A Practical Way to Increase Team Collaboration

Summary Points:

  • Conflicting priorities create team conflict and inhibit collaboration
  • The word priority was originally singular
  • Lacking a shared priority has a lasting, interpersonal impact on team collaboration

A Practical Way to Increase Team Collaboration

One of the simplest ways we can look at team collaboration is to identify the primary obstacles to collaboration and how to overcome them.

We often like to point to “personality conflicts,” or to “not enough time” as the culprits – and while these might be real problems, one of the most practical obstacles to overcome is creating a shared priority.

The origin of the word “priority” is a Latin word and back in the day, there was no plural form. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense. Priority was a singular word that described – most simply – the MOST important thing. Because if everything is important, then nothing is important.

Somewhere along the way, we lost sight of this, and now leaders try to accomplish far more than resources allow.

A Short (but familiar) Story of Lacking Team Collaboration

Imagine Bob from marketing is working on Project A, and it is most closely tied to his KPI’s. But for Project A to move forward, he needs Maria from the product team to complete Feature Z. But Maria is focused mostly on Project B, which is most closely tied to her KPI’s. Bob regularly asks Maria for updates on Feature Z. In meetings, she assures him that it will happen, and gives him a date without thinking too much about it. She doesn’t stop to think about everything on her plate. She hasn’t stopped to break the feature down into its pieces and parts or plan out the obstacles. And she certainly hasn’t added the 50% buffer that most humans need to add to their time estimates to get work done (we’re all terrible at estimating how long things take, aren’t we?).

So, the date comes and goes, and Bob asks Maria again. Maria is a bit short with Bob this time, because she has a lot of other things going on. But she gives him a new target date.

In the meantime, Bob’s boss, Tayla, checks in with him on Project A, because his KPI’s are not advancing the way that she would like. Bob explains that Maria keeps missing her deadline, and Tayla feels frustrated because she hates excuses, so she tells Bob to “just get it done.”

Now, Bob feels demoralized, frustrated, and anxious. And he wants to touch base with Maria to make sure she’s on target for the latest date she gave, but last time, Maria was so short with him, he finds himself avoiding the very conversation he needs to have.

So – does any of this sound familiar?

Team Collaboration Requires a Shared Priority

If it isn’t painfully obvious from the story above, the big obstacle getting in the way of that team collaborating is that they have conflicting priorities.

An obvious solution would be that Tayla aligns with Maria’s boss (and any other leaders at her peer level) about what the highest priority is.

Team Collaboration Requires “Team 1”

Patrick Lencioni describes a concept called Team 1. The idea is that most leaders, in an effort to be great leaders, find themselves being more loyal to the team they lead than the team they are on. So what team are they on? They are on the team with their own peer group. Sales, marketing, operations, product, business development – that is one team. At least the leaders of those groups create one team.

So, if this one team – or Team 1 – does not agree on what the highest priority is, then each of them will perform worse as leaders.

Why?

Because they are leading people who need to collaborate with each other but are being incentivized to not collaborate and instead focus on their own metrics. So, they are creating the internal conflict that gets in the way of team collaboration.

Team Collaboration Requires a Thematic Goal

To have one, singular goal as a team (think cross-team and organization-wide when I say “team”) is the key to getting shit done.

Another concept from Lencioni, a thematic goal is a qualitative thing (vs. a quantitative metric) that the team will get done by a certain point in time.

Now, we want everybody to have a voice in this conversation so that they are fully bought in. And once a decision is made, perhaps concordantly, then each leader on this team reports back to the teams they lead about what the priority is and how each person will contribute towards that accomplishment.

Back to Our Short Story on Team Collaboration

Imagine that was the case for Bob and Maria. Now, instead of Bob being focused on Project A and Maria being focused on Project B, they are each focused on Project A. Now, completing Feature Z is at the top of Maria’s list. Maria understands the most important thing she can do right now is get that done, to the Project A is completed. Even though Project A doesn’t contribute directly to Maria’s KPI’s, her boss understands that the most important thing she can do right now is Feature Z, which helps Bob’s KPI’s.

Because the team as a whole – the organization – has determined that improving Bob’s KPI’s is the most impactful thing the organization can focus on to improve organizational results overall.

Lasting Impacts of Poor Team Collaboration

Just to emphasize the importance in one more way – let’s go back to the original version of our story with Bob and Maria. Do you think their interactions about conflicting priorities (notice how when it is plural it doesn’t work?) are shaping the way they see each other?

Absolutely.

Now, a few months down the road, even if they are not struggling with conflicting priorities, Bob has a story in his head that he can’t trust Maria. Not only because she gave him dates that she did not meet, but she was so short with him when he brought it up to her. And Maria doesn’t trust Bob because she heard through her own boss that he was blaming her to his boss, Tayla.

So now, even if they share a single priority – unless they work through that communication and trust debt – they will be less open with each other, they are more likely to avoid each other, and they will fail to share important information as quickly as they could.

Now – having a shared priority is just one important factor for team collaboration. If you want to get in to other ways that teams can improve collaboration, check out this post on team building.