Keys to Collaboration: Diagnosing the Symptoms of Success

By Douglas Richardson Aug 31, 2016

From his pinnacle of power atop a vast organization of supporting employees, former New York City mayor Ed Koch was prone to ask, "How'm I doin'?" As an HR professional or HR manager, you've probably experienced that same desire to know where things stand, whether you head a department, lead an initiative, manage a team or support business teams where synergistic collaboration (as opposed to merely complying with direct orders) is essential to success.

However, in "soft skills" contexts—as in HR and professional development—it's often not possible to answer this question about your progress using objective, measurable performance metrics. So if you can't directly measure collaboration, how do you know if a team is firing on all cylinders or, alternatively, if it's falling short of the mark? What are the symptoms of collaborative success—or shortfalls?

In an earlier article, Getting a GRIP on Collaboration, I suggested that effective team collaboration requires four principal components:

--Goal Clarity.

--Role Clarity.

--Interactions Quality.

--Processes and Procedures Quality.

When all four components are present, your team can hum along quietly like a well-oiled machine. Perhaps so quietly that you neither hear nor appreciate its apparently effortless performance. If so, it's time to wake up and smell the coffee—deliberately and diligently.

Leaders often are so alert for problems that they may be inattentive to symptoms of success. So let's do the happy dance: Here's how you'll know when collaboration is working.

When You Have Good Goal Clarity

  • The team does not operate on a "need to know" basis, which means no one is left in the dark. Everyone on the team understands the goals and can describe basic project deliverables, priorities, tasks, timelines and deadlines.
  • Performance standards are concrete, consistent and clearly communicated. In addition, team members can communicate the performance standards to other team members—including new team members.
  • People who might be unclear about goals, tasks and priorities immediately ask for clarification instead of remaining in the dark.
  • Disagreements about priorities or tactics are brought immediately to an accountable decision-maker, rather than being allowed to fester.

When You Have Good Role Clarity

  • At all times, all team members can tell you what they are responsible for, what they are accountable for and by when they will have completed their tasks.
  • All team members can tell you to whom they are accountable and on whom they depend for various project tasks, as well as who depends on them.
  • You see little redundant behavior, incompetent behavior, do-overs or tasks that fall between the cracks.
  • Delegation is such that it ensures matters are handled competently and that team members have opportunities for development.

When You Have Good Interactions

  • Morale is good.
  • Buy-in is strong, trust is evident and diversity is valued.
  • Incentives actually incent.
  • Communication is carefully planned—at all levels and among all members—rather than ad hoc. Everyone communicates candidly and without fear of criticism or recrimination. All players are given equal air time.
  • Teams use a vocabulary that everyone understands and shares.
  • Team members can describe "RACI" for any project: who is Responsible, who is Accountable, who needs to be Consulted and who should be kept Informed.

When You Have Good Processes and Procedures

  • The team consistently produces desired deliverables and results.
  • There is far less reinventing the wheel.
  • New team members are assimilated easily and quickly become fully productive.
  • Templates and shared work products proliferate.
  • Team members promptly identify and troubleshoot any deviations from the standard or the plan, which prevents extensive damage control later on.
  • The team anticipates the resources it will need so that shortages don't happen later in the project.
  • Morale is high because performance expectations are clear and performance feedback is clear and consistent.
  • Individuals excel as the team excels.

Okay, so maybe your team did not score 100 percent on all these positive dimensions of collaboration. Few do. But at least now, like a good doctor, you can perform a thorough diagnosis. This is a bona fide occupational qualification for an HR professional.

If your team did score off the charts on all counts, no doubt other leaders are asking for your magic recipe for collaboration and success. Before you gloat, however, consider this: If your team is manifesting symptoms of collaborative health, you must know why.

We've all heard of positive, vibrant performance cultures that went south when not diligently tended and reinforced. Positive cultures tend to be fun but fragile; negative cultures, because they're rooted in survival and not peak experience, tend to be tough and resilient. Cultures in transition or crisis tend to be noisy and needy.

As Google's famed Project Aristotle research demonstrated, culture and collaboration are closely linked in successful teams and organizations. If team performance is important to you, now is the time to do the necessary diagnosis.


Douglas Richardson, J.D., M.A., is a principal of Legal Leadership LLC of Philadelphia and Savannah, Ga., and a certified master coach. As a lawyer and consultant, he has been voicing opinions about leadership, communication and organizational effectiveness for over 40 years.


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