Collaborative teams are groups of people made up of people from various backgrounds who work together. Before we go further into discussing collaborative teams, it is essential first to understand what collaboration means. According to Callahan, Schenk and White (n.d.), collaboration is a process where members who see different aspects of an issue can productively explore their differences and seek answers using their collective ideas. These can be internal collaborative teams of members from other divisions. There are also mixed collaborative groups that incorporate members with different beliefs and have different experiences. The main goal for creating collaborative teams is coming together for one common purpose or vision. The idea behind the use of collaborative teams comes from the fact that different people are more likely to come up with better explanations for various tasks at hand. As a result, the work is done faster and with better quality.
With the growing use of technology in communicating with people, collaborative teams have increased and have become more attractive for many organisations. In addition, the experience of the COVID-19 pandemic has made organisations opt for the use of online communication. Scheduling meetings over Zoom and Google Teams has made it easier for this to become a reality. While this is the case, it does not take away from the fact that collaborative teams have been around for a long time and are also famous in physical group meetings.
Venturing into the use of collaborative teams is a good idea and will probably yield great results. However, if an organisation is planning on integrating collaborative teams into its systems, there are some issues to look out for, and these are outlined below.
The Benefits of Collaborative Teams
Collaborative teams: help people to come together, solve problems, help people learn from each other, opens up new means of communication, boost morale across the organisation, may lead to higher retention rates within the organisation and may make employees work more efficiently.
Below is a graph of the survey results from a Harvard Survey conducted in 2019 regarding the perceived benefits of collaborative teams. More and more organisations are beginning to appreciate the benefits that may come with introducing collaborative teams into the system of doing things.
(Harvard Business Review, Pulse Survey 2019)
Collaborative conundrums are inevitable. When faced with this situation, it means that there are some issues regarding the new team. But, remarkably, some of the pillars that strengthen a collaborative team can be the very reason why the team fails. These pillars are outlined by the Harvard Business Review (2017): large size, diversity, virtual participation and educational levels.
- Large size – Just ten years ago, teams rarely had more than 20 members; research shows that their size has increased significantly due to new technologies. Large teams are often formed to ensure the involvement of a broad stakeholder group, the coordination of a diverse set of activities, and the harnessing of multiple skills. Additional research shows that as the size of the team increases beyond 20 members, the level of natural cooperation among members of the team decreases
- Diversity – The various tasks facing today’s businesses require the rapid assembly of people from multiple backgrounds and perspectives. In many cases, a large number of people in the team would have never met. While their diverse knowledge and views can spark insight and innovation, research shows that the higher the proportion of people who don’t know anyone else on the team and the greater the diversity, the less likely the team members will share knowledge.
- Virtual participation – Because of the ever-changing global dynamics, most complex collaborative teams have members working at a distance from one another. Technology has allowed for team members to able to be working in ofï¬ces in the same city or spread out across the world. In a Harvard Business Review survey (2017), results showed that 40% of the teams in the sample had members all in one place. This meant that the remaining 60% was made of people in various areas. The survey also revealed that as teams become more virtual, collaboration declines.
- Educational levels – Complex collaborative teams often generate huge value by taking advantage of a variety of deeply specialised skills and knowledge to create new solutions to new or existing issues. As with the other three pillars above, the research shows that the greater the proportion of highly educated specialists on a team, the more likely the team is to disintegrate into unproductive conï¬‚icts
The Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
There are eight main ways to build effective collaborative teams. Gratton and Erickson (2007), researched different ways to build successful collaborative teams. Out of all their findings, eight major tactics of building such teams struck out. These are: Investing in signature relationship practices, modelling collaborative behaviour, creating a “gift culture”, ensuring the requisite skills, supporting a strong sense of community, assigning team leaders that are both task- and relationship-oriented, building on heritage relationships and understanding role clarity and task ambiguity.
- Investing in signature relationship practices – The executive or senior management team can inspire collaborative team behaviour by making investments in offices such as open ï¬‚oor plans to foster communication. For example, many organisations have moved from a one-person office to team rooms, where employees can interact each day, even from different departments (Assbeihat, 2016).
- Modelling collaborative behaviour – One of the best ways of cementing a certain behaviour is by doing it yourself. Leading by example is a crucial aspect of wanting successful collaborative teams. Have you ever thought of how employees will behave in the same manner that the organisation’s leaders exhibit?
- Creating a “gift culture” – When speaking about a “gift” culture, one needs to think about it as gifting others with things such as time and effort. Mentoring and coaching, especially on an informal basis, may encourage employees to build the networks they need to work across the corporate landscape (Gratton and Erickson, 2007).
- Ensuring the requisite skills – According to the Harvard Business Review (2017), Human Resources departments that teach employees how to build relationships, communicate well, and resolve conï¬‚icts creatively can significantly impact team collaboration.
- Supporting a strong sense of community – Having a sense of community in the organisation can be highly beneficial. This is because employees start to foster a feeling of belonging, which results in comfort. When people are comfortable with each other, it opens up room for ideas to move around and for others to ask questions. Having inquisitive individuals on the team is a win because they may bring up questions no one has ever asked before.
- Assigning team leaders that are both tasks - and relationship-oriented – Being a leader is a significant role. This should not be mistaken by the fact that someone is a manager by title. Being a leader means being the head of a team and also being part of the team at the same time. Having a leader who values relationships at the same level as valuing results, people may start to open up even more. The collaborative team is bound to perform better than having a different type of leader.
- Building on heritage relationships - When too many team members are strangers, people may be reluctant to share knowledge. The best practice is to put at least a few people who know one another on the team. 40% is a good figure to work with, as identified by a Harvard Business Review survey conducted in 2017.
- Understanding role clarity and task ambiguity - Cooperation increases when the roles of individual team members are clearly outlined, yet the team is given space on how to achieve the task. Group members should be given a guideline of what is expected of them, without necessarily restricting them to how to achieve a set target of goals. Having the freedom to work in a preferred way may yield better quality result than being forced to work and behave in one specific way.
The Type of Team Players to Have in a Collaborative Team
In every team, there needs to be the right composition of the right people in the group. But, as we have come to understand, collaborative teams are not the standard type of teams. Not everyone can be successful working or learning with people they are not familiar with. Callahan, Schenk and White (n.d.) point out the three most important kinds of people in a collaborative team.
- Strong project management and strategic skills can be strong supporters of team processes and team collaboration. These are the people who like to focus on one thing at a time and support progress towards a defined goal.
- Team members who are curious and want to build their knowledge and identity in their fields are often interested in participating in the community to attain these goals. Good ‘people connectors’ can also bring tremendous assets to both community and network collaboration.
- Curious people, global thinkers, who can scan and connect people and ideas, are great network collaborators. They are often the “bridgers” who bring ideas into the community or team from the network and carry out ideas to test and evaluate. They do not seem to be phased by the flow and volume of network information.
Whenever something new arises, it is essential to consider it first before tossing it out of the window. While collaborative teams may come across as a tough project to start, the potential results may outweigh the effort that has made them a success. As read in this article, there are different ways in which organisations can ensure that they have a highly successful collaborative team. Having various characters on the team may open new channels of thought processes and ideas that have never been introduced before. These teams show to be an advantage to many organisations operating in this global village.
Thandeka Madziwanyika is a Consultant at Industrial Psychology Consultants (Pvt) Ltd, a management and human resources consulting firm.
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