imagination. Along with learning more about the job, feedback probes deeper into how each person can maximize their contribution to team goals.

Hone individual skills

The best teams create amazing results because they maximize the skill sets and abilities of each individual.

Team members get to add value in ways that flex their creativity, meanwhile, they get to see others work in their respective specialties. This in turn helps to grow their collaboration skills.

If you are able to plan out a collaborative activity, instruct teams to clarify exactly and outline each person’s role. For example, graphic designers probably don’t need to be closely involved with writing copy.

The freedom to improvise that happens during collaboration will help each team member better inject their personality into their work.

Avoid too much management

The best part about collaborating (in my opinion) is the chance to buddy up with coworkers, get work done, and do it all without the usual stress of manager oversight. This isn’t to say managers shouldn’t get involved, just that their presence can be distracting.

Managers should give some clear initial instructions about what needs to happen during the collaborative effort. After that, the best thing they can do is step away and let things happen.

After that? The proof is in the pudding. Let each team come up with what they create, and take time to review and enjoy the resulting product. It won’t always be up to expectations, but that’s the beauty of imagination, right?

Let teams work on their own ideas without offering much feedback, if any. Leave them to do their thing and, if you have criticisms to offer, save them for afterward.

Build better teams

Along with developing individual skills through group work, team members who collaborate gain a better understanding of how to work within a team toward a common goal. This is an achievement. Without collaborative experience, many people—especially young employees—learn only to work on their own, gaining no experience on how to contribute ideas in team settings.

Collaboration gives individuals a chance to further the good ideas of their peers, kind of like a “best ball” golf tournament where a team’s best shot becomes their new point to move forward.

Good ideas lead to better ideas, and better ideas can become plans. Having the perfect, final idea isn’t necessary—steering the boat is just as important as catching the fish.

As people start feeling comfortable sharing their ideas with one another, the quality of collective teamwork increases. Suggestions and feedback are freely shared, resulting in better channels for communication and helping individuals break free from the usual static, routine workflow.

Getting imaginative with coworkers creates space for people to be imaginative with their teams. The more that happens, the easier it becomes to think outside the box and contribute to what’s best for the team.

Learning to give feedback

For those who haven’t had leadership roles in the past, collaboration provides a great chance to learn the art of giving and receiving feedback. Can it get ugly? Absolutely. Managers should be prepared to pay attention to how feedback is shared and do it without getting too involved. These are great chances to teach lessons on professionalism. Is someone’s idea completely crazy? Maybe, but learning to see where they’re coming from can clarify what needs more explanation.

Teams should be encouraged to give good, helpful feedback. Some will have little trouble doing this while others will have a chance to work on delivering thoughts in a respectful and tactful manner.

Some conversations about how to deliver feedback may need to happen in private, but more often than not they should happen as they arise. Again, finding a way to listen without intruding is the defining skill here.

Have some feedback yourself? This is where to share it. Don’t narrate it as a tutorial or anything, but offer feedback to teams as a great way to demonstrate casual methods for sharing thoughts.

Building a great company culture

As teams learn to collaborate more and more, their employer’s culture becomes more accepting and proactive about involving team members on a wider scale. Eventually, it reaches upper management and becomes a major part of company culture.

People enjoy working environments where their opinions and ideas are valued, making collaboration an easy way to boost morale. Rather than working on their own and fighting to secure a spot for the future, team members get to express their unique personalities in constructive ways. They share with others what makes them valuable to the company, and they feel more grounded themselves.