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The Collaboration Issue

Collaboration isn’t a spectator sport.

For collaboration to truly work, leadership can’t just watch from the sidelines. Real leaders get into the arena and participate.

Words by Tim Bowman

Head of Compete at Asana

Illustration by Nien-Ken Alec Lu

When it comes to fostering true collaboration at work, even the most skilled leaders can stand in the way.

This may sound counterintuitive, but it’s something I saw firsthand during my years in management consulting leading a strategy practice. In addition to delivering complex, long-term projects, I designed and facilitated many workshops for clients and fellow consultants. Participants ranged from individual contributors to C-suite executives. Topics ranged from product innovation to storytelling to strategic planning. 

While every workshop was unique, one behavior kept popping up. And, it wasn’t from the individual contributors. This behavior came from management and leadership. 

Leaders believed that, as the leader, their job was to define success, shape the agenda, and reflect on the results. What they often failed to realize was that they also had to participate. Fully. Without reservation. They had to bring their hopes, fears, and whole selves to the collective experience.  

Participation leads to creativity

To unlock the group’s creative potential, leaders couldn’t just stand on the sidelines and spectate; they needed to actively participate in the arena. They needed to model the behavior they wanted and signal that they were part of the team, not acting as the judge, commentator, or referee. 

While this spectator-like behavior was most acute with leadership, a power imbalance seemed to emerge with anyone who stuck to simply observing, which created an “in-group” and an “out-group.”

A team is not a group of people that work together. A team is a group of people that trust each other.

—Simon Sinek, author

From my vantage point as a facilitator, I could see, hear, and often feel just how damaging this power imbalance was. Suddenly people were performing and engaging in work theater instead of co-creating, defeating the very purpose of the workshop. This was especially frustrating as I knew that when everyone participated fully without power dynamics, they could enter a group flow state, come up with incredible ideas quickly, and put those ideas into action for the team. 

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In the last few years, “arena” for team collaboration has shifted from in-person workshops and office-based collaboration to digital tools, with upwards of four out of  five workers now using collaboration tools, according to Gartner. This principle is more important than ever, especially when, as Harvard Business Review reports, two in five employees worldwide say that people in their organization don’t collaborate enough.

Build a foundation of trust

Trust is the foundation of any successful collaboration. As author Simon Sinek so eloquently said, “A team is not a group of people that work together. A team is a group of people that trust each other.”

When team members trust each other, they are more likely to share their ideas, opinions, and concerns. They are also more likely to work together to find solutions to problems without worrying about stepping on toes or who will get the credit. This concept is broadly known as psychological safety and studies have shown that it’s the key to high-performing teams

Chart: How trust drives our perception of the intentions of others

Trust can always be built through shared experiences and open communication. But as I learned from facilitating these workshops, a level playing field where everyone can participate freely is the foundation upon which true trust is built in a collaborative environment.

That’s not to say that a free-for-all, swarm-the-ball approach like youth soccer is the solution either. I found that creating horizontal power dynamics with clear roles and responsibilities was the key to effective collaboration—especially when those positions were situational vs. permanent. For example, assign a few people to be provocateurs or contrarians in your next workshop, without fear, and see what happens.

Having team members shift their roles based on the situation’s needs allows them to develop more empathy for their peers. This empathy can, in turn, deepen the connections across the team, building more trust. The practice of role-shifting also maximized serendipity by enabling new experiences and diversity of thought by ensuring no one individual dominates the ideation or decision-making process.

The benefits (and limits) of complete collaboration

Collaboration is vital to an organization’s success, but it’s also possible to overdo it. Luckily, there are simple, actionable ways to avoid collaborative overload. Knowing when to break from the group and shift to individual action is crucial to maximizing efficiency and productivity. 

When you remove layers, simplicity and speed happen.

―Ginni Rometty, Executive chairman and former CEO of IBM

Having also been responsible for landing complex projects on time, on scope, and on budget, I know that there is a time and place for more traditional top-down command and control approaches that assign more rigid roles, timelines, and processes. But in my experience, that was the exception rather than the rule.

By applying my learnings from what made workshops effective to delivering projects and managing programs, I quickly learned that the benefits of complete collaboration were far broader than I initially thought. Paradoxically, the key to maximizing creativity, collaboration, and cross-team agility was letting go of control. As the former IBM CEO once said, “When you remove layers, simplicity and speed happen.“ As a matter of fact, senior management’s aversion to giving up control ranks as one of the top reasons why collaboration fails at organizations, according to Harvard Business Reviewbehind organizational silos, a risk-averse culture, and a lack of a collaborative vision from leaders. 

If you grant people agency over how they work, they’ll “innovate on the factory floor.” If you let them be part of a team instead of a cog in a machine, they’ll push themselves harder than any manager could. Let them do more than view or comment on tasks in their digital collaboration tools—give them skin in the game—and they’ll feel a deeper connection to the work.

For senior leadership seeking true collaboration, the call to action is simple: Level the playing field. Get everyone off the sidelines and into the arena. You’ll soon realize that you’ve been making a false tradeoff between productivity and control.

You may be surprised to learn you didn’t even know what was being sacrificed on the altar of the status quo. I know I was.

Tim Bowman is Head of Compete for Asana. He writes a regular column for The Workback.

This article includes Asana customers, partners, or employees. The Workback’s policy is to be fully transparent about the business relationships between our sources and Asana, Inc. We have identified those instances within the article as well.