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The Single Largest Collaboration-Killing Mistake You’re Unaware Of

There’s a lot of talk about how to get the most out of teams today. Do you define strict roles for each team member? Is it all about outlining the approach? Do you let teams naturally work to achieve it? How much structure is too much when it comes to collaboration? Turns out, according to Tammy Erickson’s Harvard Business Review article, the common assumptions team leaders make when it comes to trying to inspire collaboration may actually be killing it.

Traditionally, when teams set out on a project they are handed a detailed approach by their leader. And that’s really about it. Most team leaders believe that by keeping the specific roles and team open and flexible, it ultimately “will encourage people to share ideas and contribute in multiple dimensions.” This actually ends up hindering collaboration. Instead of teams setting out to tackle the project, people end up spending time setting up roles for the project. In a best case scenario this phase will only waste time. However, in a worst case scenario, it can unintentionally divide teams, as people fight to protect their “turf”.

Instead of this “traditional” view of  team projects, Erickson suggests that team leaders should take a new approach. She suggests switching from the traditionally loosely defined team role, to having very clear cut, and defined ones. The logic according to Erickson is that,

“research has shown that … collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood – in fact, when individuals feel their role is bounded in ways that allow them to do a significant portion of their work independently. Without such clarity, team members are likely to waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task.”

Turns out that assigning roles, not the approach, actually increases team collaboration. By having clear, closely assigned roles, what the team is actually tasked with almost doesn’t matter. I know what you are thinking, how can this be? Erickson illustrates how this can happen by comparing her new approach to that of emergency room staff. In an emergency room, each team member knows their role: the doctors, the nurses, the anesthesiologists, no matter the scenario. Erickson states, at “no time while the team waits, do they negotiate roles: ‘Who would like to administer the anesthesia? Who will set out the instruments? Who will make key decisions?’ Each role is clear. As a result, when the patient arrives, the team is able to move quickly into action.”

In this new approach to team collaboration, team leaders should take it upon themselves to “ensure that the roles and responsibilities of the team members are clearly defined for the specific project at hand.” Erickson makes a point to note that team member’s roles may change depending of the project to provide variety and broaden experience, but the overall goal here is for leaders to help team members understand the project’s importance. All the while, team leaders should try and give team members enough freedom to let them figure out what approach will best help the team achieve the ultimate goal.

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