Three Tools for Effective Collaboration

By: Anya Kandel


Collaboration only works when it means something

One of the biggest pitfalls in collaboration is when groups of people act on good-intentioned assumptions without clarity or specificity: We assume we’re collaborative because we care about each other. We assume we’re non-hierarchical because we prefer to look beyond titles. We assume we share a similar vision because we’re all building the same thing.

But acting on assumptions can lead to teams who misunderstand each other, the loss of trust, and power structures that emerge by default rather than intentionality. Ever been in that 2-hour meeting where having everyone in the same room is meant be “collaborative?”

As organizations and teams increasingly seek new venues to be more flat, agile, effective, collaborative, creative—they are looking to new systems for working: agile, design thinking, holacracy, responsive organization, the list goes on. But, as we look to establish new ways of working, we often mistake the prescribed model or process as a solution.

The reality is that every group, team or company is different, and as we seek to change the way we work, we must take the time and effort to define what something like “flat” or “collaborative” means to us, in the context of our own community or company.

Whether you’re building a new team, working with a community group, or part of a fortune 100 company, it’s worth taking the time to clarify what collaboration looks like in the context of your shared purpose and the work at hand.

Here are three tools to help you do that, with some guiding principles behind them.

Success Spectrum

Think of success on a spectrum and be specific.

Envisioning a future goal and aspiring to make it happen is something we’re all familiar with. But bringing a vision to life, especially as a collective group, is often at risk of remaining vague if we don’t get specific about what it can look like from the beginning.

One helpful tool for doing that is The Success Spectrum. Created by Eugene Eric Kim and Amy Wu (of Faster Than 20 and Duende, respectively), The Success Spectrum helps teams get specific about their goals by putting these aspirational scenarios on a spectrum (from Failure, Minimum, Target and Epic Success).
Here are some principles the exercise promotes:

1. Get specific about your vision with clear outcomes.
Thinking of success in terms of specific scenarios helps participants make purposeful design decisions and have honest conversations about how to bring a shared vision to life. By differentiating between minimum success (you would fail if you don’t achieve this) and target success (you are reaching toward these goals, knowing you won’t achieve 100% of them), you’re able to quickly and easily identify where misalignment exists.

2. Be bold with your vision, then track and measure success.
When I first was introduced to this tool, I was worried that the process might limit people’s spectrum of thinking. But, I’ve actually discovered the opposite. By being able to clearly define, give space to and eventually track that which feels feasible, teams often feel more freedom to name and commit to loftier aspirations. For example, often a group’s first version of epic success was, in fact, relatively achievable, and going through the spectrum allowed them to move it to a “target” outcome they chose to commit to.

3. Use frameworks for defining success not only as place to go, but a way to get there.
One of the most important elements of this simple exercise is that it provides a platform for practice. Whether you’re deciding how to plan a party or beginning a 5-year strategic plan, the more you do it, the better you get at envisioning success. And, as you work to bring it to life, this process provides an artifact that helps measure your progress, and identify what you might do differently next time.


Have honest conversations about how you work.

Working agreements are a great way to establish a shared understanding of the group norms we wish to see, versus what we assume to be implicit. But, even if they’re well articulated and based on established values and principles inherent to an organization or community, they only work when they mean something to individuals who are bringing them to life. “Treat everyone with respect” is a good idea in theory, but it doesn’t always translate in the same way.

Sometimes conflict arises simply because particular words carry cultural, historical or organizational weight. For one of my clients, “traditional” and “nontraditional” education became the source of frustration and confusion, not because they didn’t agree on what they wanted to build together, but because the words themselves kept them from defining how they wanted to get there.

Here are some principles and tools to support working agreement conversations:

1. Have one-on-one conversations that clarify roles and responsibilities over hierarchy.
Establishing core principles for working together is great. But, in order for them to work, we have to trust each other to own the work we’re responsible for. This has less to do with who has power and more to do with understanding how to communicate and relate to each other. Using templates can help provide a shared language and framework for conversations about what you need from each other in order to be successful, regardless of “rank.” Here is a simple template from Faster than 20 that supports these one-on-one conversations.

2. Make it personal and define what remains unclear.
More often than not, teams falter and issues arise—not because teams can’t get along, but because they define the work (or even the words that define their work) differently, or they aren’t clear about roles. I created this simple template as a supplemental tool to help individuals clarify and define questions about their role before having conversation with others about working agreements (above) and/or workstreams (below).

3. Working agreements are context specific and come to life through practice.
Effective collaboration is dependent on trust, so collective conversations that establish a shared understanding of group norms must be honest and inclusive. Then, allowing everyone to experiment with putting them into practice is super important too. Start with small experiments—try weekly, one-on-one check-ins for 5 weeks, for example, to explore how to bring your working agreements to life. Meet regularly to talk about it, assess how it’s working, identify what you want to change, and try new ways of bringing it to life.


Get real about the work, roles and responsibilities

Let’s be honest, thinking about the nitty-gritty elements of the work we do, who owns what, and what it looks like systematically, is usually the last thing we want to talk about.

But, the reality is we often default to old habits. We mistake collaboration for long meetings where everyone has to get on the same page first. But collaboration works best when people are given the freedom to autonomously own their work, bring in the help they need, and trust each other to do the same.

I created this exercise to provide a space for teams to map out their work. I often use it after sessions, such as visioning or strategic planning, in which the team has identified a lot of new work to be done (in addition to the work already at hand).

It provides an extremely tactical way to establish clarity around roles and responsibilities, and is particularly useful for small teams and entrepreneurial groups who are looking to work in a less hierarchical manner, but aren’t quite sure how to start.

Here are some guiding principles behind it:

1. Clarify your roles according to the work.
Take the time to lay out all of the categories of work (workstreams). Then collectively define who is lead on particular elements of that work and who supports them—this invites shared ownership no matter title or relationship.

2. Be honest with yourself and each other about the work to be done.
Taking the time to think about the work at hand, across all workstreams, helps to identify where overlapping responsibilities exist. And, doing this collaboratively shines light on what’s feasible. The conversations that surround the exercise elicit compromise, require alignment, and are just as important as the final outline itself. Teams often realize that one person is buried in one element of the work or a certain priority has to be changed.

3. Tools that organize are meant to be evolved.
The process of identifying the work to be done, what to prioritize, and what roles we play is best kept alive and revisited on a regular basis. That’s why I encourage using post-its at first. Keep the workstreams outline on a shared wall if you can, experiment with your new roles and responsibilities, and take the time to revisit and evolve the outline before transferring it into online tools like Asana or Trello.

One request I have is that if you do decide to try out this exercise, let me know your feedback on how it is articulated and the experience itself. Like all of these exercises, it is in beta and meant to be evolved.

Collaboration is personal – make it your own

Collaboration can be understood in a multitude of of ways—the more specific we are about the roles we play and the things we mean, the easier it is to collectively understand our work and overcome the increasingly complex problems we face in this world.

We all approach problems in a diversity of ways. If we aren’t clear on how we work together and what we need in order to be productive, we constantly reinstate our own pesky impediments to collaboration. If we actively understand and make use of our diversity of perspectives toward problem solving and collaboration, we feed a unique, collective strength.

In all of these exercises some people thrive in the visioning space—thinking about success is easy and fun for them. Others thrive when they can understand the building blocks of the work, and enjoy working through the details to understand the bigger picture. Both inclinations are very valuable and, undoubtedly, become clear in exercises like these.

Far more important than the tool or framework you use is the conversation that occurs around it and the mindset it promotes. These are just a few simple frameworks to be utilized as part of your ongoing experiment in strategically working together. They’re best understood as what they are—tools. Tools aren’t solutions—they’re meant to be evolved and utilized in ways that work for you. Use them, evolve them, create your own. Find one that works for you.

I’ve recently created a growing list of tools and resources here. Check it out and please do share others that are useful to you.


About Anya Kandel:

Anya Kandel is an innovation strategy consultant based in San Francisco, working with purpose-driven organizations in the private and public sector. She has spent the last 15 years researching and building systems that enable creativity for positive change and helps organizations work holistically to build long-term strategy and innovation capacity. Anya has a background in Socio-cultural Anthropology from UC Berkeley, with an M.A. in Media, Culture and Communication from NYU, and is constantly trying to understand what the creative edges of culture looks like. 

The Design Gym
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The Design Gym is a strategy and innovation consultancy helping leaders to grow their business by fully unlocking the power of their most important advantage: their people. We work at the intersection of business strategy, experience design, and change management to engage the people that matter most to your work: your customers, your leaders, and your employees. See something that resonates with a project or challenge you're working on? Shoot us a note at [email protected].

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