How to Collaborate Successfully

Sharing Knowledge and Expertise to Drive Innovation


Imagine that you're in charge of customer service at a technology firm. Fortunately, your company enjoys a high customer satisfaction rating. Until one day, it plummets.

It turns out you've had a surge of complaints about a new software update. This is the first you've heard of any such update. So, you investigate and discover that different departments just aren't talking to each other.

The IT department failed to notify you and the marketing department about it, so customers weren't informed or warned. Worse, they failed to ask for feedback about what the update should include, and now customers can't access some of the features that they most enjoyed.

Your initial instinct might be to put the blame on your IT department. But, the problem isn't really the update. The problem is a lack of collaboration.

When you collaborate, you work together with people from different teams who have different skills and perspectives, in order to accomplish goals that benefit the wider organization. So, in this article and video, we'll discuss how collaboration can benefit you and explore a five-step approach that can help you to use it successfully.

Collaboration isn't always easy, but it is essential for success.

What Is Collaboration?

Collaboration means working together with people from across the business to achieve a shared goal. Although similar to teamwork, a collaborative partnership is not hierarchical – everyone has equal status, no matter their seniority (though you may elect one person to organize the collaborative project).

You can collaborate with members of your own team or from other departments, as well as contractors, clients, or even other organizations.

Why Is Collaboration Important?

Nowadays, many employers cite collaboration as a key employee skill. But why is it so important? [1]

First, it's a great way to encourage people to share knowledge and resources. You can use it to pool your negotiating power, to coordinate strategies, or to create new products, for instance.

Second, it can provide great opportunities for cross-skilling and networking, and can even improve employee engagement levels. One study shows that people who work collaboratively stick to their tasks 64 percent longer than colleagues who work alone. [2]

Collaboration benefits organizations, too. It can help them to be more cost effective, creative and competitive. The same study reveals that organizations that promote collaborative working are five times more likely to perform well. They also tend to have lower staff turnover levels and higher profitability than businesses that don't collaborate.

Different Types of Collaboration

There are a two main types of collaboration that you can use, depending on what you hope to achieve. These are:

  1. Open collaboration. You invite people from inside or outside the business to generate ideas or to solve a problem. Open collaborations work best for big, wide-ranging challenges as they allow anyone to respond. This enables you to access a diverse spectrum of opinion and expertise.
  2. Closed collaboration. Closed modes work best when you have a specific problem to solve which requires specialist skills or knowledge. As a result, closed collaborative groups tend to be much smaller than open ones.

Other types of collaboration include:

  • Cross-functional collaboration. This involves working with people who have different job functions (marketing, technology, or customer service, for instance) to achieve a common goal.
  • Cross-cultural collaboration. Here, you work with people from other countries or cultures to learn more about different markets and encourage innovation.
  • Virtual collaboration. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, working from home has become the norm for many organizations. Apps like Skype™, Slack™, Asana™, Miro™, and Google Docs™ have made it easier than ever for people to come together and collaborate, even if they work in different offices or countries.

Five Steps for Successful Collaboration

While good collaboration can result in new and creative ideas and discoveries, poor collaboration can be more damaging than no collaboration at all – it can waste time, energy, money, and resources. Use this five-step approach to make sure your collaborations are successful:

1. Define Your Purpose

First and foremost, you need to have a strong shared purpose. Only when you know what you're working toward can productive collaboration begin.

So, before you set up a collaborative project, take some time to identify and clarify what you want the group to achieve. This will give people focus and direction.


See our article, Golden Rules of Goal Setting, for a step-by-step guide to identifying and setting clearly-defined goals.

2. Choose Open or Closed Collaboration

Your choice will depend on the problem that you need to solve. If you want to get ideas for a new product, for instance, you might want to invite responses from people across the business, as well as your customers. If this is the case, open collaboration will likely be the most suitable.

A great example of successful open collaboration is Lego's Create and Share website. It allows Lego community members to share their designs with each other and the company. When support for an idea reaches 10,000, the company then evaluates it and produces it under its Lego Ideas label.

In contrast, if your purpose is to perfect a product or process that requires specialist knowledge, closed collaboration will likely work best. This is because you'll need to limit the number of collaborators to only those who have specialist knowledge of the topic.

For instance, if you wanted to improve the efficiency of your production line, you might choose to collaborate with an external machinery designer. This will ensure that you get exactly what you want and may even result in a new innovation that gives you an edge on your competition.

3. Involve the Right People

Once you've set your goals, you need to identify the people who are best placed to achieve them. This is particularly important when you use closed collaboration.

Think about people who have relevant expertise, experience and skills, or who are good at challenging assumptions and can contribute different perspectives.

Although collaboration is about equal participation, it can be useful to elect someone to organize and lead the project so that it stays on track. Assign roles within the group, too. Research has shown that this encourages people to take responsibility, and avoids time being wasted on negotiating responsibilities or "protecting turf." [3]

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4. Achieve "Buy-In"

While some people will jump at the chance to collaborate, others may not be so keen. They might see it as an imposition on their time, and be worried about the extra work or stress that it could bring.

So, before you ask someone to collaborate think about how it can benefit him or her. Identifying the wider strategic goal, like fine-tuning a process to increase income, can be persuasive. But so can outlining the personal benefits to individual collaborators, such as recognition, the opportunity to learn new skills, career progression, or the chance of a bonus.

5. Encourage Collaborative Behavior

Collaboration can demand a lot from people. It means being open-minded, listening to other people's opinions and putting personal agendas to one side. So, it's essential that you try to encourage collaboration across your organization. You can do this by:

  • Leading by example. People watch how you act. If you aren't afraid to listen to new ideas and offer solutions – even when it makes you vulnerable – you'll encourage others to do the same.
  • Building trust. Collaboration can stall when people don't feel able to open up. Combat this by setting up team-building activities, and encouraging people to give honest and constructive feedback. This will help to strengthen team bonds, to create a sense of shared responsibility and to give people the confidence to speak up.
  • Harnessing different spaces. Set up fun, relaxed spaces in your workplace that invite creativity and collaboration. For instance, meeting pods or "chill out" areas. This will help to instigate "random collisions" or casual encounters between colleagues. Alternatively, book conference rooms, arrange walking meetings, or allow people to head off-site.
  • Fostering a creative culture. Creative thinking underpins good collaboration. It can help to drive innovation and allows you to avoid groupthink. Encourage this behavior by making use of creativity tools and processes.

The Pitfalls of Poor Collaboration

You might find that collaborative efforts come from the same people, time and time again. In fact, research suggests that 20 percent to 35 percent of value-added collaborations come from only 3 percent to 5 percent of employees. [4]

Be careful not to rely too heavily on these "extra milers" – people who go that "extra mile" to help out others and consistently work to make improvements. If you do this, it can lead to people taking on too much and becoming overwhelmed. This is known "collaborative overload" or "generosity burnout." [5]

To avoid this, break down barriers that prevent more people from collaborating – silos, for example, or "that's-not-how-we-do-it-here" attitudes. Also, allow people to say "no" to your collaboration requests, and recognize and reward people when they make positive contributions.

Key Points

Collaboration allows businesses to bring together people with different experiences, knowledge and skills, in order to accomplish common goals. It has a number of benefits: pooling talent, coordinating large projects, or creating new products, for instance.

It can be "open," which involves inviting responses from people across the business to solve big, wide-ranging problems, or "closed," where a smaller group of people with specialist expertise collaborate to achieve a defined objective.

There are five steps you can follow to achieve successful collaboration:

1. Define your purpose.

2. Choose open or closed collaboration.

3. Involve the right people.

4. Achieve "buy-in."

5. Encourage collaborative behavior.

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Comments (8)
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi ABWG,

    This article was a collaborative effort between a number of Mind Tools editors, so it would be best to say that the author is Mindtools.com. The article was published on 31/01/2018 but last updated 16/07/20.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago Yolande wrote
    Hi ABWG,

    We're glad to hear you liked the article. I will find out the details you asked for and post it here soonest.

    Mind Tools Team
  • Over a month ago ABWG wrote
    This is a great article. I would like to use some of the content in an assignment I am currently completing. Please can you advise of author and date to enable me to cite this work?
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