Four Strategies to Improve Collaboration

Group projects were the bane of my existence in college. My freshman year, I took a sociology class, and the professor thought it was a good idea to assign a group project instead of a final exam. I would take a final exam over a group project any day! I played the role of the leader, rapidly firing ideas and taking initiative. Another group member showed her administrative prowess as she assigned tasks and created a timeline. While another group member seemed reserved, but he clarified the tasks and followed through. I’m not sure it’s even worth mentioning the last group member because she was basically a ghost!  She was present at the first meeting, but we didn’t see or hear from her after that, leaving the other group members to pick up her slack. It’s an all-too-typical scene, and that’s why so many people despise group projects.  Someone gets stuck doing more work than the other group members, and it is not fair. The frustration is palpable.

So, why do teachers and professors continue to frustrate students with assigning group projects? It’s because collaboration is essential for success in most work environments… and life in general. Athletes harness the power of collaboration to win games. Our government uses collaboration to create or change policy.  A board of directors uses collaboration to move a business forward in its’ mission. Charities and nonprofit organizations partner with other groups which is mutually beneficial. You can’t get away from opportunities to collaborate with others, whether it be work or play! Party planning, wedding planning, even family reunions require collaboration to be successful.

Collaboration is two or more people working together toward shared goals. It is critical that the team of people are communicating and cooperating. They share in the decision-making process and successfully accomplish their objective. Collaboration is as difficult as it is complex. No wonder why so many people shut down or struggle with it?! You may have heard of the saying, “One bad apple can spoil the bunch.” Often, when people attempt working together, conflict can occur because of different expectations or communication styles. Sometimes, just one person’s bad attitude can bring down the morale and create drama. The success of the group depends on its ability to create dynamics that promote trust and cohesion. What are the key ingredients to making collaboration work? Here are four practical strategies for organizing and managing group dynamics.

Start with Why

Simon Sinek, a leadership expert and author of the book “Start With Why” made an eloquent TED talk that has over 44 million views on Youtube. He states, “Inspired leaders think and act from the inside out.” Meaning, people who know and believe in why they do something will attract others and further their purpose, cause or belief. He says that people will “buy-in” to what motivates you, not what it is or how it is done. If you want to collaborate effectively, put your why first! Be sure each group member understands why the group exists, and keep that why at the forefront of conversation. A group’s why is the foundation for its’ decision-making. Members of a collaborative team will always find unity on the common ground of their why.


Make a Plan

I was once a part of a team that struggled with making and following a plan. Meetings were filled with dissension. I felt like a hamster running on a wheel, running fast and going nowhere. Collaboration without orientation is a lost cause. Where to begin? After you have determined your why, assign each group member a specific role and delegate tasks. Then, create a work timeline or schedule with due dates. Next, determine a communication plan. Decide at the beginning how frequently you will communicate face to face and via email. This will enhance accountability and productivity. The group’s leader should provide structure to meetings by creating an agenda. Lastly, reflect on your plan while it is in progress. What is working or not working? Communication and cooperation are maximized with a solid plan for how you will collaborate.

Resolve Conflict

Conflict will inevitably emerge at some point while collaborating. Every member of the group will not agree all the time. Therefore, a culture of trust should be established at the start. This will enable collaborators to feel safe giving and receiving feedback. According to a study on Collaborative Grant Writing Groups by Grand Valley State University, the primary causes of conflict during collaboration are “diffusion of responsibility, inequitable division of labor, difficulty keeping to a timeline, and managing interpersonal relationships.” With a plan for how to handle conflict a group leader can orchestrate effective problem solving. In conflict that involves the entire group, all group members should be present. The disagreement should be clarified by the leader and solutions can be negotiated by group consensus. Importantly, conflict that involves a single group member should be discussed one-on-one. A respectful and private atmosphere should be maintained to prevent embarrassment.

Acknowledge the Good

Collaboration requires unfamiliar attitudes and behaviors to be in sync, which is no easy task. So, celebrate the success of your team! Acknowledging the good reinforces the hard work and dedication it takes to effectively collaborate. Positive reinforcement can take the form of formal debriefing and reflection. Giving compliments and praise affirms each group member’s contribution. A group leader should also acknowledge when problems have been mediated successfully.The benefits of collaboration hinge on the group’s ability to communicate and cooperate. The advantages are endless: depth of experience, increased resources, joint knowledge, error reduction and higher quality results. Collaboration gives you the opportunity to do what you could not do alone.

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