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The New Power of Collaboration

In today's hyperconnected world, organizations are learning that employees can accomplish far more together than they can alone.

1014-Cover.jpgPeople often liken the business world to the animal kingdom. Comparisons range from “shark-like” venture capitalists to “dog-eat-dog” competition. In today’s environment, a good animal role model might be the humble ant. Tiny individually but mighty in the collective, ants work together to build communities and defeat enemies; it’s how they are able to make off with the proverbial picnic basket.

Just as ant collectives marshal their forces for the common good, organizations can flourish if they encourage their employees to forge strong bonds and create successful collaborations.

As business becomes more globalized and the world becomes more interconnected, the prevailing paradigm is a shift away from cutthroat competition and toward collaboration. At many companies, working on teams has evolved during the past five years from a “nice to have” to a “need to have,” says Brian Kropp, managing director at the Corporate Executive Board Co. (CEB). Today, employers simply must use collaborative teams, he says, noting that “It’s just how work gets done.” In fact, organizations with effective collaborators saw revenue increase about 5 percent more than those without them between 2012 and 2013, according to Kropp.

In a 2013 survey of more than 23,000 workers by CEB, two-thirds of employees reported that their work over the past three years required increased collaboration. The survey report, Breakthrough Performance in the New Work Environment, also showed that 57 percent of respondents did more work with those in other geographic locations and 60 percent worked with at least 10 people each day.

CEB also found that nearly three-quarters of employees want to collaborate, but they’re impeded by the way their organization is structured or run—whether because of performance management systems that don’t reward collaboration, poor communication regarding which projects employees should collaborate on or conflicting organizational goals.

As companies are discovering, it takes time and planning to harness the power of teamwork.

Building a Foundation

As a first step, business leaders must demonstrate that they value collaboration and must establish the conditions needed for it to flourish, says Eduardo Salas, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

That includes creating a culture of respect, trust and tolerance for divergent opinions. In successful teams, members are motivated to find the best solution for the task at hand and everyone feels like their ideas are taken into account, says Kim Ruyle, president of Inventive Talent Consulting LLC in Miami. “[High-functioning teams] have the ability to make it safe to disagree and safe to stand alone,” Ruyle says. In addition, “members genuinely like each other.”

Indeed, forging solid relationships is one of the keys to successful workplace collaborations, says Margaret Heffernan, entrepreneur and author of A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition (PublicAffairs, 2014). Research has shown that team members’ education levels, IQs and years of experience don’t matter when it comes to creating productive teams. What’s important is how prepared people are to help one another. “If you really want high levels of helpfulness that make an impact on the bottom line, you have to realize people only help people they know,” Heffernan says.

That familiarity doesn’t happen spontaneously. Successful collaboration requires the deliberate use of time and resources to facilitate the building of what Heffernan calls “social capital,” or the bonds between people that foster trust, resilience and risk-taking.

Teams must also have a clear view of their goal as well as constant communication and transparency, says Anne Donovan, human capital transformation leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). Feedback, whether good or bad, must be immediate; otherwise, “people feel like they’re blindsided,” she says.

A team’s success often comes down to the choice of team leader. “The leader makes or breaks the team,” Salas says. Leaders create the internal climate and ensure that things are done in the best interests of the team rather than of any one individual.

“It takes a lot of emotional intelligence and self-awareness” to lead a team,

The Seven C’s of Effective Teams

According to Eduardo Salas, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida, the following are signs of effective teams:

Conditions—Leadership signals that teamwork matters; policies and incentives support teamwork; teams have the resources they need; good performance is recognized and reinforced.

Cooperation—Members like being on teams, trust each other and contribute.

Coordination—Good teams have mutual support, adaptability and flexibility.

Communication—Protocols are in place to exchange information; communication is precise, timely and clear.

Cognition—Team members share an understanding of what they need to do; roles are clear.

Coaching—Leaders promote teamwork, care about team members, and set expectations and ground rules.

Conflict—Good teams provide psychological safety to deal with conflict.

Ruyle says. Leaders must show that they don’t take themselves too seriously and can admit to making mistakes. “There’s no fear of embarrassment or threat to the ego,” he explains.

The leader also divvies up roles and responsibilities. Important tasks shouldn’t automatically be given to members with the most experience but rather could be used to develop others’ skills.

While all members play a part in a team’s success, the leader has ultimate accountability. Members should feel like their views have been heard, but ultimately “the team leader has to be able to make the call,” Ruyle says.

Who’s on the Team

While “a lot of people focus on management qualities to improve [organizational] performance, the qualities of the people they’re working with are just as important,” Kropp says.

CEB found that organizations should focus on what it calls “enterprise contributors,” whose “impact on the business is bigger than their job description” might suggest, Kropp says.

These types of employees do four things differently. They:

• Prioritize work by the contribution it can make to the organization.

• Understand peers’ workflow, objectives and challenges.

• Understand the context that surrounds organizational decisions and operations.

• Identify problems and initiate necessary changes.

Finding employees who already have these skills can be like finding a needle in a haystack, so Kropp recommends screening out for team assignments those who are unable to collaborate and teaching collaboration skills to those who have potential. Rather than sending each individual to training, send the entire team. “Think how you can develop the group together,” he advises.

Learning from Millennials

Collaboration is a skill that is already familiar to the members of the Millennial generation, who are the future of the workplace. “It’s a generation that has always been in teams growing up,” both in the classroom and through participation in athletics and extracurricular activities, says PJ Neal, senior product manager at Harvard Business Publishing.

A PwC report released last year, PwC’s NextGen: A Global Generational Study, showed that Millennials particularly value a workplace culture that emphasizes teamwork and a sense of community. It surveyed 44,000 employees around the globe, including Millennials (those born between 1980 and 1995), as well as other generations.


The leaders at USAA, a San Antonio-based company that provides financial services to military families, have always valued teamwork. But last year they decided to create a collaborative environment from the moment new employees walk in the door. In the third quarter of 2013, they initiated a team-based form of onboarding for certain employees.

In the Combat to Claims program, veterans transitioning out of the military are hired, trained and start work together. While they integrate into a larger business team after training is complete, this approach helps provide an instant in-company network and support structure to new employees.

“They learn together and bond together and create relationships,” says Mark Reid, USAA’s executive vice president of human resources.

Reid says retention increased by more than 4 percent after implementing the initiative. “This is a significant improvement to retention that is already substantially better than the industry,” he says.

Recently, PwC decided to break down two large practice areas of its business—assurance and tax—into teams of 100 to 150 people. Those teams are now the basis for how the company delivers results to clients and how people are managed, according to Donovan, who co-authored the report.

Setting up such teams “fits right in to what Millennials tell us they want in a work environment,” she says. “They’re changing us. We are not going to change them.” At PwC, the average age of employees is 29.

Millennials’ comfort with technology also can ease collaboration with team members who are spread out geographically. And this generation tends to be more accepting of diversity, whether that means working with folks at other locations, from various cultural backgrounds or of different sexual orientations. When people are comfortable with such differences, Neal says, they typically trust one another and thus perform better on teams.

Managing Cross-Cultural Teams

Between 1990 and today, the number of multinational corporations has soared from 3,000 to more than 100,000, according to Karie Willyerd, vice president of learning and social adoption for SuccessFactors, an SAP company.

Being a member of a cross-cultural team brings challenges and opportunities. “People from different parts of the world often have different contacts, knowledge, experience and business practices,” says Catherine Cramton, professor of management at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Different ways of seeing things can be an opportunity, she notes, but often people mistakenly believe their way is the right one.

Team Sparta Systems

 Sparta Systems, which sells management software to regulated industries, recognizes that “if the leaders aren’t working well together, no one below will,” says Sharon Marnien, vice president of human resources at the company.

When Marnien started at Sparta almost three years ago, the company had a new chief executive officer and, although the organization was profitable, there was much room for growth.

The company had a culture in which long-term employees socialized and helped one another, yet integrating new faces onto teams with longer-term employees was not always easy. So, as new employees came on board, Sparta leaders would “find or manufacture opportunities for people to work together on initiatives to force relationships to grow,” Marnien says.

Every quarter, Sparta recognizes a few employees who represent the company’s core competencies and values, including teamwork. The employees’ achievements are celebrated with trophies, balloons and confetti.

The company also overhauled its office space, creating an open floor plan. Employees move from desk to desk as needed to support collaborative projects.

Over the past three years, the workforce has grown by about 30 percent, to 260 employees. Now, “There’s more of a welcome for new people and true respect for the folks that built this place,” Marnien says.

Cramton, who has studied assumptions about project coordination, cites a software company with operations in Germany and India. Team members from both countries were given a list of tasks, a schedule and deadlines. To the Germans, the schedule was sacred, with work aligned to meet scheduled deadlines. For Indian team members, the schedule didn’t carry as much weight and the project lead needed to frequently monitor progress.

Experts share the following tips for making cross-cultural teams work:

Monitor progress and project coordination. When issues arise, team members need to talk them through, learn from them and find effective ways to deal with them, Cramton says.

Emphasize cross-cultural experience. This goes for global team members and leaders. “It’s certainly part of the larger argument for leaders in business to get cross-cultural experience throughout their careers,” Cramton says.

Educate and train. Leaders at Sparta Systems, a company with 260 employees that develops and sells quality-management software to regulated industries, have faced challenges as the company has globalized. Its Europe and Middle East office is based in Tel Aviv, and Israeli team members report to U.S. managers. The Israelis tend to be direct and assertive, which initially offended their U.S. bosses, says Sharon Marnien, vice president of human resources at the Hamilton, N.J.-based company.

By conducting Strength Deployment Inventory training with team members, she helped employees to better understand the motivations that drive people’s behaviors. “You have to help bridge the differences,” Marnien says. “They all add value.”

Virtual Teams

Virtual teams bring extra complexity because members can’t look one another in the eye or watch each other’s body language. Instead, trust is based on each person’s expertise, says Arvind Malhotra, professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. People tend to forget about one another’s race or nationality and focus more on cognitive styles.

Tips for making the most of virtual teams include the following:

Delegate. With these teams, leaders must delegate. Team members are directly connected with their peers and don’t necessarily have to go through the team leader, Willyerd says.

Use document sharing. A significant amount of work gets done this way in a virtual team environment. “Work gets done as and when it’s suited to the individual,” Willyerd says.

Clarify roles and responsibilities. Virtual team members may struggle because they typically must report to both their real boss and their team leader, according to Malhotra. That makes it important for team members to report to their actual boss on exactly how they are spending their time.

The Challenge for HR

Change takes time, so it’s not surprising that many organizations are still not embracing collaboration. “There is still a kind of gut reaction that if everybody is competing, everybody is doing better,” Heffernan says.

Team Trenam Kemker

Trenam Kemker, a Tampa, Fla.-based law firm, decided to set up “collaboration zones” at its offices in Tampa and St. Petersburg, Fla., as the leases came up for renewal. Construction on these zones should be wrapped up by early next year.

The firm, which has about 150 employees, has always relied on teamwork, but it is now more committed to the idea than ever, with attorneys from different legal areas collaborating on multiple projects for the same client, says Marie Tomassi, managing shareholder. “A focus on holistic teamwork with our client helps them to achieve their goals,” she explains.

The collaboration zones, with varying technology and seating arrangements, acknowledge “the different ways people might come together as a group and work,” Tomassi says.

With such a setup, Tomassi hopes to get both the social benefits of more personal interaction and the work value of collaboration. She notes that the shift also “recognizes how younger generations are coming up through the educational system,” with its increased emphasis on collaboration.

In competitive environments, information is seen as power—and it’s hoarded rather than shared. This can be encouraged by the organization itself if it uses forced ranking systems and those who rank higher are paid better.

Heffernan argues that HR departments should get rid of competitive bonuses and forced rankings. “I think they’re just an incredible impediment to collaboration,” she says.

Meanwhile, Kropp urges HR leaders to “pursue strategies and programs that let collaborators win” in terms of pay and promotions.

The best collaborators usually don’t pat themselves on the back, and senior managers may not see who is making the largest contribution in collaborative environments—and that’s OK. Kropp suggests that instead of focusing on a few stars, senior leaders should spend time with a large number of employees. “That gives them a better sense of who is on the team, what they do and what they’re good at,” he says.

Whether it’s a multinational team of business professionals that has just completed an important project or an army of ants that has feasted on a picnic lunch, collaboration allows everyone to win.

Susan Ladika is a freelance writer based in Tampa, Fla.

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