Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams

We are analyzing this great HBR article published by Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson in 2007, to evaluate it’s applicability to Sri Lankan organizations, as a part of a group assignment in our MBA program.

The essence of the article is like this. In today’s highly dynamic business environment companies have to rely on large, diverse teams of highly skilled and educated specialists to get a major collaborative initiatives like and acquisition or an overhaul of IT systems. Members of such teams are often convened quickly to form into the team, and they quite regularly are expected to collaborate online, and often are not known to each other in person before the project in hand is assigned to them. This creates a major challenge for today’s business organizations to assemble the knowledge and breadth required to accomplish the objectives set in such major initiatives. In the research done prior to writing this article, the authors found an interesting paradox in the 15 multinational companies they focused on for their study. Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse and composed with highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done.

In their research, Gratton and Erickson noticed that, while large, virtual, diverse and highly educated teams performed well in a collaborative environment in a one organization; yet another set of teams with the same characteristics were failed to achieve high performance in similar environments. Their research found that team members collaborate more easily and naturally, if they perceive themselves to be alike. They further found, greater the proportion of experts a team had, the more likely it was to disintegrate into nonproductive conflict or stalemate. The findings of the research left with the question “how can executives strengthen an organization’s ability to perform complex collaborative tasks to maximize the effectiveness of large, diverse teams, while minimizing the disadvantages posed by their structure and composition?”

Gratton and Erickson carried out a study into 55 large teams and identified teams which demonstrated high levels of collaborative behavior, despite their complexity. They studied the factors behind the success of these collaborative teams, and out of about 100 factors they initially identified; they were able to isolate eight practices which were positively correlated with success of those teams. These eight factors were categorized into four general categories, namely; executive support, HR practices, strength of the team leader, and the structure of the team itself.

1. Investing in Signature Relationship Practices

Executives can encourage collaborative behaviour by making highly visible investments in facilities with open floor plans to foster communication; for example that demonstrate their commitment to collaboration.

2. Modeling Collaborative Behaviour

At companies, where the senor executives demonstrate highly collaborative behaviour themselves; teams collaborated well too. This is similar to leading by example. If the executives are expecting the teams to collaborate well; they first have to demonstrate it by collaborating well among the top executives.

3. Creating a Gift Culture

This involves mentoring and coaching, especially on an informal basis to help people build their networks they need to work across corporate boundaries.

4. Ensuring the Requisite Skills

Human resources departments that teach employees how to build relationships, communicate well, and resolve conflicts creatively can have a major impact on team collaboration.

5. Supporting a Strong Sense of Community

When people feel sense of community, they are more comfortable reaching out to others and more likely to share knowledge.

6. Assigning Team Leaders That are Both Task and Relationship Oriented

The debate has traditionally focused on whether a task or a relationship orientation creates a better group, but in fact both are key to successfully leading a team. Typically, leaning more heavily on a task orientation at the outset of a project and shifting toward a relationship orientation once the work is in full swing work best.

7. Building on Heritage Relationships

When too many team members are strangers, people may be reluctant to share knowledge. The best practice is to put at least a few people who know one another on the team.

8. Understanding Role Clarity and Task Ambiguity

Corporation increases when the roles of individual team members are sharply defined yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task.

We plan to evaluate the applicability of these 8 principles within a large and diverse team environment in one of the leading multi national companies in Sri Lanka. We will study, what of these factors are currently visible in this large team, and what factors are not properly visible. Then we will try to identify the reasons for not having those team characteristics, and see if the absence of such factors made an impact on the overall performance of the team.

How ever; what I’m most interested in this article is the comprehensiveness of these eight characteristics. If you think about these eight factors in deep; you will see how powerful these principles can be in enhancing a team’s performance. However a vast majority of the teams are formed without taking these factors into consideration. For example, gift culture and sense of community are the areas where it is overlooked most of the time. When a cross functional team is formed, first it need to be socialized into a community. The newly formed team’s members should have a sense that they are now not just a “proxy” of the larger department or division they belong to; rather they are a part of a community of with a common objective. The common objective might be to re-launch a product, revamp a website, or build a new MIS for the company. If this community feeling is lost; people will perceive their role in the team as just being a representation from their department or division. As a result, they will be driven by the narrower objectives of that particular department, where as from the organization point of view, the objective of the newly formed team is to be much broader than that.

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