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Viewpoint: Getting a GRIP on Collaboration

A person's hand on a rock climbing wall.

In today's complex, multidisciplinary and functionally interdependent business world, HR experts know that collaboration is a good thing—and an increasingly necessary thing. But that doesn't mean HR professionals automatically know how to collaborate, are adept at fostering effective collaboration, or can show our internal constituents how to translate the abstract goal of effective collaboration into practical tactics and techniques.

We're going to fix that in this article. Let's say you're leading a group of people—a department, initiative, project or task team. To help you herd all those cats, we are going to provide you with a nuts-and-bolts template of beguiling simplicity. We suggest you laminate it; stick it in your desk drawer; and pull it out when planning, organizing and/or managing any activity that requires the productive interaction of two or more people. Better still, reduce the template to business card size, have Staples print up a bunch of 'em and hand them out to colleagues struggling to get their team members to work together. You will feel the love.

Fundamental Collaboration Principles

Let's start by disabusing ourselves of the notion that teams—whether HR, business or sports teams—are collective organisms, like colonies of coral. Outside of work, teams often operate primarily as affinity groups, based largely on the emotional satisfactions of membership, inclusion, acceptance and empathy. Business teams, on the other hand, are results-generating machines, built of many different moving parts, with the purpose of producing excellent outcomes, not reward relationships for their own sake.

What appears to be a "team" activity with "team" rewards is inevitably built on the attitudes and behaviors (and, of course, fears) of a whole gaggle of individuals. Only when we aggregate a bunch of individual behaviors do we see an outcome that appears to have a collective purpose. It's like summarizing millions of separate stock transactions by saying, "The stock market was bullish today." Skilled leaders know, implicitly or explicitly, that they should never stray far from radio station WIIFM—"What's in it for me?" As one lawyer put it, "My antitrust litigation team is really a bunch of egos connected with central heat."

Once we understand that collaboration depends on individual attitudes and motivations, we can see that an individual can and will collaborate only if three conditions are met:

  • He or she believes it is safe to collaborate.
  • He or she is motivated by the potential rewards of collaborating.
  • He or she understands what to do in order to collaborate effectively.

We examined the first of these conditions in a prior article focusing on Google's intensive research into what makes collaborative, high-functioning teams tick, What We Can Learn from Google About Collaboration. In short, Google's Aristotle Project didn't shed much light on what collaborative teams do, but it found out a whole lot about what collaborative team members need. In a nutshell, what they need is:

  • A "psychologically safe" cultural environment (Google's term, not mine) based on personal connection.
  • "Equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking" (again, Google's label), meaning group communication norms that promote fair and equal airtime for everyone at the table.
  • The confidence that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking the truth.

OK, Let's Go Do Something

If a team leader can get past these motivational issues and assemble a team of contributors willing and able to function collaboratively, will the team members automatically function together like a well-oiled machine? Well, no. Not unless all players' trust and commitment is supported with a clear and concise understanding of exactly what they are supposed to do. In shaping and then managing a consistently high-performing team—of any kind, of any size—it is essential that the leader have a functional road map, a GPS for the team, so to speak, that assures that every participant is fully informed regarding all relevant factors in the "collaboration equation."

Enter the GRIP model.

Getting a GRIP

In the sidebar below you will find the GRIP template, which is simply a logical sequence of questions that elicit and communicate practical information crucial to planning and evaluating collaborative activity. It's not rocket science, although I first discovered it being used by a team of rocket scientists at the former GE Aerospace business group as a shorthand form of "critical path analysis."

GRIP has four components that are prerequisites to team collaboration and performance:

  • G—Goal Clarity.
  • R—Role Clarity.
  • I—Interactions Quality.
  • P—Processes and Procedures Quality.

It is better and easier for leaders to attempt to engineer GRIP into team collaboration from the beginning, rather than for them to try to retrofit it in after the team fails to jell, buy in or collaborate. If all the GRIP questions have not been asked and answered before a project kicks off, implementation is likely to suffer gaps, redundancies, confused performers, turf wars, political jousting and a tendency for projects to veer off course. All of which are things HR professionals see frequently in day-to-day life.

In many cases, the answers to a particular GRIP question may seem easy or self-evident. Ask all of them, anyway; unexamined assumptions tend to come back to bite you hard and deep. Each of the GRIP questions is important, and any unasked question or untested assumption is a vulnerable spot waiting for Murphy's Law to sneak in. In addition to the focus it brings to planning, the GRIP model also can serve as a point-by-point template for evaluating team performance at the end or trouble-shooting problems along the way.

The GRIP model of team collaboration "cascades." That is, without Goal Clarity, nothing else downstream will work worth a darn. And even if you have great Goal Clarity, if there is poor Role Clarity, failure and friction are inevitable. Clear objectives don't translate automatically into superior results. If both Goals and Roles are clear, but everyone on the team is bummed out or flailing around in the dark—if the quality of Interactions has been neglected or if communication is garbled—then morale will soon flag, self-protective behaviors will emerge, and compliance or acquiescence is the best that can be expected. Babel ensues. Finally, of course, absent clear Processes that define performance standards and measure progress objectively, all the other team virtues are just nice-sounding lip service.

Note that the GRIP collaboration does not prescribe specifically what to do in response to each question; GRIP's job is to flag what must be done. But none of the action steps illuminated by GRIP questioning falls outside the repertoire of a competent leader's or HR expert's skills. In other words, GRIP is an organizing model, reflecting the truth that more collaboration is eroded by lack of direction than by incompetent behavior.

The GRIP model's benefits? It's clear, it's consistent, it's logical, it eschews jargon and it's easy to remember. So there you have it: If your team members don't know what they're doing or why they're doing it, if they're dropping the ball or stepping on each other's toes, if they are talking trash or not talking at all, or if they don't know either how they or their team are doing, there is a solution: Get a GRIP.

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.

Sidebar: Getting a GRIP on Collaboration

G: Has the leader communicated and reinforced Goal Clarity?

  • Do all team members understand WHAT our objectives and deliverables are?
  • Do all team members understand WHY we are pursuing them now?
  • Are the goals and objectives communicated CONSISTENTLY?
  • Do we all AGREE on the team's goals, objectives and priorities?

R: Has the leader assured that at all levels there is Role Clarity?

  • Have we INVENTORIED our skills and experience to determine the capabilities at our disposal?
  • Do we all know what each of us is supposed TO DO at all stages of the team's activity?
  • Do we all agree that we are the right person for our role? Do we "have the right people on the bus"?
  • Do we understand the CONNECTIONS and RELATIONSHIPS between our roles? Do we all know who is accountable to whom—both on the org chart and on specific tasks?
  • Do we all understand the BOUNDARIES of our authority, responsibility and accountability?
  • Do we know how we will allocate AUTHORITY, RESPONSIBILITY and ACCOUNTABILITY?

I: Has the leader explained our Interactions—communication, morale, buy-in and trust?

  • Are the team's COMMUNICATION CHANNELS and PATHWAYS clear and consistent? Do team members know when, how, how often and about what to communicate with each other?
  • Is the team's ALLOCATION OF POWER AND AUTHORITY clear, fair and enforced?
  • Do superiors DELEGATE tasks and responsibilities easily and effectively to subordinates?
  • Is the leader assuring that ALL VOICES are being heard? Does the leader champion diversity and insist that all STYLES are accepted and respected?
  • Can the leader articulate and enforce the group's positive behavioral NORMS and VALUES?
  • How will DISAGREEMENTS be resolved?
  • Does the leader support appropriate motivational incentives–including FUN?
  • How will the team on-board and ASSIMILATE new team members?

P: Does the leader understand and communicate Processes—what to do, how to do it, how we interact with others, and how we'll measure progress and performance?

  • Does the leader have clear and concrete plans, priorities, procedures and standards for EACH DELIVERABLE?
  • Does everyone on the team have SUFFICIENT RESOURCES?
  • Has the leader specified how the team will MONITOR and COORDINATE its efforts?
  • Does the leader—or her designates—provide frequent, behavior-based FEEDBACK?
  • Does the leader have the courage and perspective to TEST OUR ASSUMPTIONS and REALITY-TEST progress?
  • Is the leader capable of moving to CONTINGENCY PLANS?


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