How to Fix Poor Collaboration

 In Collaboration, Designing Solutions, Innovation, Leadership, Purpose-led Business, Teamwork

Collaborative behaviour is intuitive for some and a challenge for others because it requires a positive attitude and many different skillsets.

If you’ve ever had great team experience you’ll know how exhilarating it feels when everyone works well together and you all bring your best to the task at hand.

On the flip side, if you’ve ever been in a collaboratively dysfunctional team then you’ll know how soul destroying a day at work can be.

So, how do you fix poor collaboration?

There are three key areas to work on: mindset, purpose and team strength.

Whether you have a new initiative taking shape or an existing one that’s faltering, this framework will help you proactively identify risks and make improvements.

You can also download my collaborative project and team risk assessment tool to help you do a review, and I provide this link again near the end.


Teamwork vs Collaboration?

It’s worth clarifying the differences between teamwork and collaboration because, as concepts, they both involve working together towards a shared goal.

Teamwork is usually associated with formal teams within organisations where a leadership and management hierarchy exists.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is typically about coming together as equals to pursue a shared goal, such as a cross-functional team that’s comprised of people from different teams across your organisation.

In both cases, aligning around the shared goal is important, however there’s another dimension to the challenge: What are the individual goals that members of the group are pursuing by working collaboratively?

Each group member is trading resources and skills to realise a common goal that also helps them achieve their own individual goals too.

For example, an organisation brought me in to ‘encourage’ members of a steering group to take more responsibility for the role they were playing in an important project.

Once we ascertained there were tensions between their day to day work and the time they needed to devote to this role, we were able to move forward and address that challenge together. Ie. Creating the conditions to move from win-lose to win-win.


Does the Situation Require Collaboration?

Not every situation demands a collaborative response. Why complicate things that you can do yourself or achieve within existing team processes?

I’ve found there are four common task types:

  1. Autonomous tasks – you have the capacity and capability to do it yourself to a high standard and a collaborative approach is not needed.

  2. Traditional teamwork – tasks and goals taken on by a formal team, where individual expertise and roles are well defined, and usually within a hierarchical leadership and management structure. Team members must work well together, but highly tuned collaboration is not essential.

  3. Collaborative projects within a team – a non-standard task or project where a range of individuals are expected to work together effectively without the need for strict leadership or management oversight.

  4. Cross-functional projects or teams – parties coming together as equals with others outside of their immediate team or organisation to pursue a shared goal that also delivers individual / team benefits.

The third and fourth situations are ones where highly collaborative ways of working are essential.


Your Collaboration ‘Maturity’ Level?

Some types of collaborations are more complex than others. It’s worth benchmarking the collaborative skill level of your team members by identifying where they sit on the following scale:

  1. A good collaborative project / team member.

  2. Supports efforts to build collaborative environments within projects / teams.

  3. Leads and encourages collaborative cultures within projects / teams.

  4. Builds collaborative cultures across organisations and external stakeholder groups; or

  5. Champions and helps in building collaborations across their broader industry / sector.

Where do you see yourself at? Your team members at? If your team is collaborating with other teams, how would you rate the ability of your team as a whole?

This is one of the exercises at the start of the collaborative risk assessment process mentioned earlier.

I’ll now outline the three elements in turn.


1. Mindset

Do the people involved have the desire to be effective collaborative team members?

Fernandez et al point out that behaving territorially can work in the short-term, but it’s a barrier to reaching higher levels and the c-suite.

The mindset of group members is the starting point because too much time and energy will be wasted if it isn’t right from the get go, and I focus on two main areas in my work.

Firstly, it’s about assessing individual members for their growth mindset. Dr Carol Dweck is renowned for coining this term, referring to a mindset where you don’t rest on your laurels in the belief your talent is innate and doesn’t need developing but, instead, seek out new skills and experiences, and have a desire to learn from every situation you find yourself in.

Secondly, with increasing interdependence between the fortunes of business and society, dealing with more sophisticated employee, customer and industry issues requires what I call a visionary world view.

It’s the ability to think beyond boundaries, such as internal production processes and supply chains, and engage with broader stakeholder groups that are relevant and vital to your success.

In short, it’s the transition from operating in ego-systems to working in broader ecosystems! Amy Edmondson and co-authors highlight these traits in their work on cross-silo leadership.


2. Purpose

Purpose is about direction and pursuing goals that matter.

I’ve been working in the ‘purpose’ realm for some time and observe that it’s emerged from obscurity to become a regular feature of cutting edge collaborative practices.

For example, it is connected with nearly all aspects of best practice from good governance to combatting burnout and driving innovation and performance management.

Many organisations are better-defining their reason for existing – or purpose – and their greatest challenge is to make it real to people’s every day work.

In large organisational structures, it’s relatively easy for employees to become blinkered by the part of the puzzle they are working on and miss the bigger picture.

The same problem can play out in collaborations. Purpose helps in aligning and galvanising group members around the common goal. As Quinn and Thakor point out:

…an amazing thing happens. The purpose sinks into the collective conscience. The culture changes, and the organisation begins to perform at a higher level. Processes become simpler and easier to execute and sustain.

Speaking proverbially: If you don’t know where you are going you’ll probably end up anywhere but where you want to go!


3. Team Strength

The group dynamic will make or break the collaborative endeavour. It is a function of the attributes of each member, their behaviour and the strength of relationships between them.

Drawing on the work of Francis Fukuyama and others on ‘social capital’, the strength of a ‘community’ or group will be heavily influence by:

  1. The level of trust between group members.

  2. The existence of mutual reciprocity (members will help each other without the explicit expectation of reciprocation in the short-term); and

  3. Awareness of and conforming with established social norms, such as values and behaviours.

This provides a good framework and, as you can imagine, there are many aspects to work on for any given group.

For example, building trust, especially if it is coming from a low base, is hard work and takes time, although there are some shortcuts that will help along the way.

I once worked with an organisation that felt it was culturally ‘broken’. Addressing social norms – or values and behaviours – was our initial focal point in bringing its internal relationships, teamwork and collaboration impetus back to life.


Why this and why now?

With powerful trends disrupting our traditional ways of working and doing business, most organisations have little choice but to be flexible, adaptable, agile and embrace rapid innovation.

Therefore it’s vital that teams can come together quickly and seamlessly to survive and thrive amidst this level of change. Accenture found the pace of change itself has been accelerating over the past 5 years.

To get on the front foot, you are welcome to download my collaborative project and team risk assessment tool.

If you prefer to sleep well at night, improving the collaboration skills of your people and teams is highly recommended. The need for it will be around for a long, long time.

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Phil Preston is the founder of WhyThisNow, helping individuals, teams and organisations navigate uncertainty and change. He’s a speaker, facilitator and adviser who can be contacted via


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