3 Mistakes Teams Make When Collaborating

Maria was desperate: Her medical device R&D team had an aspirational target of delivering seven new products to the market. But a surprising, yet formidable, obstacle stood in her team’s way: Their colleagues on the commercial side of the business.

“We haven’t successfully collaborated with the sales organization for years,” Maria explained. 

When I asked why, Maria answered: “It’s a power struggle over who has authority. We create product plans with them — but then deviate on a whim. We get jerked all over the place because they think they know the customer better than we do. Who decides when a plan is final?”

Maria isn’t alone in her despair. Research by management professors Alison Reynolds and David Lewis shows that the inability of colleagues to collaborate effectively plagues many companies: They asked 80 senior executives from 20 countries and 25 industries, “What are the biggest barriers to long-term strategic execution?” Over 76% cited “people failing to work together to make change happen.”

The truth of the matter is clear: Most professionals simply don’t know how to collaborate. 

Yet, most professionals want to collaborate. They know that good things happen when they do. When team members have a common language and understanding of collaborative leadership essentials, cross-functional performance quickly improves. 

It was clear that something had to change with Maria’s team. The transformation began with understanding three common mistakes teams make when collaborating — and how to address them. As Maria’s team corrected these errors with their commercial counterparts, alignment, communication and trust all improved. And so did results: They finished the year delivering nine new products to the market, beating their stretch target by two.

Is your team making these collaborative leadership mistakes?

Mistake #1: Your team doesn’t understand that collaboration is uniquely different from cooperation and coordination. Collaboration is the act of creating new knowledge. To do this, power is dispersed and flows to ideas — rather than to people. The knowledge created through collaboration is evidence of the social capital that makes any company unique and, if strong enough, creates a competitive advantage.

Cooperation, on the other hand, is the act of complying with requests made by another party. For instance, the sales team may need specific product information to make a sale. The R&D team cooperates and provides the essential data. 

Then there’s coordination. This occurs when complex steps are made jointly by different parties to harmoniously execute a plan.

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“This simple insight of understanding how collaboration is different from other types of interactions has transformed how we work with our commercial colleagues,” Maria said. “Everyone used to show up for meetings with different intentions. Some thought we were collaborating, while others were attending the meeting merely to coordinate a plan that had already been established. 

“Now, we declare at the start of our conversations: Are we collaborating, cooperating, or coordinating our efforts?”

Mistake #2: Your team believes that collaboration is required in all engagements with cross-functional colleagues. Discipline No. 1 for any collaborative leader to practice is knowing when not to collaborate. Like any leadership approach, if a collaborative approach is used too frequently or incorrectly, you will create more difficulties than solutions.

To determine whether to collaborate, ask yourself this: Will you drive greater value to the business or customer by investing the time to collaborate vs. empowering an individual or smaller group of people to set direction? 

Mistake #3: Your team believes their collaborative efforts must end in consensus-style decision-making. This mistake explains why many organizations endure painfully slow progress toward their goals. When every teammate can veto an idea or decision, calendars will always be filled with repetitive and lengthy meetings.

“This is where I probably grew the most as a leader,” shared Maria. “I used to allow debates to continue too long. Now, knowing that collaboration is different from coordination, I’m getting better at making sure all voices are heard, ideas are vetted — and then ending the collaboration and moving to decision-making and coordinating next steps.”

Most professionals make great teammates. Teamwork, however, consists of different types of interactions. When everyone understands what collaboration is, when to do it, and how, teamwork is strengthened. And so are your results.

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