4 costly mistakes teams make when collaborating

Is your workplace big on collaboration? Probably. (Open offices, team building, collaboration, WE WILL ALL WORK TOGETHER AND LIKE IT.)

Whether you’re part of a group that’s collaborating on a project or a manager who wants to make sure that your team is collaborating effectively across the board, here are four big collaboration pitfalls to watch out for.

Not defining clear roles. Often when projects involve multiple people, it’s not clear who should be playing what role, which can result in work languishing for lack of a clear owner or driver. If you set up clear roles from the outset, people will be clear on who’s responsible for what, work is less likely to be duplicated, and – as long as someone is clearly deputized to ensure that work keeps moving forward – the project is less likely to stagnate for lack of anyone pushing it onward.

Not giving the group enough space to decide on their own course of action. While having clear roles is important, it turns out that it’s better to leave some ambiguity when it comes to the question of what path the team should take to accomplish its goals. “We’ve found that team members are more likely to want to collaborate if the path to achieving the team’s goal is left somewhat ambiguous,” writes researcher Tammy Erickson in a piece on collaboration in the Harvard Business Review. “If a team perceives the task as one that requires creativity, where the approach is not yet well known or predefined, its members are more likely to invest more time and energy in collaboration.”

Not clearly defining outcomes. Ever been in a meeting where no one really seemed to know what the point of the meeting was? Or where one person seemed determined to draw up clear action steps, while someone else saw it as a more free-form brainstorming session? Without clearly defining your desired outcomes, it’s easier to have group members be on different pages or even working at cross-purposes. Kick off every project and every meeting by getting every aligned on your desired outcomes – whether it’s “we’ll leave this meeting with three clear ideas to test out over the next month” or “at this stage, we’re kicking around initial thoughts and won’t be making any concrete decisions yet.”

Implementing collaboration tools like project management software without getting buy-in or doing enough training. There are loads of great collaboration tools out there that can help you manage projects, gather input, annotate work, and communicate in real time – but if you don’t show people how a tool will make their lives easier, chances of them actually adapting that tool and using it regularly (or at all) plummet. Most people like technology as long as they understand how to use it and how it will make their jobs easier. If you just impose, say, a new project management program on your group without taking the time to ensure that everyone sees its value and knows how to use it, you’ll only get a fraction of the potential value from even the best of tools.

{ 4 comments… read them below }

  1. Nethwen*

    And on the human side, sadly, it needs to be explicitly stated: You do not have the right to control your subordinates’ or peers’ emotions. As long as they remain civil and professional, there should be no implied demands that “WE WILL ALL WORK TOGETHER AND LIKE IT” or that everyone feels like you are all family. Start trying to control employees’ emotions and you might be creating an environment where people are incapable of giving their best or unconsciously display behavior counterproductive to collaboration.

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      This is an unfortunate trend as of late.  The idea is this: because more and more people are spending more and more time at work then relationships with coworkers and bosses should mirror those of family and friends.  This is becoming more and more true as interviewers ask irrelevant questions about hobbies, favorite movies, ideal vacation spots, happiest life experiences, pets, etc.

      We’re not dating; we working together.  Let’s keep it professional.

      I get that we all pound the carpet together for so many hours a day, but we’re together by chance, not by choice.  If I don’t know you outside of work, then I don’t need to know anything else about you beyond work.  Spending so many hours of the day with me doesn’t entitle you to anything.

      Quite frankly, it’s the people that bring that personal nonsense to work and treat everyone like a therapist that cause so much damage and lost time.

      If you’re looking for friends, do not do it in the workplace.

  2. C Average*


    Ahem. Excuse my outdoor voice, but you’ve managed to concisely articulate almost everything I’ve hated about almost every collaborative project I’ve ever been assigned, and I want to share this article with everyone on earth.

  3. AnonEMoose*

    One thing that makes me stabby is when one or two people miss a meeting, and then insist on re-discussing everything that was discussed or decided in the meeting they missed. If your input is that important, then make an effort to attend the meeting the first time.

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