When eight people meet for one hour, that's not just an hour of work time consumed, that's a whole day. Thankfully, in-person, time-blocked meetings aren't the only way to collaborate. In fact, the normal structure of meetings can actually harm a team's ability to work together effectively.

There are more effective ways to create meetings-of-the-mind than simply, well, meeting.

Working better together multiplies a team's ability to execute and move quickly. Too often, a desire to foster collaboration can actually lead to less effective teamwork.

Creating a Culture of Team Collaboration

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Let's explore ways to enable your team without stifling or unwittingly undermining their hard work.

1. Communicate and Practice Your Culture

As Greg Nathan, renowned organizational expert says, "Culture is how we do things around here." And that starts with the CEO. A leadership team that regularly talks about and engages in collaborative behavior, looping team members in on decisions, asking for feedback and new ideas, models what's expected and provides the encouragement for others to follow suit.

When leadership behaves inclusively, they also demonstrate a vital leadership quality: vulnerability. People who have all the answers don't ask for help. Including others is a way of saying, "I don't have all the answers," and "I think this could be better if you help." Truly being open to criticism sets a standard forgetting it right no matter what, which is the defining feature of any highly collaborative team.

2. Help Teams Establish Their Own Goals

Without a goal, there is no team, no common effort around which to rally. "Shared goals mean shared responsibility," says Adrian Davis, keynote speaker and sales consultant. When teams work together to determine what they're after, they are more likely to take responsibility for it together.

Living up to one's commitments is a strong motivating force and can create a sense of unity and urgency to deliver on the promise. Like announcing your desire to run a marathon, publicly stating the goal can be just as important a driver as setting the goal in the first place.

It's not enough, however, for a group to have the same stated goal. Their jobs must be interdependent. For the team to succeed, they truly need to help each other, and that's where the collaboration kicks in.

3. Establish Clear Lines of Responsibility

Startups and young companies, in general, are more likely to have fluid roles and responsibilities because things tend to change so quickly, they don't like to lock it down. Clarity, however, has been shown to improve ownership and reduce territorial confusion and the conflicts that can arise.

According to Tammy Erickson, writing for Harvard Business Review,

Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood — in fact, when individuals feel their role is bounded in ways that allow them to do a significant portion of their work independently. Without such clarity, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task.

Additionally, failing to define responsibilities can land some tasks, projects, or outcomes in "no man's land" where no one takes charge of solving a problem or developing a new solution.

4. Schedule Time Alone

We don't usually schedule focused time alone to actually get work done, but we do schedule time together (meetings!). Consequently, employees report as little as 45% of time at work is actually doing work. That can lead to feeling ineffectual and overwhelmed, with no mental energy left to be "collaborative."

By respecting focused work time as much as meeting time, you give employees the space to feel effective and prepared to deliver their best for their team. Encouraging employees to block out chunks for specific tasks also aids in accountability and focus.

For example, if I block out the morning with three one hour blocks to finish a series of tasks, my team knows what I'm working on and that it's a priority for me. If they had different ideas about what's important, two things are likely to happen:

  1. They may interrupt with their own priorities and I'm obliged to listen.
  2. They may wonder what in the world I've been doing all morning.

Using a physical or online kanban board to manage projects or weekly sprints can help teams visualize their tasks, prioritize them, and give each other the space they need to attack each task on the board.

5. Play to Everyone's Strengths

New initiatives are more prone to fail when they don't suit the personalities, work styles, and strengths of the team. You can order more collaboration, but what does your team need? We all have different skills and knowledge bases, of course, but we all give and receive communications differently and may not feel comfortable or effective with a prescribed way of doing things.

A personality inventory and good old fashioned interview about how an employee likes to work can tell you an awful lot about how to get the best out of her. The implication here is that not all collaborators are created equal—and they don't have to be. Recognizing that is vital to organizing teams so that everyone can shine in their own way.

Some people will be quiet and not seem very effective or engaged in brainstorming sessions, for example. Quiet people have different needs than talkers—not better or worse, just different. "Asynchronous" tools like Slack, email groups, wikis, and Google docs provide a broader array of collaborative options for those who may not be inclined to speak up when the spotlight is on them.

6. Create "Non-Sedentary" Workspaces

A study by Andrew Knight at Washington University found that teams who work together while standing tend to engage more and show fewer territorial behaviors than they do when working and meeting while seated. Knight explained to Reuters,

I had read some of the research on non-sedentary work and standing desks that was focused on individual physiological benefits, but we were really intrigued and excited to see how the physical space might alter literally how people are interacting with and relating to one another over the course of the meeting.

Take the scrum-style "standup" literally and, when possible, meet without sitting down. If you aren't yet using standing desks, better collaboration is one great reason to give them a try. Of course, hallway meetings and walking meetings can work, too, especially one-on-one, but nothing beats the ease and convenience of holding a meeting at your desk, right where you stand.

7. Teach Your Team Collaboration Skills

We don't give a second thought to teaching new employees how to use the phone system or to introducing a new developer to our bug tracking process. We never expect them to handle these things effectively without proper training. And yet we ask for collaboration without teaching team members how to do it well.

Demonstrating appreciation for others, reflective listening, and questioning skills are just the start of triggering and exploring new ideas through collaboration. Working together isn't about a single topic, it's about a relationship. We need to teach employees how to handle difficult conversations, express their feelings in constructive ways, and mediate conflict—all teachable skills that give eager employees the tools they need, not just to want to work together, but to know how to do it effectively.

Collaborate Like You Mean It

Building a highly collaborative team is about your culture, and the choices you make every day. From the ways you structure responsibilities, to time management practices, to the ways you set up your workspaces—collaboration isn't just an activity, but a quality of highly effective teams.

When you take a holistic approach, it's easy to see how collaborative habits can be learned, modeled, and incentivized, all without more meetings.

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About the author:

Chris is always in pursuit of optimal living, and believes strongly that although "alone you can walk fast, together we can walk far" :)