I had never actually looked up the definition of collaboration until today. Intuitively, I understood early on that it had something to do with working with others. Playing nice. Teamwork. But as I grew in my career and spent more time with executive teams from companies other than my own, I began to know it as so much more.
According to Merriam Webster, teamwork is simply work done by several associates, each doing a part for the greater benefit of the whole. In other words, teamwork can mean a group of similarly skilled teammates dividing up tasks to accomplish a common initiative.
Collaboration takes that a step farther by recognizing the benefits of bringing together teammates with different skill sets to ensure success. Bigger and better goals can be accomplished when the team includes a variety of expertise.
A couple years ago I participated in a strategic planning task force for a large association. Our work plan included a deep dive into stakeholder experience, financial health, messaging and marketing, and potential governance issues. There was no way any one of the twelve of us could have succeeded on our own regardless of our strategic planning experience and skill set. The knowledge each of us brought to the table allowed for collaborative discussions that touched on all areas of the association, regardless of the particular issue being debated at any given time.
As information about any given topic or industry expands, fewer and fewer of us can be all-knowing experts in our fields. The term “expert” itself is beginning to be understood as someone having a unique and exceedingly specialized perspective and skill set.
We find an example of this in the airline industry. The Wright brothers designed, built and flew their first flying machine. However, today, you would be hard pressed to find an aircraft design engineer who would put the parts together and pilot the test flight!
According to the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, collaboration , working with people who have different perspectives or areas of expertise, can result in better ideas and outcomes. By way of example, researchers found that in the field of scientific publications, the more diverse the knowledge and skill set between authors, the more impactful the papers published were on future research.
IT TAKES AN “US” TO SUCCEED
The simplest and most important first step to improving our collaboration skills is an attitude adjustment. We must believe we are better together than we are apart.
In her newest book, Find Your Way , Carly Fiorina asserts, “Solving real-world problems demands collaboration—there’s no way around it. Nothing of lasting value happens with an individual person acting alone; it takes an us to succeed.”
John C. Maxwell says it this way. “One is too small a number to achieve greatness.”
Collaboration, deliberately bringing diverse people together to pursue common purposes, and thereby engaging the widest possible range of capacities and perspectives, far exceeds the success of any other problem solving mindset by uniting people across society and drawing on their full range of knowledge and commitment.
Work on projects outside of your comfort zone…on purpose. When you choose to place yourself in a situation where you are not the expert, you remove the temptation of “know-it-all syndrome.” Suddenly you don’t have all the answers and usually that means you are left with your questions.
Communicate clearly and ask questions.
When collaborating, your team needs your knowledge as much as you need theirs. When you do have an answer offer it up with humility. Be confident in your contribution to “group think” without forgetting that your goal in offering your knowledge is for someone else to build upon it. You are offering a potential missing link to the group.
Participate in Team-Building
I remember those days in school when as an introverted child I was placed in a group to complete some project. My anxiety shot through the roof. As an adult, I have learned to focus on the task at hand and approach group activities from an educational perspective. What can I learn about myself, my team, the task at hand?
And by “space” I mean time and geography. If you have some control over your workspace, ensure your team has meeting places. Even a small corner arranged with a couple of chairs to encourage discussion groups can work.
Don’t forget the space in your calendar. Leave margins, or free time, in your schedule specially designated as “guilt-free” breaks. These moments to breathe allow for connection time with others stepping away from their desks. These short conversations at the coffee machine or getting some fresh air build trust through personal interactions and can often trigger the opportunity for exchange like, “Hey, can we get together to discuss a proposal I’m working on?”
Learning to lean into working together with a diverse group of people and skill sets helps us all to accomplish more and is one of the critical soft skills for success.