How to Develop Collaboration Skills

Updated on April 19, 2018
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Stephen Bush is a consulting and career training expert. He is the CEO and Founder of AEX Commercial Financing Group.

Working on Collaboration Skills
Working on Collaboration Skills

The Critical Importance of Collaborating Effectively

With technology and specialization playing a more powerful role in most organizations, business owners and managers have a growing need for their employees to collaborate with others — both inside and outside of the company. However, collaboration does not happen simply by executives saying that it is important.

As reported by the Harvard Business Review (based on research performed in 2007), “Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse and composed of highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done.” Developing skills needed for effective collaborating is a prudent strategy for addressing this dilemma.

As a practical issue, it does not help that effective examples of collaboration are becoming harder to find — especially in the public sector. Both state and federal legislative bodies have approached a dysfunctional state in recent years. When a "government shutdown" is the best example of collaborative activity within the government, it does provide a startling illustration of how collaboration appears to be approaching extinction among politicians and lobbyists.

The Biggest Challenge with Collaboration?

Changing the framework from "Me" to "We"

Learn From Collaborative Leaders

Your journey for developing business collaboration skills should start at the top of your organization. Employees should be able to mirror the collaborative behavior observed in a company’s leaders. For example, the Hay Group has determined that top collaborative leaders possess three key skills — relationship building, interpersonal understanding and corporate commitment. These collaboration skills often take years to develop. Forward-thinking companies such as General Electric and Procter & Gamble plan 10 years or more into the future by assigning their executives to business roles that will help to develop a collaborative skill set. IBM uses a mentoring approach that allows employees to observe collaboration in action by skilled leaders.

Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done.

— Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson, Harvard Business Review

Nilofer Merchant: Innovation and Collaboration

Co-Creation: A New Mindset

Nilofer Merchant has worked in the business trenches where she has seen firsthand what a difference effective collaboration can make. In modern organizations, collaborative behavior can spell the difference between an average company and a thriving one.

As described by Nilofer Merchant in a 2010 interview with the MIT Sloan Management Review, the concept of co-creation is a new management tool needed for developing business collaboration skills in today’s business climate. In the modern collaborative environment, employees need to feel that they helped to create the combined result of everyone’s efforts. This requires that a corporate pre-collaboration culture changes from “you” to “we.” According to Merchant, this requires businesses to move from “I think, you do” to “we think, we win.”

In the video above, Nilofer Merchant discusses collaboration and innovation. She is the author of "The New How: Creating Business Solutions Through Collaborative Strategy."

Use Smaller Teams Whenever Possible

Educators and students are well-acquainted with how class size can impact the ability to learn. A similar finding was reported by Harvard University in a 2007 study. As these researchers noted, business teams usually consisted of 20 members or less until about 15 years ago. Teams of 100 members have recently become more common due to increasingly complicated business assignments for the team to perform.

However, it turns out that the previous team size (20) was much more conducive to effective collaboration. While larger teams can still be successful, effective collaborative results with more than 20 individuals on the team can often require more time and effort.

Collaborative strategy gets us to ... go from “I think, you do” to “we think, we win.”

— Nilofer Merchant

Why Collaborate?

Here are some examples that provide six different answers to the question of “Why?”

  • Something is so complicated that it requires multiple skills and tasks that cannot be accomplished by one individual. Example: The goal established by President Kennedy to have a space program that would take us to the moon within 10 years.
  • To solve problems that do not have obvious solutions (what we're doing now isn’t working). Example: At a company that provides healthcare-related services to a wide variety of individuals and organizations, costs have suddenly increased while overall sales volume has declined dramatically. Within the company, there is widespread confusion about why this has occurred.
  • Stimulating and sharing new ideas. Example: A real estate brokerage firm is unhappy with their current sales results. The current structure is based totally on individual efforts with little or no interaction between agents.
  • Combining different approaches can result in better solutions. Example: At a business consulting firm, each team operates independently of other teams. They are encouraged to develop their own strategies and action plans. The teams have never actively “compared notes” to see how different (or similar) their approaches are.
  • A team collaboration can increase commitment to action. Example: In a retail sales environment, nobody is paid on a commission basis. An agreed percentage of all sales are placed in a bonus pool to be distributed quarterly based on a predetermined formula that was calculated in consultation with all employees.
  • To eliminate or reduce duplication of effort. Example: Several hotels and motels operated by the same real estate investment company currently contract for most of their supplies and services independently.


By the way, the process of collaborating does not mean that everyone suddenly decides to agree on everything. In fact, John Wooden provides an astute observation that just the opposite mindset can be part of a winning strategy when he said the following:

Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who’ll argue with you.

— John Wooden

When Should You Collaborate?

Right-Sizing Collaboration

In the video above, Morten Hansen talks about when to collaborate — and when not to collaborate.

Most leaders seem to recognize how valuable collaborative behavior can be for their organization, but they get it wrong anyway in a high percentage of cases. Hansen provides the necessary insights to improve the batting average for collaborating.

Collaboration experts such as Morten Hansen (author of "Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground and Reap Big Results") describe how important it is to use the right dose of collaborative skills — avoiding both over-collaboration and under-collaboration. Simply collaborating is not enough. Some companies resist serious collaboration efforts because there is a difficult balancing act to get the right mix. For example, in 2011 Cisco decided to cut back on a structure that emphasized collaboration because the process had become unwieldy. One practical lesson from experiences such as Cisco’s is that developing effective collaboration skills takes extensive time and frequently requires some tweaking and patience along the way.

Collaboration Involves Working Together
Collaboration Involves Working Together

Three Success Tips for Effective Collaboration

  1. Whenever possible, use smaller teams
  2. Develop and nurture a collaborative culture and support network
  3. Formulate challenging and explicit goals

Leaders play a crucial role in getting this right. They not only need to orchestrate the conditions for employees to collaborate on the right things, but they also need to show a strong hand in guiding collaboration efforts.

— Morten T. Hansen and Herminia Ibarra, Harvard Business Review

© 2014 Stephen Bush

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    • dhimanreena profile image

      Reena Dhiman 

      3 years ago

      Very helpful article. To survive and thrive in today's stiff competition, it is imperative to collaborate effectively. Well written hub

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