The Team Collaboration Formula For Success

By Jamie Davidson · March 21, 2019

If you’re an Avengers fan, you know too well that Captain America: Civil War is the perfect example of a potentially powerful team that fails to collaborate and ultimately breaks down. This might seem like a fantastical example, but it does highlight the unmistakable dynamic of a team that just can’t seem to get it together. Recall your last non-functioning team experience and you’ll probably re-live Thanksgiving-style bickering, colleagues working against each other, fingers pointing and excuses abounding. When team collaboration fails, the experience is not only frustrating but ultimately unproductive.

However, when done right, teams that collaborate effectively create a rewarding environment for their members and recognizable results for their companies. Team collaboration can stimulate creativity, increase productivity, build a sense of community, improve problem-solving, and lead to groundbreaking innovations and ideas. There are simple and effective ways to quickly improve your team’s collaboration. To help illustrate which methods will be most effective for your team, let’s start by looking at the five stages of team building and how each of these presents different challenges for collaboration.

The 5 Stages of Team Building

Whether you have a co-located team within one function, or a cross-departmental team spread around the globe, the team development process remains the same. A set of foundational steps for successful outcomes was established in the 1960s by Bruce Wayne Tuckman, a group dynamics researcher, and was revised with Mary Ann Jensen in 1977. Where your team exists along this process impacts the ability to collaborate.

There are five stages to the team-building process:

Stage 1: Forming The team first gathers, is introduced, and forms initial impressions. Collaboration is non-existent. Project descriptions, roles, and goals are shared.

Stage 2: Storming Work begins. Competition for ideal roles and hierarchy is exhibited. Collaboration is a constant struggle. Team leader involvement is high. As the team struggles through growing pains they will learn how to problem-solve together.

Stage 3: Norming The team is beginning to work more effectively. Group processes and procedures are being implemented and followed. Team leader influence becomes less necessary. Trust is growing, and collaboration is now occurring.

Stage 4: Performing This is the highest level of team efficacy possible. The team is motivated, goal-oriented, and adept at problem-solving. Team leader oversight is unnecessary. In this stage, collaboration is at its highest. However, if individual team members go rogue and begin to act independently, the group can slip back to the Storming stage.

Stage 5: Adjourning The team dissolves, usually due to their project being completed. At this point, collaboration is no longer needed.

It’s important to know at which stage your team currently is so that you can provide support throughout the process. There is no guarantee that teams will transition through the stages on their own – some never actually make it to the Performing stage. But with help, guidance, and support you can lead your team through to the greatest level of collaboration. By identifying which stage your team is currently in, you can select the most helpful collaboration methods for that phase. The following tactics are divided into groups based on which team stage they best support.

Forming to Storming

If you have a new team that is still getting to know each other, here are two ways to help them move from the Forming to the Storming stage.

1. Get Management Buy-in

In organizations today, it’s common for teams to have a matrix or cross-functional structure. This means team members can easily report to multiple managers, supervisors, and team leads. This dynamic increases the risk for internal conflict and competition between department-specific priorities that can make reaching a goal more difficult. It is vital for cross-functional teams to have open communication, transparency, and strong support from all managers and executives who have employees participating in other teams.

If team members and managers are geographically separated, video conferences can be used to encourage open dialogues and support management involvement through joint meetings. Some specific areas of support include:

  • Performing joint onboarding sessions for new employees
  • Agreeing up-front about how employee’s time will be split between the team and non-team tasks
  • Setting processes for conflict-resolution
  • Verbally acknowledging and supporting team responsibilities and additional workload
  • Performing joint feedback and performance reviews with employees

2. Share Information

Did you know that spending just one hour getting to know your technology can help you collaborate with it and improve outcomes all while lowering your work stress levels? Spending an hour getting to know your teammates can achieve similar results. Knowing what and who we’re spending our workdays with can lead to greater teamwork and happier working lives.

Help speed that along by creating a central repository for team information, where coworkers can share about themselves and discover information about their colleagues. For instance, set up a shared platform such as SharePoint, an internal Social Media site like Yammer, or a digital booklet that includes the following information:

  • A picture of each person
  • Their name and title
  • Area of expertise
  • Length of time with the company
  • Experience with similar projects
  • Where they’re located
  • Preferred method of contact

After providing this basic information, you can then schedule an hour group session for your team to share something about themselves. This can help build communication, help people better understand team roles, background, experience, and help them find commonalities.

Storming to Norming

While the storming phase is fundamental, it can cause friction. Use these three methods to help your team move out of this stage as easily as possible.

3. Create a Team Charter

The initial hurdle to overcome during the storming phase is understanding and accepting how everyone fits into the new team dynamic. A team charter can help accomplish this by recording the team’s goals and priorities in a formal document. It can also help clarify and record what team members are responsible and accountable for, so people better understand how everyone fits into the team. A standard team charter includes the following seven components:

  • Purpose This is the primary reason for which the team was established.
  • Mission & Objectives This statement should encompass the main goal of the team as well as a prioritized list of any smaller goals and objectives.
  • Team Roles List team members by name, as well as their roles on the team, and their contact information.
  • Expectations State team priorities and expectations, including meeting frequencies, methods of contact, as well as paths for conflict resolution.
  • Budget & Resources This section will record the budget for the project, as well as any other dedicated team resources. For instance, if the team will have dedicated video conferencing rooms for collaboration, they may be listed here.
  • Schedule This typically includes a high-level timeline of when the main goal will be met, as well as any important milestones occurring before that date.
  • Agreement Once the charter is finished, all members sign it to show their agreement.

4. Support Open Communication

Interestingly, a certain amount of “creative abrasion” allows a team to discover solutions and identify alternative approaches, but too much negative conflict during this phase can lead to hostility and inhibit the team from moving into the norming stage. By developing a team dynamic in which everyone feels able to safely voice their ideas and opinions, the team can create an inclusive environment and an “Idea Meritocracy”. In an idea meritocracy, everyone is encouraged to participate, contribute opinions and the most provable ideas win out.

Open and frequent communication is vital. Leaders of high-performing teams rate communicating frequently as the most important contributor to their team’s success. As a team leader, you can help promote this kind of communication in three ways:

  • Consistent communication Openly communicating with the team on a regular basis will allow you to lead by example. Issues that arise should be shared promptly and transparently.
  • Standardize processes Create policies, procedures, and processes that support open communication. These can include rules regarding how decisions will be made (i.e., majority rule, consensus, meritocratically) and what process to follow if there is a conflict that team members cannot resolve themselves. If your team seems to be struggling with constructive feedback, you can also host a communication skills workshop.
  • Provide necessary tools Open communication cannot occur without the proper tools in place. For instance, the sheer volume of daily emails can easily lead to delays, missed messages, and misunderstandings. Instead, encourage your team to use the following tools:
    • A dedicated team meeting space. This can be a physical meeting room or a conferencing service that’s always available.
    • A centralized knowledge portal or intranet site for information sharing.
    • An online messaging tool, such as Slack, for quick real-time conversations.
    • A project or task management app, like Wrike, Asana, or Trello. These tools enable everyone on the team to share updates and report on progress, so people can see who is working on what.

5. Appreciate Differences

In today’s workforce, there is more diversity than ever before. While this may at first seem like it could present a challenge for team collaboration, it brings with it many significant benefits. For instance, diversity among teams reduces the risk of groupthink, leads to better personal and group performance, and increases innovation.

When we talk about diversity, it’s more than just demographics and cultural backgrounds. Team members also naturally have different strengths, traits, and ways of thinking. While these differences may not be readily visible, the more team members are aware of them, the more they can take advantage of them for the betterment of the team. For example, imagine you have a team member who is highly analytical but lacks creativity. Knowing this, the team can allow that person to focus on important detail-oriented tasks such as understanding critical data, rather than asking them to come up with creative solutions to problems.

When teammates get to use their strengths with other members helping them with their weaker areas, it supports cohesiveness and collaboration. But to achieve this, team members need to be aware of everyone’s differences. One option is to use Gallup’s StrengthsFinder tool to identify team member’s innate strengths.

Norming to Performing

Mazel Tov! At this point, your team is collaborating, but there is always room for improvement. In this stage, it’s time to focus on supporting trust, reliance, and inter-dependencies.

6. Facilitate Team Building Activities

Team building exercises are important, especially for remote teams. Simple team building activities can be very productive for increasing cohesiveness and collaboration. They can teach your employees how to trust one another’s judgment, and conduct problem-solving skills in a group. Team building exercises are often skipped when teams are not co-located, due to the assumption that these activities have to be conducted in person. Fortunately, this assumption is incorrect. Here are some remote team-building exercises:

  • Divide your team into small groups, using online meetings ask them to come up with, and share a list of 10 things they found they have in common.
  • Team up and compete in online games such as Scrabble or Family Feud.
  • Find a large digital image and crop it into squares, one for each member of your team. Then, send each person a file with their square and challenge them to figure out which order the images go in and what the completed picture is.

Encouraging socializing outside of work can also help boost interdependence, team collaboration, and communication. This is because work relationships are incredibly important to employee well-being, and studies show that feeling a sense of belonging is an important intrinsic motivator for people.

When promoting social events to your team, take into account what they are interested in, and any beliefs, attitudes, or personal preferences. For example, if you have non-drinkers in your group, then a night out at a pub may not be enjoyable to them. And if people on the team choose not to socialize, that choice should be respected by all. You may have introverts on your team who are not yet comfortable socializing with the team outside of work. Or, team members may have family obligations that don’t allow them to participate. The key is to support team bonding without making it feel forced.

A final way to promote a sense of interdependence and encourage people to work together for their mutual success is through team-based rewards. While performance reviews should focus on an individual’s efforts, you can still set team goals and provide group rewards for when they are met. Take everyone out to lunch if the team meets a key milestone, or give everyone the Friday afternoon off if they complete a critical task a day early. To provide effective rewards, you should ask your team what will motivate them, and then create tailor-made rewards based on their feedback.

The risk with team goals is that conflict could occur if people think others are not pulling their weight. This is why teams need to already begin forming trust and a sense of collaboration before team incentives are introduced. If your team is not at this stage yet, you can choose to provide individual rewards based on peer recognition instead. Teammates nominating each other can build strong bonds and feelings of goodwill between members.

Continued Team Collaboration Success

A lack of collaboration leads to unhappy team members and poor performance. If you want your team to excel, and increase productivity and innovation, you must encourage success at every stage of the team development process. After all, teams that achieve the ‘Performing’ stage of team building are the greatest at collaborating.

If your team is new, you can promote team building through strong management support and the sharing of information. As they start to understand where everyone fits within the team, create a team charter, support open communication, and help them appreciate each other’s differences. Then, as collaboration starts to grow, enhance it further with team building activities, after-hours socialization, and team-based rewards. This will allow your team to become more interdependent, which leads to greater trust, improved problem-solving, and higher levels of creativity. Use these practices as a template and any team you bring together will be set up for success.


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