While some collaborative efforts may succeed with little planning and structure, the vast majority of successful projects follow a three-stage pattern: get started, implement the plan, and evaluate the outcome.
Collaborative efforts all begin by assembling a team. Once this is completed, it is important to write a statement describing the scope of the project. Sanker believes that President John F. Kennedy’s announcement launching the Apollo Space Project is a classic statement of scope for a large project: “I believe this nation should commit itself to the goal of sending a man to the moon before the end of the decade and returning him safely to Earth.”
Implement the Plan
The group leader may be the person who had the original vision, someone in a position of authority, or an individual selected by the group. Leadership may rotate at different phases of the effort, as when a group member has the most expertise in a specific area. Whoever assumes the responsibility must be able to act as mediator, listen attentively, and keep the project on track. The ideal leader of a collaborative group stays focused on the overall good of the project, not on amassing control or power. He or she must be able to manage any challenges and avoid attempts to intimidate others.
Evaluate the Outcome
A collaborative venture must have a goal on which all members agree, as well as a means of identifying measures of success. The group must be able to answer, “How will we know when we have achieved our goal? What will success look like?” Identifying each group member’s role and responsibilities increases the chances that everything that should get done actually does get done.
In addition to these three steps, participants must agree on the following:
* Communication ensures that ideas and information do not get lost in the process, and that every member stays engaged and not discouraged when they encounter obstacles. All participants must understand the effect of any rules, regulations, policies, and procedures on the outcome, so that time and energy are not wasted on solutions that cannot be implemented.
* The decision-making process should also be identified at the outset by asking the following questions: Will decisions be made by an overall consensus? Does the leader have authority to make certain decisions without consulting others? What happens if participants do not agree with a decision?
* A viable plan of action (in writing, agreed to by all parties) keeps the group on the path to its goal. This plan determines how progress will be measured, whether regular check-ins or occasional meetings are necessary, and various potential red flags that indicate a need to stop and reexamine the scope of the project.
* It is impossible to foresee all the ways a collaborative effort might go, so there should be the ability to revise the plan in response to unexpected developments. A well-functioning team is prepared to “plow through catastrophes and keep on going.”
* Upon completion of the project, the group should evaluate the outcome. This way, everyone understands what they have learned and also has a sense of closure.
SETTING UP FOR SUCCESS
For successful collaboration, it is imperative to assemble a strong team of people with key traits and characteristics that work well in combination:
* Good communications skills. Team members need to be able to listen, give constructive feedback, and express themselves clearly in an email, on Skype, or in a Twitter message. Increasingly, they must also communicate well in a multicultural context.
* Ability to tolerate ambiguity. The best collaborators can accept a certain amount of ambiguity as group members go through the arduous process of moving beyond what they already know and discovering something new.
* A willingness to take risks. Revelations come through trial and error–the very unpredictability that enables the group to come up with truly innovative results.
* Critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Look for people who are good at interpreting, analyzing, and evaluating information and ideas in terms of the context and the goal of the project.
* Ability to be self-reflective. Team members must have a good understanding of the ways in which they can best contribute to the collaborative effort. They also need to be able to tolerate an intense exchange of ideas and opinions without withdrawing or becoming defensive.
* Good interpersonal skills. The best collaborators are aware of and are able to manage their own feelings while tuning in to the feelings of others. They are adept at the use of body language, facial expression and tone of voice. They give and receive feedback in a non-threatening way.
DEFINING AND ALIGNING THE GOAL
A collaborative group must ensure that everyone has the same understanding of the goal and agrees that it is worth the effort. While collaboration often begins with the idea of one individual or a small group, every member of the collaborative group must be fully involved in defining and agreeing on a mutual goal that is worth achieving for all parties.
After the group discusses, clarifies, and revises the goal, it must be put in writing. A written goal helps to avoid misunderstandings, while the act of writing itself helps ensure group clarity and cohesion.
DEVELOPING AN ACTION PLAN
The action plan is the map that guides the group on its journey to the goal. Questions to be considered when developing an action plan include:
* What tasks need to be done to achieve the goal?
* Who will do what and when?
* What human and material resources are needed for the project to succeed?
* How will we monitor and track our progress?
* What problems are we likely to encounter, and how will we handle them if they occur?
The action plan should be put in writing, revisited as often as necessary to keep everyone on track, and revised if and when circumstances change.
Developing a working process is also critical. It should include a discussion of the following:
* The scope of the project.
* Roles and responsibilities of everyone involved.
* How and when members of the group will communicate.
* The process by which the group will resolve conflicts.
* How and when reports will be generated.
* What remains confidential and how confidentiality issues will be addressed.
* How resources and information will be transferred and who ultimately holds title or ownership.
STRATEGIES FOR A SUCCESSFUL COLLABORATION
Getting to know one another is the first step in building a strong and collaborative team. Sanker suggests that collaboration leaders effectively provide opportunities in all initial meetings for nonthreatening discussions or activities that involve everyone and demonstrate that all ideas will be taken seriously.
Conflict is only productive when members focus their disagreements on specific ideas and issues, not on the people who voice them. When people are treated with respect, they feel more confident about participating freely in the process.
Members of any group must know they can depend on one another to carry out the responsibilities they have agreed upon. Trust and morale decline quickly if members miss deadlines or fail to show up for meetings or deliver essential resources. Trust is also strengthened when everyone is willing to share the blame if things go wrong. Additionally, face-to-face meetings are productive as long as they have a clear purpose and agenda. Members should engage in constructive feedback that focuses on ideas, not people, and all ideas should be treated with respect.
Collaboration requires an ongoing commitment from all group members. This commitment keeps the group energized and involved even when the project encounters obstacles or setbacks. Occasional recognition of success demonstrates that the group’s commitment to the project is paying off and that continued dedication will enable them to reach the final goal.
Before any decisions are implemented, make sure everyone in the group has a clear understanding of what is happening. Not everyone may agree with the decision, but all must be willing to abide by it.