Now for something from the "Hmmm, that's interesting" pile. A study this month published in the Harvard Business Review (subscription required) found that four qualities needed for successful collaborative teams also make collaboration so difficult. The good news is that eight leadership traits can go a long way to correcting the problem.
The study carried out by Concours Institute and the Cooperative Research Project of the London Business School found team size, distance, diversity, and high levels of education, factors crucial to a team's success, will also undermine it.
So why not just avoid those qualities in teams? Because it's not always possible. Larger teams are necessary if business are to engage the stakeholder group, coordinate activities, or leverage a broad skill based. Today teams often top 100 people whereas they rarely exceeded 20 members a decade ago. Those individuals are rarely collocated, however, often spanning countries. The diversity of cultures can often spark creativity as people bring their unique perspectives to bear on a given problem. Those individuals may be highly educated, holding Phd or Masters-level degrees, furthering their ability to contribute to the team.
However, as team size grows beyond 20 members, the research found that the level of natural cooperation among members of the team decreases. The same holds true with virtual participation. When diverse backgrounds are present the research found that team members are less likely to share their knowledge. Finally, teams with more educated team are also more likely devolve into unproductive conflicts.
Executives can do a lot to compensate for these weaknesses. The research found eight traits in particular that will help collaboration:
1. Invest in signature relationship practices -- Executives can encourage collaborative behaviour by making highly visible investments—in facilities with open floor plans to foster communication, for example—that demonstrate their commitment to collaboration.
2. Model collaborative behavior -- At companies where the senior executives demonstrate highly collaborative behavior themselves, teams collaborate well.
3. Create a “gift culture.” Mentoring and coaching—especially on an informal basis—help people build the networks they need to work across corporate boundaries.
4. Ensure the requisite skills. Human resources departments that teach employees how to build relationships, communicate well, and resolve conflicts creatively can have a major impact on team collaboration.
5. Support a strong sense of community. When people feel a sense of community, they are more comfortable reaching out to others and more likely to share knowledge.
6. Assign team leaders that are both task- and relationship-oriented. The debate has traditionally focused on whether a task or a relationship orientation creates better leadership, but in fact both are key to successfully leading a team. Typically, leaning more heavily on a task orientation at the outset of a project and shifting toward a relationship orientation once the work is in full swing works best.
7. Build on heritage relationships. When too many team members are strangers, people may be reluctant to share knowledge. The best practice is to put at least a few people who know one another on the team.
8. Understand role clarity and task ambiguity. Cooperation increases when the roles of individual team members are sharply defined yet the team is given latitude on how to achieve the task.