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Published Monday, April 19, 2021

The psychology of successful collaboration

The most creative ideas come from the most chaotic places. Whether you’re a developer building a new app or a founder hustling to keep your startup idea alive, there’s no steadfast structure to how you work through the creative process.


When psychologist and pioneering creativity researcher Frank X. Barron brought together a group of the era’s most high-profile creatives including writers Truman Capote and Frank O’Connor, as well as leading architects, scientists, entrepreneurs, and mathematicians, to see if he could determine a common trait across creative individuals he found they all shared the following traits:

  • A preference for ambiguity and complexity
  • An unusually high tolerance for disorder and disarray
  • The ability to extract order from chaos

Creativity is messy business. But throw a team into the mix and the threshold of dealing with disorder and chaos drops significantly.


Whether you’re working with a team you’ve known for ages, or you’ve been thrown into organizing a group of professionals for a specific project, it can be tough to find the best ways to bring them all together. And with the proliferation of distributed companies and teams that have never met before, breaking down those barriers has become even more complicated.


Yet still we manage.


Picture the Hollywood Model: Hundreds of diverse professionals, most of whom have never worked together before, thrown on set with specific instructions and told to make a movie. Somehow, it works (probably thanks to overtime pay and the added benefit of all being on-site together).


When you’re developing an app with a remote team—with no overtime and few if any opportunities to get together an build the rapport needed for successful collaboration—it’s a different ballpark.


First, what do we mean when we talk about collaboration?

While we might just think of collaboration as the process of creating something together, there are actually many different ways for us to interact in a team setting when working towards the same goal.


According to Arthur Himmelman, a consultant on community and systems change collaboration, there are actually 4 distinct ways in which we work together:



No, not afterwork drinks. We’re simply talking about the exchanging of information for mutual benefit. Working together in this capacity is easy as it requires an initial low level of trust, no real time commitment, and no need to be physically together. Think of your marketing team communicating with sales or customer support about when they’re going to run an experiment and to expect an influx of requests.



The next level involves basic sharing of information, but also requires both groups to alter their own schedule to make sure the work runs smoothly. Keeping with the marketing team example, this could mean bringing in the product team and coordinating the marketing efforts around a new feature or product launch. It also means a slightly higher level of trust and some ‘turf sharing’.



Higher up the chain is cooperation, which involves information and resource sharing, as well as more formal, organization-wide scheduling. We’re now getting serious about the work we’re doing together and need to formalize the process. This means even more trust, time alignment, and sharing of our workspace.



Lastly, we have collaboration. More than just working together, collaboration happens when all parties are invested not only in the success of the project, but in each other. Or, as Himmelman puts it, “Collaborating partners willingly share the risks, responsibilities, resources, and rewards of the work.”


For the success of your company or your project, you need to ensure that your team(s) aren’t just sharing information or making a slight concession for their own mutual well-being. You need to create an environment where everyone is as invested in the success of each other as themselves.


This is no easy task. But one that luckily has been studied intensely for years.


The 5 key principles of successful collaboration

So, we understand exactly what we mean by collaboration and the importance of fostering a collaborative culture. Now how do we put it into practice?


This was the question proposed by researchers at the London Business School (LBS), who studied 55 large, complex, and distributed teams from companies like the BBC, Marriott, and PwC.


Surprisingly, one thing they discovered was that teams that were bigger, diverse, virtual, and composed of experts in their field, while seemingly the dream team for any project, were the worst at collaborating:

“To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success.

Members of complex teams are less likely — absent other influences — to share knowledge freely, to learn from one another, to shift workloads flexibly to break up unexpected bottlenecks, to help one another complete jobs and meet deadlines, and to share resources — in other words, to collaborate.”

Instead, they found there are specific qualities that the most supportive and collaborative teams all share.


Let’s look at a few:

Leadership that champions collaboration

Successful collaboration starts at the top. Without the proper support from leaders in the organization, the best planned collaborations are destined to fail.


Psychology professor Debra Mashek calls these ‘sponsors and champions’ — people in a position of leadership who help articulate the vision of the collaboration and attract partners and more collaborators.

“Sponsors and champions help articulate, refine, and buttress a shared vision. Without a straightforward vision it’s difficult to put together an effective plan enabling you to assemble necessary resources and skills, and to generate incentives for your stakeholders.”

However, when your company is large, or distributed, it can be hard to show your team that you’re championing collaboration. Yet the researchers found that even just the perceived collaborative behavior of leadership played a significant role in determining how the team worked together.


For example, executives at Standard Chartered Bank, who employs thousands of people across 57 countries, make a habit of travelling constantly to have face-to-face meetings with employees and teammates. This quality has trickled down and the entire company now takes a personalized approach to relationships and collaboration.


For successful collaboration, you need to lead by example and create a culture that respects, and even expects honest and open lines of communication.


Creating a “gift culture”

No, we’re not talking about bribing your team to work better together. Instead, one of the most important aspects of creating collaborative teams is to create a sense of giving, through freely offering time and mentorship on an ongoing basis.


Rather than a formalized mentorship program, the researchers found that the most collaborative teams had less formal, yet on-going mentoring and educational processes baked into their everyday activities.


For example, when a new teammate is hired, these companies would make sure they have regular access to a team leader who actively helps them navigate the project — pointing out people they should meet and offering introductions, while providing them with background information and resources they need.


When this ‘gift of time’ is freely given, and not restricted to one-to-ones, teams flourish. In a modern work situation, this might mean reaching out to new hires on your project management tool and talking to them directly — showing them the lines of communication are open and that you’re willing to put the time in to help them succeed.


Supporting a sense of community

It’s no big revelation that collaboration happens more easily between people who feel connected. And creating a sense of community is another major part of promoting a collaborative environment.


At places like Pixar and Royal Bank of Scotland, this meant going so far as to build offices that forced unexpected encounters. When Steve Jobs designed the new Pixar offices, he set out to create a space that allowed people from all different departments to meet by creating a large central atrium housing facilities we all need to visit, like bathrooms and the cafeteria.


According to Jobs’ biography:

“If a building doesn’t encourage [collaboration], you’ll lose a lot of innovation and the magic that’s sparked by serendipity. So we designed the building to make people get out of their offices and mingle in the central atrium with people they might not otherwise see.”

If you don’t have an office or work remotely, you can still create a virtual version of Pixar’s office. Set a channel of your communication tool to be an office ‘watercooler’ and encourage people to post whatever’s on their mind or go off on tangents. It might seem unproductive, but those little comments help build real relationships and can even spark big ideas.


Project leaders who are both task- and relationship-oriented

What’s more important for your collaborative experience: clear goals or good relationships?


According to the research, you need both. Just at different times:

“The most productive, innovative teams were typically led by people who were both task- and relationship-oriented. What’s more, these leaders changed their style during the project.”

Specifically, the leaders started a project in a more task-oriented manner — making goals clear, clarifying roles and responsibilities, and debating about the best way to move forward. However, at a certain point they switched to being more relationship-oriented, usually after everyone had nailed down their goals and responsibilities and when the natural stress and tension around sharing knowledge started to appear.


This structure is important to remember when working through a project. Instead of obsessing over the details and hitting goals, remember to take a pulse of how your team is feeling.


Are they happy? Are they openly sharing information and feeling like their success is tied to the success of their peers?


A good project starts with clear goals, but only gets over the finish line when people band together for the greater good.


Understanding the balance of role clarity and task ambiguity

In most collaborative situations I’ve been a part of, I’ve always been given a specific task, but haven’t been told exactly what my role is. Which seems to make sense.


Why limit someone from sharing knowledge and contributing in different capacities by telling them exactly where they stand? Unfortunately (for me, at least), this is the wrong way to go about it.


What the LBS researchers discovered, was that collaboration improves when our roles are clearly defined and well understood, not our tasks.


For one experiment, they looked at diverse teams of 100+ people at the BBC, who were covering the broadcast of everything from breaking news to the World Cup.


They found that while the team’s were filled with people with a wide range of skills (and roles), they actually worked together better than those who simply knew what task they needed to do:

“Every team was composed of specialists who had deep expertise in their given function, and each person had a clearly defined role. There was little overlap between the responsibilities of the sound technician and the camera operator, and so on. Yet the tasks the BBC teams tackle are, by their very nature, uncertain, particularly when they involve breaking news.

The trick the BBC has pulled off has been to clarify team members’ individual roles with so much precision that it keeps friction to a minimum.”

In a lot of modern teams, it can be easy to not discuss roles while being clear about what tasks need to be done. However, to collaborate effectively, we need to be confident in where we stand, what our responsibilities are, and how we can work in relation to everyone else.


Without this, friction arises, mistakes are made, and no one knows who is actually responsible for the final outcome.


We don’t always play well together. But if we’re working towards a common cause we need to know the best ways to work together and keep everyone on our team happy, committed, and openly sharing information.


Only when we’re in it together and invested in the outcome of our work are we truly collaborating. But once we get there, magic happens.