By Scott Schreiman

There is no doubt that collaboration offers many benefits and rewards. We’ve all seen how much more effective an organization is when it has a collaborative culture. More innovation solutions, better products, greater productivity, the ability to scale quickly, and the camaraderie that results. No wonder most companies are riding the collaboration train.

But there are also times when collaboration can slow things down. It can get in the way and actually create roadblocks. When that happens, performance goes in the tank along with motivation, innovation, and creativity.

So when do you choose collaboration, and when is it time to go at it alone? Here are four tips for business leaders to discern when to use collaboration and how to help maximize their teams’ performance:

Degree of Complexity

How complicated will getting to the end result be? There’s a world of difference between designing a new manufacturing process versus a customer who calls with a problem that needs a solution right now. The former would benefit from collaboration. The latter requires quick analysis, diagnosis, and decisive action — none of which are trademarks of collaboration.

Having said that, the urgency of shared values and a primal goal can cause the “right” collaborators to do the extraordinary. Think back to Apollo 13’s Mission Evaluation Room team. They brought astronauts Haise, Swigert, Lovell back to earth safely after an oxygen tank exploded in the command module. Mission Control exemplified the next tip.

Expertise vs. Collaborative Diversity

Does achieving the end result require deep expertise in one subject or topic? If so, chances are a team isn’t necessary. Assign an expert and let ‘em go. If getting to the result needs wider and more divergent points of view, then form a team that’s well-balanced.

Well-balanced means skills, knowledge, and abilities aren’t redundant. Why does that matter? if you have two or more minds that are experts in a given area, they’ll either end up arguing over who knows more / who’s right, or they’ll be the epitome of group think. Neither helps a collaboration succeed. A team whose members have a wide diversity of knowledge, skills, abilities, experiences, talents, opinions will be more productive than those that have lots of redundancies.

Buy-In and Shared Values

Will achieving the end result require some form of buy-in? If it does, some degree of collaboration is necessary. People buy-in more if they have a role to play in the process.

Collaborators also need shared values because typically there will be some sacrifices along the way (time, energy, etc.). Bring shared values to light. (It may take some digging.) Share, discuss, and validate them throughout the collaboration. Team members that can’t find at least one shared value should be replaced. If you don’t, their performance will suffer and that will infect the rest of the team. Reminding the team of their shared values is the fastest way to put a collaboration back on track should it start to derail.

Fierce Conversations

Will intense, difficult discussions be needed to get to a result? Might sacred cows be touched? If so, a collaborative approach is called for.

The team should be unafraid of having what I call “fierce conversations.” These are passionate discussions about what matters most. They’re respectful discussions that get to the heart of issues. That reveal sacred cows, limiting beliefs, and other stumbling blocks. Such conversations arise almost always during strategy sessions — when the filters that overlay their processes and decisions are determined.

Sometimes it helps to have a different person play “devil’s advocate” in each discussion. By rotating that role, you empower that person to explicitly argue the opposite point of view and force them, and the team, to think differently.


It all boils down to this:

  • Have a clear vision and goals.
  • Create a collaborative culture based on a set of shared values.
  • Empower people to act based on the vision, goals, and values.
  • Reward and acknowledge when they get it right. Correct when they do it wrong.

With all of the above in place, employees will figure out the best way to get something done. They’ll take action on their own when the situation warrants it. Or, they’ll collaborate with whomever they need when they need to.

Scott Schreiman is the founder and CEO of Samepage, an online collaboration solution. Follow at @Samepageio.