The strength of collaboration in adversity

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Collaborating well takes thought, planning, communication, understanding, respect, humility and learning.  When it works, it seems that groups of humans can overcome almost any obstacle.  And when it doesn’t, it appears that we revert to childlike behaviour, sometimes missing our target by a long way. I thought it might be useful to share a practical ‘how to’ of effective collaboration under pressure which apply to all situations, whether at work, in sport, or in life:

  1. Have a clear, common goal – while the task and goal to be achieved may look obvious to you, people often have different interpretations of what a group or team is trying to achieve. So it’s essential that the goal is discussed and agreed before setting out, so that the team can make sure that everyone’s contributions are pointing in the same direction and so that everyone will know how to measure progress against the goal and will know when it’s been achieved.
  2. Clearly allocate tasks and responsibilities and hold people accountable for these – you know, I can’t state this point strongly enough. For too many teams, too much of the time, assumptions are made that everyone understands what they’re doing, by when and that it will all get done. Only for the next review meeting to feel awkward and unpleasant as people haven’t delivered what was expected and the team starts to lose the faith that they’re all pointing in the same direction. It’s avoidable only by spending enough time discussing and agreeing what each individual is accountable for delivering and ensuring that this is understood in the same way by everyone, as well as making sure that each team member has the resources and support they need to achieve their part of the plan.
  3. Recognize individual and team strengths and utilize this – at a similar time to allocating responsibilities, I’d recommend the team getting a clear understanding of where everyone feels they will contribute greatest value – what are they good at, what do they enjoy, what are their strengths? –  and how can this help the team achieve the goal?  On the start line at the Tough Mudder event, each of us stated which of our strengths we’d be contributing to the team’s success – and it really helped! We knew who to go to for what support and we all felt we’d have an important role to play.
  4. Quickly develop trust, transparency and openness using ongoing, open communication – you can’t overcome adversity without trusting others – trust that they will do what they’ve agreed to, trust that there is positive intent in their actions, trust that everyone is focused on achieving the same goal. So start trusting, and quick. And being comfortable giving open, honest, timely feedback is vital if the team is to be the best it can be. So don’t assume that others know what you’re thinking, tell them – respectfully and with understanding but remember that everyone benefits from feedback.
  5. Stick with the goal and don’t get distracted – while this point may seem obvious, our busy lives and roles often mean that ‘side projects’ or ‘additional tasks’ get fed in along the way. These have the potential to distract us from the goal we agreed at the outset and may lead to miscommunication and misunderstandings. To avoid this, teams need to re-state their key project goal and re-contract on their role in achieving this on a regular basis, discussing any areas where there may have been a change in plans or priorities to avoid misunderstanding or loss of trust.
  6. Seek first to understand then to be understood…and don’t waste time on blaming – when things are misunderstood, or projects timelines slip, or another team you’re working with seems to be working to its own agenda, it can feel like the worst time in a project, like you’ll never achieve the goal you’re working towards. And it’s all too easy to get into blaming external factors, other people or teams. A better solution is to try and understand what’s actually going on through effective questioning, really listening to what others are saying and clarifying what you think you’ve heard. So go in with the intention of seeking to understand rather than having your point of view understood (as Stephen Covey once said). And then take action where needed to get things back on track.
  7. Mark achievements together and make time to review the learning – all too often, teams will work through the night for weeks or months to get to the end of a project or task and once achieved, they’ll stumble, exhausted, straight onto the start of the next project. This is a major missed opportunity; to collaborate well, teams need to learn to stop, review and reflect – identifying what went well and what needs improving, documenting this so that action can be taken to strengthen performance for the next time. Oh and very importantly too, to celebrate what’s been achieved in a memorable way.  One team I know attends a retreat of sorts each year – same time, same place – to refresh, reflect, recharge and prepare for the next 12 months. This involves a forensic assessment of successes and learnings, drawing up clear plans of action for the year ahead, and spending quality time together in a relaxed environment, building a collective memory of what great teams can feel like.

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The picture above shows our Tough Mudder team at the end of the course – battered and tired but happy knowing that we’d got everyone home and that we’d collaborated not just within our team, but with other participants right the way through.  Effective collaboration helps us achieve amazing things, and it’s all the more important to remember these principles when we’re under pressure. For more on Strengths Partnership’s ground-breaking approach to team development, head over to here.

Dr Paul Brewerton, Joint Managing Director, Strengths Partnership Ltd and co-creator of the Strengthscope® Profiling System