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Dear Workish: How do I get my teams to collaborate on projects

'If you’re a leader, it all starts with you.'


Dear Workish: I own a small business. The staff is amazing, but they need to collaborate more effectively on an upcoming project. Any tips?”

— Dawn from Vancouver

A. According to Newton’s little-known Third Law of Workplace Collaboration, “Teams of people tend to work well together…except when building the new Imposbl dresser from IKEA.”

When the pressure’s on in the workplace, the Alignment Express can go off the rails: shrinking budgets, org changes, and shifting strategies force teams to do whatever it takes to keep trains on time…often at the expense of culture and values. Since innovation requires leaders to do more with less, how do ensembles build requisite skillsets to overcome challenges before the engine leaves the station?

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Let’s take a look at a few Workish “quick fix” pitfalls to avoid, along with some real-world expertise.

The “Same Page” method

A key technique in the nonexistent Workish Methods for Better Office Collaboration, the “Same Page Method” is designed for speed and simplicity, and should be taken to the most literal extreme. Here’s an easily-digestible recipe’:

  • Grab a sheet of paper.
  • Scribble “Same Page” on the header.
  • Write down the name of every person on your team.
  • Confirm spelling.
  • Distribute copies. *

*Both photocopies and electronic scans are acceptable.

The “Movie Time!” tactic

Group expeditions can provide a much-needed respite once the gears start to grind, but they don’t replace paving the way to create real cooperation. Imagine creating ocean-deep bonds through the power of procrastination with a spontaneous field trip see Ready Player One More Month ‘Till Q4 or Pacific Rim IV: Evergreen.

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The “Email Avoidance” gambit

Email is the ultimate form of communication: fast, free, and environmentally friendly. If you’re leading a project-based team or small business, assume things will work themselves out naturally across the digital plains. Replace open and honest solutions to group roadblocks with hourly mass emails. Share vanilla, nonspecific comments such as “Everyone’s doing a great job!” or “I’m off on holiday, hang in there!”

And now, some serious advice from an actual, real professional

Workish reached out and spoke with Tammy Williams, VP of Talent at Canadian Tire, for some real insight and advice:

How should companies collaborate more effectively?

“The first step is to explore if you’re actually seeking collaboration,” Williams begins. “People often use collaboration as a broader term to include coordination and integration, often to their disappointment when results don’t reflect efforts and intentions. Enabling collaboration means fostering a safe space where everyone’s voice is heard in an ego-less environment, and collaboration itself is akin to groups working together in an ensemble-like fashion without a central ‘star’ or leader.”

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Any tips for people to improve collaborative habits right now?

“Collaboration takes practice,” Williams reminds us. “When giving and receiving feedback, try not take things personally. Frame messages around situations, not individuals. Consider how we personalize comments: Instead of saying ‘I don’t like Cal’s idea about logistics,’ try: ‘The logistics idea on the table is interesting; let’s consider both the benefits and challenges.’ Even a quick language pivot may help the group gain a deeper sense of ownership of a problem to solve.”

After a group has completed a project, “be careful not to disband or change the dynamic in the name of opportunity and development. The Form/Storm/Norm stages must exist before Perform can be achieved.”

She continues: “Get out of your comfort zone and get to know each other as soon as possible, ideally before a project begins. Take time up-front to create an environment of respect. Learn about specific communication styles and personality types. Don’t just get complacent by surrounding yourself with agreeable teammates.”

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If you’re a leader, collaboration starts with you

“Even as data continues to drive business decisions, people don’t stay at companies because of the strategy…but they leave because of a lack of strategy,” she adds. “And because culture will continue to eat strategy for breakfast, as Peter Drucker would say, people will always create environments to execute strategy. They’ll look to leaders for cues about how to work together. Regardless of your team’s population, leaders are always on stage.”

“If you’re a leader, it all starts with you.”

So the next time your team is stuck on a problem, focus on listening instead of talking. Even if your team is building office furniture from Sweden.

Dear Workish captures the lighter side of work…with real-life advice. Sandy Marshall is a Chicago Emmy-nominated writer, producer, director, actor and speaker