Collaboration comes naturally to humans. It’s one of our oldest and most intrinsic skills. And indeed, it was our ability to work together that enabled our ancient ancestors to hunt large animals and survive over other rival groups of early hominins. However, that’s not to say that collaboration comes easily, it still requires practice.
Even now, after some 200,000 years of finessing this skill, egos and emotions still occasionally complicate our efforts. We may cooperate, but instead of combining our shared expertise to reach a common goal, we fall back into hierarchies or get precious about our input. This is not just unproductive, it’s actively anti-collaborative, and results in less effective teamwork.
Worst still, we may not even recognise when we are being anti-collaborative. Sometimes, we can actually make things worse by mistaking collaboration with micromanaging. We need to be vigilant and recognise when this happens, or at the very least, be open to feedback when it’s pointed out to us. Essentially, the greater the trust between team members the greater the collaboration, and this has a positive effect of reducing the occurrence of micromanaging: trust builds psychological safety and confidence in ‘teamwork’. It also supports our individual need to achieve mastery.
In chapter two, I stated that we want to become more than just a group of individuals. We want to be a supermind. I also spoke about how the best teams are made up of talented individuals, all clear on the role they play, what’s expected of them and how they fit in the wider system. Essentially, how our work fits into the broader work. Importantly, when the team wins, they win (and we win). The collective after all, as I’m sure you know by now, is more than the sum of its parts.
“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” - Henry Ford
Henry Ford was right that cooperation may yield good results, but the best organisations see individuals work as one. And in part one I outlined that there’s an art to collaborating. Not to mention, rich rewards to reap when it’s done properly. But to illustrate how you can bring it into your own work and teams, I’d like you to imagine listening to a symphony.
What can playing in unison teach us?
Figure 1: When a group of individuals working together effectively become more, they become a supermind. A great example of a supermind in action is that of a playing orchestra.
We can’t all play instruments. And even if you can, you still may not have the unique skills required to make it into an orchestra. That’s because even the most talented musicians among us - while able to read from the same sheet of music may lack the required and necessary ability to play in time with others.
Symphonies are so impressive not only because of the quality of music being played, but because of how we feel when witnessing a collection of disparate musicians playing in complete synchrony. And what’s most remarkable is that the people playing make it look effortless.
There is a harmony we experience as the listener as well as a harmony that the musicians feel while playing. This feeling expands and becomes part of the total experience - in other words, something new emerges. Just as a single individual can achieve what Mihly Cskszentmihlyi calls a flow state - also known as being in the zone - a group can also achieve flow. A state of hyperfocus, which they experience, and the audience experiences as listeners. Eventually, though synchronicity, something new emerges, the audience and orchestra become one.
Interestingly, the conductor acts as a kind of a messenger. A literal conduit. They facilitate and guide the performance (‘the flow’) but are only able to do so by trusting that each musician will play their part. And this collaboration goes beyond just the orchestra. Both the audience and environment have a vital role, too. The accumulative value of the shared harmony of the orchestra, the audience and the amphitheatre become the total experience - a gestalt.
In Figure 1 we can see an orchestra in action. To achieve this level of harmony requires an equally deep level of expertise acquired through years of diligent rehearsal and focused attention. Every note is intentional and only attainable through continual dedication and commitment to working and playing as one.
Transcendent symphonies do not happen by accident, and neither does great collaboration in any team operating at the highest level. We can see and understand their harmony because we are part of the experience - we can feel it. We become a part of a bigger ‘group flow’.
So, how can we reach this level of collaboration? What efforts can we take to begin collaborating more intelligently and efficiently? And beyond implementing aspects of it in silo, how can we cement it in all of our processes, work habits and thinking?
Becoming a more collaborative team
Collaboration can’t be treated as transactional. Instead of a mechanical you scratch-my-back approach, we should foster environments that are defined by honesty, communication and feedback, as well as acknowledgement.
Regardless of sector or strategic intention, teams that collaborate well will encourage a feeling of psychological safety. This is when mistakes are not viewed as mistakes, but as learning opportunities. Everyone feels like they’re an active part of the organisation’s progress. And this work begins with you.
In part two, becoming a more collaborative individual, we outlined how every improvement begins with an individual’s actions. So, how do we encourage collaboration from a team perspective? People may have different ideas about collaboration, what it is and how well they do it.
But from a team perspective, any individual is part of the team, and a collaborative team augments individual collaboration competency, whilst supporting the wider benefit and value of collaboration. So, what are the characteristics to look out for or improve upon? These include but are not limited to:
- Psychological safety
Do people trust each other? Do people trust how other people will respond to mistakes or difficult problems? Does the team take responsibility together, opposed to individuals pointing the finger of blame?
- Smart delegation
How well does problem or task or sharing happen between individuals? Do team members share the workload?
- Well defined roles and responsibilities
Are team members’ roles and responsibilities clear? Are shared responsibilities defined?
- Taking responsibility
Does everyone understand what is expected of them individually? Do you have adequate measures for supporting, sharing and delegation? Do teammates feel comfortable taking responsibility? Do you have a blameless culture that celebrates personal and collective success?
- Mutual responsibility
Are roles, responsibilities, and shared goals clearly defined? Do they encourage people within a team to ‘act as one’?
- Common goals
Do you have common goals that sit above any personal goals or agendas? Is achieving common goals is perceived as more important than individual goals?
- Encourage different points of view and perspective
Do teams embrace diversity and harness the experience and skills of everyone in the team?
- Fair contribution
Is positive and honest contribution encouraged? Does it feel as though no permission is required?
- Synergy in action
Are individuals strengths understood to actively bring out the best in people?
- Individual development
Do teams recognise that growing skill sets (competency) leads to increased capability and capacity?
However, these collaborative teams cannot be functional without these factors:
- Positivity is encouraged
Happy teams are teams that act more efficiently and effectively. They also increase their potential for creating group flow - thinking and acting like one: a supermind.
- Interesting combinations are sought after
There are skills mixing, activity mixing, tool mixing that encourages learning and understanding. Interesting things happen when we work with people with different skillsets or are proficient in different types of specialist activities, and this can lead to innovation (and often does).
- Good leadership is expected
A collaborative team will have strong leadership that combines all the above factors, encouraging and acknowledging others. They will typically be seen as more egalitarian, and less authoritarian. Yet, you will know who the leader is, not by their title but by the responsibility they take and encourage.