tips to collaborate at work

8 Tips For Successful Collaboration at Work

Most of us have been part of a project when communication has fallen apart and our collective behavior has devolved into shouting and finger-pointing over the sorry state of affairs. Was it avoidable? In the vast majority of cases, yes.

Here are 8 tips for successful collaboration at work to support you in ensuring a successful collaboration and outcome.

8 tips for successful collaboration at work

1. Provide the vision and set the context: If you are leading the project, this is your job. ‘Paint a picture’ of your project vision for your co-collaborators. Then provide them with context. This means let them know the what and the why of your approach.

2. Persist until you have clarity: If you are a member of the team, it’s crucial to get a clear understanding of the project to avoid filling in the gaps with assumptions. For example, after your boss lays out the plan and the explanation still leaves you scratching your head, dialogue with her until you get the clarity you need. Don’t assume that you are stupid or that she provided a good explanation that you somehow missed. More time is wasted on the back end by not getting clarity up front.    

3. Establish a real deadline: If you are given a deadline that is ‘sometime before the end of the month,’ this does not constitute a real deadline, and your belief that it does can come back to bite you. A deadline without a date and time is not real and is therefore always open to interpretation. Whether you take on a project or are assigning one to someone else, you are entering into a contract. Agree on a specific date and time.

4. Summarize: At the end of each meeting, summarize what each of you understood to have agreed to and have a dialogue until you are sure you are on the same page. I recommend putting that summary in an email so you all have a written record of your agreements.  

5. Create operating agreements: Do this before leaving your initial project meeting. Operating agreements provide you with a playbook of understanding regarding how each of you operates and what you can expect from one another during the course of your collaboration. Imagine trying to play a board game if you don’t know the objective or the rules. Not having operating agreements is like that.

Examples of operating agreements:

  • What is your boss’s preferred form of communication — i.e. email, phone, in-person?  
  • How frequently does your project lead want to receive project status and what does this look like? A weekly written report or a quick verbal status?
  • What action will you take if the project deadline slips. Agree on the what, the who and the how in advance.
  • Make sure you know one another’s boundaries. For example, is it okay for your boss or colleague to fire off a bunch of emails to you on weekends and then expect a prompt response? Get clear on this before it becomes an issue.

Have an operating agreement that says you agree to talk about whatever is not working is a good idea, too. This gives all parties “permission” to address problems as they arise so they can be quickly resolved. By establishing operating agreements in advance, you create clarity and avoid assumptions. Get everyone’s buy-in on the operating agreements and make sure all have a written copy.

6. Establish and maintain clear boundaries: If you have a boss, colleague or client who has a tendency to take advantage of your good nature and step over your boundaries, operating agreements can help. If it happens, gently and firmly remind them of the operating agreements that you agreed to, then kindly request that you both stick to them. If you find that an operating agreement is no longer working, then renegotiate it -- together.

7. Speak about your common goal: This is especially important when things get tense. Remind one other that you all want the same thing -- a successful outcome and happy stakeholders, for example. Explicitly speaking to this during the course of your collaboration will help you all stay in alignment when the going gets tough.

8. Last but certainly not least...appreciate: Appreciation is the number one thing that people say they want most at work and in life. So look for opportunities to offer appreciation: telling your boss how much you appreciate his taking time to clarify project details for you, or thanking your colleague for staying late to crunch those numbers, or appreciating someone’s upbeat attitude. Not only does this encourage more of the same thoughtful behavior, it will serve to create a spirit of collaboration and goodwill. And this supports a successful outcome!