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Collaboration in a Virtual Environment

I have worked on many teams in which we dutifully did our jobs, and the group fulfilled its objectives. And then I have worked on other teams in which everyone energetically collaborated with one another, and the results were spectacular. Not only did we surpass our goals, we also thoroughly enjoyed and benefited from that process as individuals. In other words, there’s a world of difference between merely working together and truly collaborating with one another.

Collaborative activity is the “secret sauce” that enables teams to come up with innovative new products or creative, buzz-worthy marketing campaigns. But people can also collaborative, for instance, around the launch of a seemingly mundane project – like the installation of a new accounting package – and use that initiative to transform the way in which an organization does business.

Achieving true collaboration -- in which the whole is definitely more than the mere sum of the individual parts -- is difficult in any environment. People have to set aside their egos, trust one another, and share their expertise willingly. In a virtual workplace, collaboration can be all the more difficult to attain, especially when team members work for different companies, are essentially strangers to one another, and have different cultural and professional backgrounds.

We have interviewed a number of researchers on this topic and have also studied dozens of virtual teams, some that possessed that magic of collaboration and numerous others that didn’t. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned.

  • Adjust for size. Teams have been getting larger and larger, some even exceeding 100 people for complex projects, according to one study. This trend has made true collaboration increasingly difficult to achieve. One solution is to use a flexible, fluid team structure that consists of three tiers: a core, an operational level, and an outer network. The core consists of individuals responsible for strategy and important decisions. The operational level includes those who are doing the day-to-day ongoing work and might make decisions about their portion of the project but they don’t tackle larger issues (which are handled by the core). And the outer network consists of temporary or part-time members who are brought in for a particular stage of the project because of their specialized expertise. These three hierarchies will help group together those who need to collaborate with one another for particular purposes (and exclude others who aren’t important to that process). Another tool that I recommend is the Relationship Action Plan, which can be used to manage an organization around loosely configured, flexible teams. 
  • Don’t be afraid of social media. People are more prone to collaborate with others who are similar to them. So how, then, do you get dissimilar people to collaborate? The trick is to find the common ground between such individuals, and social media -- blogs, wikis, online collaboration tools, etc. -- can play a huge role in doing so. The problem, though, has been that many managers have been fearful of using social media beyond marketing purposes. But companies that have begun to use social media for internal purposes are starting to reap the benefits. The chipmaker Xilinx, for instance, has reported an increase in engineer productivity by around 25% thanks to social media tools that encourage and enable employee collaborative activities. Employees could, for example, maintain wikis or online forums that help share best practices and workarounds for particular problems. The open source community routinely uses such approaches to spread knowledge of programming tricks and tips. 
  • Play games. One effective way to get team members in the right mindset for working together is to have everyone play virtual games that encourage collaboration. In one study, team members played an online version of “scavenger hunt.” Such games can be customized to a particular company so that players have to pool their knowledge and internal connections to find, for instance, examples of the most offbeat uses of the firm’s products. In another provocative study, researchers investigated how companies could use online role-playing games like “World of Warcraft” and “EverQuest” to build leadership and teamwork skills. In such multiplayer games, players must collaborate to survive in a fast-changing environment with fierce competitors and incomplete or ambiguous information from which to base important decisions – that is, an environment that is not unlike many hypercompetitive global markets. In these games, members must continually do what’s best for the team. Leaders, for instance, will often step down to allow others who are more qualified to take the reins. This helps encourage an atmosphere of collaboration as well as sacrifice for the greater good of the team. 
  • Train for collaboration.  Many skills are difficult to train and develop. Some experts, for example, contend that leadership is more nature than nurture. No so with collaboration. PricewaterhouseCoopers, for instance, has had great success in training employees to collaborate by targeting communication skills, emotional intelligence, teamwork, and networking. At myGreenlight, we have also had great success in teaching various relationship skills and behaviors that enhance team collaboration. 
  • Have role clarity but task uncertainty. Many managers believe that teams collaborate best when the roles of members are flexible but the group has a clear idea of how to get from A to B. But the reverse is actually true, according to a study of more than 50 teams in different industries. That research found that collaboration increased when people had clearly defined roles but were uncertain about how to achieve the team’s goals. The uncertainty encouraged everyone to collaborate and think more creatively about different ways in which to fulfill the group’s mission. Consider, for instance, a project with the goal of making food taste good with less sodium. A manager might instruct his team to find a salt replacer that was healthier. But that would just restrict the group’s collaboration. If the team isn’t given directions about how to accomplish a goal, people can brainstorm and could come up with more innovative solutions. What if, for instance, the team could find a way to trick the taste receptors in a person’s tongue to perceive that food contains more salt than it actually does? 

Getting teams to work together is essential for bringing in projects on time and under budget. But going beyond that and getting teams to collaborate is when the real magic occurs. Think of how small, independent films have often surpassed the creativity and quality of big-budget offerings from Hollywood. Such successful collaborations don’t have to happen only on a movie set; they can occur in virtual environments too. But the trick is to pro-actively remove the barriers to collaboration, because only then will the team have a chance for true magic to flourish. 



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