Based on the notion that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” collaboration is an acknowledged pillar of effective work processes. Verbal exchange stimulates the kind of multi-perspective thinking drives truly fresh ideas – and a collaborative sounding board often reveals a project’s flaws, letting the team close loopholes before a project breaks down.
Unfortunately, a host of roadblocks can suck the positive energy out of meetings, workshops and brainstorming sessions and stall the collaborative process. Here’s some recommendations on how to approach the four most common collaboration challenges you’ll likely encounter in the innovation process.
Problem 1: Talking in Circles. The solution: In a perfect world, collaboration would quickly, organically produce unanimously supported decisions at every step of the process. In the real world, though, meetings often drag on because disagreements arise regarding project details. If debate turns cyclical and unproductive, “agree to disagree” and move on. But don’t let a great idea be the victim of indecision. To keep a meeting flowing, establish an agenda at the beginning and stick to time limits for each task so that obsessive fixation on one piece of the puzzle doesn’t keep the team from seeing the big picture.
Problem 2: Stuck in a Rut. The solution: When familiarity minimizes productivity, mix it up. If the same combination of people always works together, they might settle into complacency. Maintain dynamism and ensure that employees keep each other on their toes by creating different teams for different projects. Menlo, a Michigan-based software company, truly embraces this belief: rotating through partners every week to ensure that employees constantly push and question each other.
Problem 3: Losing Focus. The solution: When group members have blurry or conflicting project visions, use careful communication to bring things into sharper focus. Have each party explain what they see as the purpose of both that specific meeting or task, and the larger project in general. Since collaboration occurs because the individuals involved have common interests, a consensus will likely arise. Write a brief group vision to help navigate the rest of the meeting and then move forward. To prevent clashes, start workshops with a “charter.” Establish (in writing) the immediate, functional purpose of the meeting, the deeper motivation behind it, ground rules for behavior, and decision-making norms.
Problem 4: Uneven Participation. The solution: When planning a group brainstorming session, remember that different people communicate differently. Try alternatives to a round-table discussion format. Break off into pairs, threes, or fours, then have each group share their conclusions with everyone; pose a question and have participants write answers, then read them aloud; or have a leader cold-call participants who might not voluntarily contribute. Though successful collaborative efforts are ultimately contingent on individuals’ willingness to participate, alternative discussion formats and thoughtful group leaders can draw ideas out of everyone.
It’s tempting to write off collaboration if indecision and stagnation define your meetings and workshops. But collaboration done right is a powerful, necessary tool. To make it the energetic breakthrough process it’s meant to be, anticipate and prepare for these collaboration killers.