How to Build a Collaborative Culture

The Business Case for Collaboration

Working as a team requires planning, communication and conflict-resolution skills, but it’s key to unlocking your best work.

Collaboration, Company Culture, Innovation, Teamwork

Collaboration done the right way can and will drive innovation. It’s something business leaders know intuitively but studies have reinforced: For example, a Nielsen study found that ideas developed by teams of three or more people have 156 percent greater appeal with consumers than those developed by only one or two people. 

And high-performance organizations are up to 5½ times more likely to reward teamwork than lower-performing companies, according to another study. 

Effective collaboration requires curiosity, says Natalie Nixon, Ph.D., strategist and president of Figure 8 Thinking, a management consulting firm.

“A lot of times people have gotten really comfortable with their heads down — their particular department, their project — and curiosity diminishes,” she says. 

And collaboration must be a habit, she adds. “If you haven’t cultivated that habit, it’s harder. The more we do it, the easier it is.” 

Here’s what to know about the power of collaboration and how it can boost your bottom line. 

Collaboration Produces Results 

Effective collaboration leads to more effective problem-solving, higher-quality work and stronger teams. 

“You want to have people of different competencies, different skill sets, different ways of approaching a tough challenge, who will raise a totally different set of questions than you would have thought to consider,” Nixon says. “You will come to much more interesting, surprising moments that wouldn’t have come otherwise.”

Big brands collaborate all the time (think Apple and Mastercard, or Sherwin-Williams and Pottery Barn), but lesser-known efforts also achieve significant results. 

For example, the staff of an eye hospital in the Netherlands improved patient safety by developing a card game together. Team members play the game at the start of every shift, using the cards to test their knowledge and get to know their co-workers. This collaboration has resulted in better teamwork, improved employee satisfaction and higher marks on patient safety audits.

The Challenge of Collaboration

Nailing a collaboration is difficult; it requires investment from management, transparent communication and a willingness to venture into the unknown. 

Plus, office cultures often reward individuals, not teams. “The incentive system is based much more on solo versus the group. It’s really a mindset shift that’s needed,” Nixon says.

Effective collaboration starts with a clear goal for team members, carefully chosen by leaders who are invested in the process. 

“When you’re building a team, you have to be really intentional,” Nixon says. “You can’t just stick people together; you have to let them know why you decided to bring these particular individuals together on a team.”

As for the possibility of conflict, it’s important to remember that friction between colleagues can improve the creative process. Decades ago, automotive designer Jerry Hirshberg coined the phrase “creative abrasion” to describe the magic that can happen when opposites are put together. When hiring design teams for Nissan, he purposely paired very different individuals to work as a unit. 

How to Collaborate Effectively and Get Results 

Before the project begins, the team should agree on the ideal outcome and talk about how to achieve it to ensure that various perspectives don’t derail the project. Invite everyone to consider: “Let’s imagine we’re gathered here a year from now; what went well, and what went poorly?” Nixon says. Then people can imagine: “How do we get there?” 

Once the project is underway, it’s important for team members to be transparent about what they’re discovering and how the work is going. It’s better to do this as the work is happening, rather than at the end, Nixon says, so you can improve as you go and set expectations. 

And when the project is over? If it went well, make sure to reward the team as a whole, not as individuals. If the objective wasn’t achieved, don’t just disband the team; consider giving them another go, with the benefit of their learnings from the first collaboration. 

“Sometimes things don’t work out well, but you can put the onus on the team to do some self-assessment. Have them generate some hard goals and deliverables for themselves, to really compel them to work smarter and maybe even more collaboratively,” Nixon says. “That sends a really important message.”