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How to Lead a Collaborative Team

Several years ago, I was leading a team of young startup executives. We soon realized that we did not really know much about strategy and leadership. So we arranged for me and my team of four to attend a workshop presented by a leadership and growth strategy organization. 

During the workshop, we participated in an exercise to develop our company vision statement. The exercise was based on the Vision Framework (which addresses Purpose, Values, and Mission) developed by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras. After about 30 minutes of work, one of the facilitators pulled me away from the group and I followed him to the back of the room. Then he whispered, “Now watch and see what happens.” 

We observed as my team stopped and looked at each other. They seemed somewhat puzzled and unsure about the next steps to move forward to complete the exercise. They spent about five minutes fumbling over what to do next. Then they got to work, and developed an excellent base for what would become our company’s vision. 

The facilitator turned to me and asked, “What did you learn?” I replied, “They can work well without my input.” He added, “Notice how they struggled for a few minutes in your absence? They have become accustomed to you giving them the answers. That approach disables their ability to create.” 

There are many ways to lead a collaborative team. However, this experience led me to realize that the fastest way to lead collaboration is to get out of the way. It is too easy for a leader to take control of the process and guide everyone forward – often towards a destination they have already (consciously or unconsciously) identified. Step back and give them some space to follow their own initiative and creativity. Then they will work together to find solutions.

Here are some ways you can take yourself out of the picture:

  • Hire the right people.  This may seem self-evident, but not every employee is an ideal fit will be a good collaborator. Strong interpersonal communication skills – particularly active listening — are necessary for people to work together and co-create. Collaborators need to be fully engaged in the effort and participate in the sessions to ensure a diversity of viewpoints. They should also be flexible, innovative, creative, results-focused, respectful, helpful, and committed to achieving team results.  
  • Frame questions, not solutions. When collaborative meetings start out with statements or proposed solutions, discussions are limited to the context of those questions. Statements often lead to “yes” or “no” answers and negative assumptions. Propose solutions, and the team will largely limit themselves to those possibilities. However, framing objective, open-ended questions encourages participants to consider a wider range of creative possibilities.  
  • Create clarity. Team members need to clearly understand their roles and responsibilities, as well as the scope of the collaborative process. Creating boundaries keeps them focused on outcomes without dictating how they will get there. Provide a framework and ground rules (such as deadlines or budgets). Once you define expectations and a clear path forward, step back and let them find their own way with minimum interference. 

The challenge of leading collaborative teams has increased as more organizations work remotely. Replacing in-person meetings with virtual technologies introduced new obstacles to ensuring the collaborative process flows smoothly.

Research by Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson, as summarized in the Harvard Business Review (https://hbr.org/2007/11/eight-ways-to-build-collaborative-teams), found that the qualities that make collaborative teams successful can also undermine their results. For example, when teams exceed 20 members, the natural tendency towards collaboration decreases. 

“Working together virtually has a similar impact on teams,” Gratton and Erickson continued. “The majority of those we studied had members spread among multiple locations — in several cases, in as many as three sites around the globe. But as teams became more virtual, we saw, cooperation also declined, unless the company had taken measures to establish a collaborative culture.”

The need for taking those intentional measures to extend a collaborative culture to virtual platforms will only grow stronger. Beyond the suggestions above, leaders can address this challenge through a digital virtualization platform. A feature-rich, flexible platform should enable team members within and outside the organization to collaborate as seamlessly as they did when everyone was in the same room. The right virtual tools and spaces can help leaders effectively manage collaborative teams for maximum results.

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