Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams

Eight Ways to Build
Collaborative Teams
by Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson
Included with this full-text Harvard Business Review article:
The Idea in Brief—the core idea
The Idea in Practice—putting the idea to work
1 Article Summary
2 Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
A list of related materials, with annotations to guide further
exploration of the article’s ideas and applications
11 Further Reading
Even the largest and most
complex teams can work
together effectively if the right
conditions are in place.
Reprint R0711F
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Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
page 1
The Idea in Brief The Idea in Practice
To execute major initiatives in your
organization—integrating a newly acquired firm, overhauling an IT system—
you need complex teams. Such teams’
defining characteristics—large, virtual,
diverse, and specialized—are crucial for
handling daunting projects. Yet these
very characteristics can also destroy
team members’ ability to work together,
say Gratton and Erickson. For instance, as
team size grows, collaboration diminishes.
To maximize your complex teams’ effectiveness, construct a basis for collaboration in your company. Eight practices
hinging on relationship building and cultural change can help. For example, create
a strong sense of community by sponsoring events and activities that bring people
together and help them get to know one
another. And use informal mentoring and
coaching to encourage employees to
view interaction with leaders and colleagues as valuable.
When executives, HR professionals, and
team leaders all pitch in to apply these
practices, complex teams hit the ground
running—the day they’re formed.
The authors recommend these practices for
encouraging collaboration in complex teams:
• Invest in building and maintaining social relationships throughout your organization.
Royal Bank of Scotland’s CEO commissioned new headquarters built around an
indoor atrium and featuring a “Main Street”
with shops, picnic spaces, and a leisure
club. The design encourages employees to
rub shoulders daily, which fuels collaboration in RBS’s complex teams.
• Model collaborative behavior.
At Standard Chartered Bank, top executives
frequently fill in for one another, whether
leading regional celebrations, representing
SCB at key external events, or initiating internal dialogues with employees. They
make their collaborative behavior visible
through extensive travel and photos of
leaders from varied sites working together.
• Use coaching to reinforce a collaborative
At Nokia, each new hire’s manager lists everyone in the organization the newcomer
should meet, suggests topics he or she
should discuss with each person on the
list, and explains why establishing each of
these relationships is important.
• Train employees in the specific skills required for collaboration: appreciating
others, engaging in purposeful conversation, productively and creatively resolving
conflicts, and managing programs.
• Support a sense of community by sponsoring events and activities such as networking groups, cooking weekends, or tennis
coaching. Spontaneous, unannounced activities can further foster community spirit.
Marriott has recognized the anniversary of
the company’s first hotel opening by rolling
back the cafeteria to the 1950s and sponsoring a team twist dance contest.
• Ensure that at least 20%–40% of a new
team’s members already know one another.
When Nokia needs to transfer skills across
business functions or units, it moves entire
small teams intact instead of reshuffling
individual people into new positions.
• Change your leadership style as your team
develops. At early stages in the project, be
task-oriented: articulate the team’s goal and
accountabilities. As inevitable conflicts start
emerging, switch to relationship building.
• Assign distinct roles so team members can
do their work independently. They’ll spend
less time negotiating responsibilities or
protecting turf. But leave thepath to achieving the team’s goal somewhat ambiguous.
Lacking well-defined tasks, members
are more likely to invest time and energy
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Eight Ways to Build
Collaborative Teams
by Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson
harvard business review • november 2007 page 2
Even the largest and most complex teams can work together effectively
if the right conditions are in place.
When tackling a major initiative like an
acquisition or an overhaul of IT systems,
companies rely on large, diverse teams of
highly educated specialists to get the job
done. These teams often are convened
quickly to meet an urgent need and work
together virtually, collaborating online and
sometimes over long distances.
Appointing such a team is frequently the
only way to assemble the knowledge and
breadth required to pull off many of the complex tasks businesses face today. When the
BBC covers the World Cup or the Olympics,
for instance, it gathers a large team of researchers, writers, producers, cameramen,
and technicians, many of whom have not
met before the project. These specialists work
together under the high pressure of a “no
retake” environment, with just one chance to
record the action. Similarly, when the central
IT team at Marriott sets out to develop sophisticated systems to enhance guest experiences,
it has to collaborate closely with independent
hotel owners, customer-experience experts,
global brand managers, and regional heads,
each with his or her own agenda and needs.
Our recent research into team behavior at
15 multinational companies, however, reveals
an interesting paradox: Although teams that
are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of
highly educated specialists are increasingly
crucial with challenging projects, those same
four characteristics make it hard for teams to
get anything done. To put it another way, the
qualities required for success are the same
qualities that undermine success. Members of
complex teams are less likely—absent other
influences—to share knowledge freely, to learn
from one another, to shift workloads flexibly
to break up unexpected bottlenecks, to help one
another complete jobs and meet deadlines,
and to share resources—in other words, to collaborate. They are less likely to say that they
“sink or swim” together, want one another to
succeed, or view their goals as compatible.
Consider the issue of size. Teams have
grown considerably over the past ten years.
New technologies help companies extend
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Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
harvard business review • november 2007 page 3
participation on a project to an ever greater
number of people, allowing firms to tap into
a wide body of knowledge and expertise. A
decade or so ago, the common view was that
true teams rarely had more than 20 members.
Today, according to our research, many complex tasks involve teams of 100 or more. However, as the size of a team increases beyond
20 members, the tendency to collaborate
naturally decreases, we have found. Under
the right conditions, large teams can achieve
high levels of cooperation, but creating those
conditions requires thoughtful, and sometimes significant, investments in the capacity
for collaboration across the organization.
Working together virtually has a similar
impact on teams. The majority of those we
studied had members spread among multiple
locations—in several cases, in as many as 13
sites around the globe. But as teams became
more virtual, we saw, cooperation also declined, unless the company had taken measures to establish a collaborative culture.
As for diversity, the challenging tasks
facing businesses today almost always require the input and expertise of people with
disparate views and backgrounds to create
cross-fertilization that sparks insight and
innovation. But diversity also creates problems. Our research shows that team members
collaborate more easily and naturally if they
perceive themselves as being alike. The differences that inhibit collaboration include not
only nationality but also age, educational
level, and even tenure. Greater diversity also
often means that team members are working
with people that they know only superficially
or have never met before—colleagues drawn
from other divisions of the company, perhaps,
or even from outside it. We have found that
the higher the proportion of strangers on the
team and the greater the diversity of background and experience, the less likely the
team members are to share knowledge or
exhibit other collaborative behaviors.
In the same way, the higher the educational
level of the team members is, the more challenging collaboration appears to be for them.
We found that the greater the proportion
of experts a team had, the more likely it was
to disintegrate into nonproductive conflict
or stalemate.
So how can executives strengthen an organization’s ability to perform complex collaborative tasks—to maximize the effectiveness
of large, diverse teams, while minimizing
the disadvantages posed by their structure
and composition?
To answer that question we looked carefully
at 55 large teams and identified those that
demonstrated high levels of collaborative behavior despite their complexity. Put differently,
they succeeded both because of and despite
their composition. Using a range of statistical
analyses, we considered how more than 100
factors, such as the design of the task and the
company culture, might contribute to collaboration, manifested, for example, in a willingness to share knowledge and workloads. Out of
the 100-plus factors, we were able to isolate
eight practices that correlated with success—
that is, that appeared to help teams overcome
substantially the difficulties that were posed by
size, long-distance communication, diversity,
and specialization. We then interviewed the
teams that were very strong in these practices,
to find out how they did it. In this article we’ll
walk through the practices. They fall into
four general categories—executive support,
HR practices, the strength of the team leader,
and the structure of the team itself.
Executive Support
At the most basic level, a team’s success or
failure at collaborating reflects the philosophy
of top executives in the organization. Teams
do well when executives invest in supporting social relationships, demonstrate collaborative behavior themselves, and create what
we call a “gift culture”—one in which employees experience interactions with leaders and
colleagues as something valuable and generously offered, a gift.
Investing in signature relationship practices. When we looked at complex collaborative
teams that were performing in a productive
and innovative manner, we found that in
every case the company’s top executives had
invested significantly in building and maintaining social relationships throughout the
organization. However, the way they did that
varied widely. The most collaborative companies had what we call “signature” practices—
practices that were memorable, difficult for
others to replicate, and particularly well suited
to their own business environment.
For example, when Royal Bank of Scotland’s
CEO, Fred Goodwin, invested £350 million to
Lynda Gratton ([email protected])
is a professor of management practice
at London Business School and a senior
fellow at the Advanced Institute of
Management. She is the author of
Hot Spots: Why Some Teams, Workplaces, and Organizations Buzz with
Energy—and Others Don’t (BerrettKoehler, 2007). Tamara J. Erickson
([email protected]) is
the president of the Concours Institute,
the research and education arm of BSG
Alliance. She is based in Boston and is
a coauthor of several articles for HBR,
including the McKinsey Award winner
“It’s Time to Retire Retirement” (March
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Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
harvard business review • november 2007 page 4
open a new headquarters building outside
Edinburgh in 2005, one of his goals was to
foster productive collaboration among employees. Built around an indoor atrium, the new
structure allows more than 3,000 people from
the firm to rub shoulders daily.
The headquarters is designed to improve
communication, increase the exchange of ideas,
and create a sense of community among employees. Many of the offices have an open
layout and look over the atrium—a vast transparent space. The campus is set up like a small
town, with retail shops, restaurants, jogging
tracks and cycling trails, spaces for picnics and
barbecues—even a leisure club complete with
swimming pool, gym, dance studios, tennis
courts, and football pitches. The idea is that
with a private “Main Street” running through
the headquarters, employees will remain on
the campus throughout the day—and be out
of their offices mingling with colleagues for at
least a portion of it.
To ensure that non-headquarters staff members feel they are a part of the action, Goodwin also commissioned an adjoining business
school, where employees from other locations
meet and learn. The visitors are encouraged to
spend time on the headquarters campus and at
forums designed to give employees opportunities to build relationships.
Indeed, the RBS teams we studied had very
strong social relationships, a solid basis for
collaborative activity that allowed them to accomplish tasks quickly. Take the Group Business Improvement (GBI) teams, which work
on 30-, 60-, or 90-day projects ranging from
back-office fixes to IT updates and are made
up of people from across RBS’s many businesses, including insurance, retail banking,
and private banking in Europe and the United
States. When RBS bought NatWest and migrated the new acquisition’s technology platform to RBS’s, the speed and success of the
GBI teams confounded many market analysts.
BP has made another sort of signature investment. Because its employees are located
all over the world, with relatively few at headquarters, the company aims to build social
The Research
Our work is based on a major research initiative conducted jointly by the Concours
Institute (a member of BSG Alliance) and
the Cooperative Research Project of London
Business School, with funding from the
Advanced Institute for Management and
15 corporate sponsors. The initiative was
created as a way to explore the practicalities
of collaborative work in contemporary
We sent surveys to 2,420 people, including
members of 55 teams. A total of 1,543 people
replied, a response rate of 64%. Separate surveys were administered to group members,
to group leaders, to the executives who evaluated teams, and to HR leaders at the companies involved. The tasks performed by the
teams included new-product development,
process reengineering, and identifying new
solutions to business problems. The companies involved included four telecommunication companies, seven financial services or
consulting firms, two media companies, a
hospitality firm, and one oil company. The
size of the teams ranged from four to 183
people, with an average of 44.
Our objective was to study the levers that
executives could pull to improve team performance and innovation in collaborative
tasks. We examined scores of possible factors,
including the following:
The general culture of the company. We
designed a wide range of survey questions to
measure the extent to which the firm had a
cooperative culture and to uncover employees’ attitudes toward knowledge sharing.
Human resources practices and processes.
We studied the way staffing took place and
the process by which people were promoted.
We examined the extent and type of training,
how reward systems were configured, and
the extent to which mentoring and coaching
took place.
Socialization and network-building practices. We looked at how often people within
the team participated in informal socialization, and the type of interaction that was most
common. We also asked numerous questions
about the extent to which team members
were active in informal communities.
The design of the task. We asked team
members and team leaders about the task
itself. Our interest here was in how they perceived the purpose of the task, how complex it
was, the extent to which the task required
members of the team to be interdependent,
and the extent to which the task required them
to engage in boundary-spanning activities
with people outside the team.
The leadership of the team. We studied
the perceptions team members had of their
leaders’ style and how the leaders described
their own style. In particular, we were interested in the extent to which the leaders practiced relationship-oriented and task-oriented
skills and set cooperative or competitive goals.
The behavior of the senior executives. We
asked team members and team leaders about
their perceptions of the senior executives of
their business unit. We focused in particular
on whether team members described them
as cooperative or competitive.
In total we considered more than 100 factors. Using a range of statistical analyses, we
were able to identify eight that correlated with
the successful performance of teams handling
complex collaborative tasks. (See the sidebar
“Eight Factors That Lead to Success.”)
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Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
harvard business review • november 2007 page 5
networks by moving employees across functions, businesses, and countries as part of
their career development. When BP integrates an acquisition (it has grown by buying
numerous smaller oil companies), the leadership development committee deliberately
rotates employees from the acquired firm
through positions across the corporation.
Though the easier and cheaper call would be
to leave the executives in their own units—
where, after all, they know the business—BP
instead trains them to take on new roles. As a
consequence any senior team today is likely
to be made up of people from multiple heritages. Changing roles frequently—it would
not be uncommon for a senior leader at BP to
have worked in four businesses and three geographic locations over the past decade—
forces executives to become very good at
meeting new people and building relationships with them.
Modeling collaborative behavior. In companies with many thousands of employees,
relatively few have the opportunity to observe
the behavior of the senior team on a day-today basis. Nonetheless, we found that the
perceived behavior of senior executives plays
a significant role in determining how cooperative teams are prepared to be.
Executives at Standard Chartered Bank
are exceptionally good role models when it
comes to cooperation, a strength that many
attribute to the firm’s global trading heritage.
The Chartered Bank received its remit from
Queen Victoria in 1853. The bank’s traditional
business was in cotton from Bombay (now
Mumbai), indigo and tea from Calcutta, rice
from Burma, sugar from Java, tobacco from
Sumatra, hemp from Manila, and silk from
Yokohama. The Standard Bank was founded
in the Cape Province of South Africa in 1863
and was prominent in financing the development of the diamond fields and later gold
mines. Standard Chartered was formed in
1969 through a merger of the two banks, and
today the firm has 57 operating groups in 57
countries, with no home market.
It’s widely accepted at Standard Chartered
that members of the general management
committee will frequently serve as substitutes
for one another. The executives all know and
understand the entire business and can fill in
for each other easily on almost any task,
whether it’s leading a regional celebration,
representing the company at a key external
event, or kicking off an internal dialogue
with employees.
While the behavior of the executive team
is crucial to supporting a culture of collaboration, the challenge is to make executives’
behavior visible. At Standard Chartered the
senior team travels extensively; the norm is to
travel even for relatively brief meetings. This
investment in face-to-face interaction creates
many opportunities for people across the
company to see the top executives in action.
Internal communication is frequent and
open, and, maybe most telling, every site
around the world is filled with photos of
groups of executives—country and functional
leaders—working together.
The senior team’s collaborative nature
trickles down throughout the organization.
Employees quickly learn that the best way to
get things done is through informal networks.
Collaboration Conundrums
Four traits that are crucial to teams—
but also undermine them
Large Size
Whereas a decade ago, teams rarely had
more than 20 members, our findings
show that their size has increased significantly, no doubt because of new technologies. Large teams are often formed
to ensure the involvement of a wide
stakeholder group, the coordination of
a diverse set of activities, and the harnessing of multiple skills. As a consequence, many inevitably involve 100
people or more. However, our research
shows that as the size of the team increases beyond 20 members, the level of
natural cooperation among members of
the team decreases.
Virtual Participation
Today most complex collaborative teams
have members who are working at a distance from one another. Again, the logic
is that the assigned tasks require the
insights and knowledge of people from
many locations. Team members may be
working in offices in the same city or
strung across the world. Only 40% of the
teams in our sample had members all in
one place. Our research shows that as
teams become more virtual, collaboration declines.
Often the challenging tasks facing today’s
businesses require the rapid assembly
of people from multiple backgrounds
and perspectives, many of whom have
rarely, if ever, met. Their diverse knowledge and views can spark insight and
innovation. However, our research
shows that the higher the proportion of
people who don’t know anyone else on
the team and the greater the diversity,
the less likely the team members are to
share knowledge.
High Education Levels
Complex collaborative teams often generate huge value by drawing on a variety of deeply specialized skills and
knowledge to devise new solutions.
Again, however, our research shows
that the greater the proportion of
highly educated specialists on a team,
the more likely the team is to disintegrate into unproductive conflicts.
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Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
harvard business review • november 2007 page 6
For example, when a major program was recently launched to introduce a new customerfacing technology, the team responsible had
an almost uncanny ability to understand who
the key stakeholders at each branch bank
were and how best to approach them. The
team members’ first-name acquaintance with
people across the company brought a sense
of dynamism to their interactions.
Creating a “gift culture.” A third important
role for executives is to ensure that mentoring and coaching become embedded in their
own routine behavior—and throughout the
company. We looked at both formal mentoring processes, with clear roles and responsibilities, and less formal processes, where
mentoring was integrated into everyday activities. It turned out that while both types
were important, the latter was more likely
to increase collaborative behavior. Daily
coaching helps establish a cooperative “gift
culture” in place of a more transactional “titfor-tat culture.”
At Nokia informal mentoring begins as soon
as someone steps into a new job. Typically,
within a few days, the employee’s manager will
sit down and list all the people in the organization, no matter in what location, it would be
useful for the employee to meet. This is a
deeply ingrained cultural norm, which probably originated when Nokia was a smaller and
simpler organization. The manager sits with
the newcomer, just as her manager sat with
her when she joined, and reviews what topics
the newcomer should discuss with each person
on the list and why establishing a relationship
with him or her is important. It is then standard for the newcomer to actively set up meetings with the people on the list, even when it
means traveling to other locations. The gift of
time—in the form of hours spent on coaching
and building networks—is seen as crucial to
the collaborative culture at Nokia.
Focused HR Practices
So what about human resources? Is collaboration solely in the hands of the executive team?
In our study we looked at the impact of a wide
variety of HR practices, including selection,
performance management, promotion, rewards, and training, as well as formally sponsored coaching and mentoring programs.
We found some surprises: for example, that
the type of reward system—whether based on
team or individual achievement, or tied explicitly to collaborative behavior or not—had no
discernible effect on complex teams’ productivity and innovation. Although most formal
HR programs appeared to have limited impact,
we found that two practices did improve team
performance: training in skills related to collaborative behavior, and support for informal
community building. Where collaboration was
strong, the HR team had typically made a significant investment in one or both of those
practices—often in ways that uniquely represented the company’s culture and business
Eight Factors That Lead to Success
1. Investing in signature relationship
practices. Executives can encourage collaborative behavior by making highly visible investments—in facilities with open
floor plans to foster communication, for example—that demonstrate their commitment to collaboration.
2. Modeling collaborative behavior. At
companies where the senior executives
demonstrate highly collaborative behavior
themselves, teams collaborate well.
3. Creating a “gift culture.” Mentoring and
coaching—especially on an informal basis—
help people build the networks they need to
work across corporate boundaries.
4. Ensuring the requisite skills. Human
resources departments that teach employees
how to build relationships, communicate well,
and resolve conflicts creatively can have a
major impact on team collaboration.
5. Supporting a strong sense of community. When people feel a sense of community,
they are more comfortable reaching out to
others and more likely to share knowledge.
6. Assigning team leaders that are both
task- and relationship-oriented. The debate
has traditionally focused on whether a task
or a relationship orientation creates better
leadership, but in fact both are key to successfully leading a team. Typically, leaning
more heavily on a task orientation at the
outset of a project and shifting toward a relationship orientation once the work is in
full swing works best.
7. Building on heritage relationships.
When too many team members are strangers, people may be reluctant to share knowledge. The best practice is to put at least a
few people who know one another on the
8. Understanding role clarity and task
ambiguity. Cooperation increases when the
roles of individual team members are sharply
defined yet the team is given latitude on how
to achieve the task.
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Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
harvard business review • november 2007 page 7
Ensuring the requisite skills. Many of the
factors that support collaboration relate to
what we call the “container” of collaboration—
the underlying culture and habits of the company or team. However, we found that some
teams had a collaborative culture but were
not skilled in the practice of collaboration itself. They were encouraged to cooperate, they
wanted to cooperate, but they didn’t know
how to work together very well in teams.
Our study showed that a number of skills
were crucial: appreciating others, being able to
engage in purposeful conversations, productively and creatively resolving conflicts, and
program management. By training employees
in those areas, a company’s human resources
or corporate learning department can make an
important difference in team performance.
In the research, PricewaterhouseCoopers
emerged as having one of the strongest capabilities in productive collaboration. With responsibility for developing 140,000 employees
in nearly 150 countries, PwC’s training includes
modules that address teamwork, emotional
intelligence, networking, holding difficult
conversations, coaching, corporate social responsibility, and communicating the firm’s
strategy and shared values. PwC also teaches
employees how to influence others effectively
and build healthy partnerships.
A number of other successful teams in our
sample came from organizations that had a
commitment to teaching employees relationship skills. Lehman Brothers’ flagship program
for its client-facing staff, for instance, is its
training in selling and relationship management. The program is not about sales techniques but, rather, focuses on how Lehman
values its clients and makes sure that every
client has access to all the resources the firm
has to offer. It is essentially a course on strategies for building collaborative partnerships
with customers, emphasizing the importance of trust-based personal relationships.
Supporting a sense of community. While
a communal spirit can develop spontaneously, we discovered that HR can also play a
critical role in cultivating it, by sponsoring
group events and activities such as women’s
networks, cooking weekends, and tennis
coaching, or creating policies and practices
that encourage them.
At ABN Amro we studied effective changemanagement teams within the company’s
enterprise services function. These informal
groups were responsible for projects associated with the implementation of new technology throughout the bank; one team, for
instance, was charged with expanding online
banking services. To succeed, the teams
needed the involvement and expertise of
different parts of the organization.
The ABN Amro teams rated the company’s
support for informal communities very
positively. The firm makes the technology
needed for long-distance collaboration readily
available to groups of individuals with shared
interests—for instance, in specific technologies or markets—who hold frequent web conferences and communicate actively online.
The company also encourages employees that
travel to a new location to arrange meetings
with as many people as possible. As projects
are completed, working groups disband but
employees maintain networks of connections.
These practices serve to build a strong community over time—one that sets the stage for
success with future projects.
Committed investment in informal networks is also a central plank of the HR strategy at Marriott. Despite its size and global
reach, Marriott remains a family business,
and the chairman, Bill Marriott, makes a
point of communicating that idea regularly to
employees. He still tells stories of counting
sticky nickels at night as a child—proceeds
from the root-beer stand founded in downtown
Washington, DC, by his mother and father.
How Complex Is the Collaborative Task?
Not all highly collaborative tasks are
complex. In assembling and managing a
team, consider the project you need to
assign and whether the following statements apply:
__ The task is unlikely to be accomplished successfully using only the skills
within the team.
__ The task must be addressed by a
new group formed specifically for this
__ The task requires collective input
from highly specialized individuals.
__ The task requires collective input and
agreement from more than 20 people.
__ The members of the team working
on the task are in more than two locations.
__ The success of the task is highly
dependent on understanding preferences or needs of individuals outside
the group.
__ The outcome of the task will be influenced by events that are highly uncertain and difficult to predict.
__ The task must be completed under
extreme time pressure.
If more than two of these statements
are true, the task requires complex
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Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
harvard business review • november 2007 page 8
Many of the firm’s HR investments reinforce a friendly, family-like culture. Almost
every communication reflects an element
of staff appreciation. A range of “pop-up”
events—spontaneous activities—create a sense
of fun and community. For example, the cafeteria might roll back to the 1950s, hold a twist
dance contest, and in doing so, recognize the
anniversary of the company’s first hotel opening. Bill Marriott’s birthday might be celebrated with parties throughout the company,
serving as an occasion to emphasize the firm’s
culture and values. The chairman recently
began his own blog, which is popular with
employees, in which he discusses everything
from Marriott’s efforts to become greener,
to his favorite family vacation spots—themes
intended to reinforce the idea that the company is a community.
The Right Team Leaders
In the groups that had high levels of collaborative behavior, the team leaders clearly made
a significant difference. The question in our
minds was how they actually achieved this.
The answer, we saw, lay in their flexibility
as managers.
Assigning leaders who are both task- and
relationship-oriented. There has been much
debate among both academics and senior
managers about the most appropriate style for
leading teams. Some people have suggested
that relationship-oriented leadership is most
appropriate in complex teams, since people
are more likely to share knowledge in an environment of trust and goodwill. Others have
argued that a task orientation—the ability
to make objectives clear, to create a shared
awareness of the dimensions of the task,
and to provide monitoring and feedback—is
most important.
In the 55 teams we studied, we found that
the truth lay somewhere in between. The
most productive, innovative teams were typically led by people who were both task- and
relationship-oriented. What’s more, these
leaders changed their style during the project.
Specifically, at the early stages they exhibited
task-oriented leadership: They made the
goal clear, engaged in debates about commitments, and clarified the responsibilities of
individual team members. However, at a certain point in the development of the project
they switched to a relationship orientation.
This shift often took place once team members had nailed down the goals and their
accountabilities and when the initial tensions
around sharing knowledge had begun to
emerge. An emphasis throughout a project on
one style at the expense of the other inevitably hindered the long-term performance of
the team, we found.
Producing ambidextrous team leaders—
those with both relationship and task skills—
is a core goal of team-leadership development
at Marriott. The company’s performancereview process emphasizes growth in both
kinds of skills. As evidence of their relationship skills, managers are asked to describe
their peer network and cite examples of specific ways that network helped them succeed.
They also must provide examples of how
they’ve used relationship building to get
things done. The development plans that
follow these conversations explicitly map
out how the managers can improve specific
elements of their social relationships and
networks. Such a plan might include, for
instance, having lunch regularly with people
from a particular community of interest.
To improve their task leadership, many
people in the teams at Marriott participated
in project-management certification programs,
taking refresher courses to maintain their
skills over time. Evidence of both kinds of
capabilities becomes a significant criterion on
which people are selected for key leadership
roles at the company.
Team Formation and Structure
The final set of lessons for developing and
managing complex teams has to do with the
makeup and structure of the teams themselves.
Building on heritage relationships. Given
how important trust is to successful collaboration, forming teams that capitalize on preexisting, or “heritage,” relationships, increases
the chances of a project’s success. Our research
shows that new teams, particularly those with
a high proportion of members who were
strangers at the time of formation, find it
more difficult to collaborate than those with
established relationships.
Newly formed teams are forced to invest
significant time and effort in building trusting
relationships. However, when some team
members already know and trust one anThe most productive,
innovative teams were
led by people who were
both task- and
What’s more, these
leaders changed their
style during the project.
This document is authorized for use only by Hao Liang in MAN 6165 – Principles of Collaboration at University of South Florida, 2021.
Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
harvard business review • november 2007 page 9
other, they can become nodes, which over
time evolve into networks. Looking closely
at our data, we discovered that when 20% to
40% of the team members were already well
connected to one another, the team had
strong collaboration right from the start.
It helps, of course, if the company leadership has taken other measures to cultivate
networks that cross boundaries. The orientation process at Nokia ensures that a large
number of people on any team know one
another, increasing the odds that even in a
company of more than 100,000 people, someone on a companywide team knows someone
else and can make introductions.
Nokia has also developed an organizational
architecture designed to make good use of
heritage relationships. When it needs to transfer skills across business functions or units,
Nokia moves entire small teams intact instead of reshuffling individual people into
new positions. If, for example, the company
needs to bring together a group of market
and technology experts to address a new customer need, the group formed would be composed of small pods of colleagues from each
area. This ensures that key heritage relationships continue to strengthen over time, even
as the organization redirects its resources to
meet market needs. Because the entire company has one common platform for logistics,
HR, finance, and other transactions, teams
can switch in and out of businesses and
geographies without learning new systems.
One important caveat about heritage relationships: If not skillfully managed, too
many of them can actually disrupt collaboration. When a significant number of people
within the team know one another, they tend
to form strong subgroups—whether by function, geography, or anything else they have
in common. When that happens, the probability of conflict among the subgroups, which
we call fault lines, increases.
Understanding role clarity and task ambiguity. Which is more important to promoting
collaboration: a clearly defined approach toward achieving the goal, or clearly specified
roles for individual team members? The common assumption is that carefully spelling out
the approach is essential, but leaving the roles
of individuals within the team vague will encourage people to share ideas and contribute
in multiple dimensions.
Our research shows that the opposite is true:
Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and
well understood—when individuals feel that
they can do a significant portion of their work
independently. Without such clarity, team
members are likely to waste too much energy
negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather
than focus on the task. In addition, team members are more likely to want to collaborate if
the path to achieving the team’s goal is left
somewhat ambiguous. If a team perceives the
task as one that requires creativity, where the
approach is not yet well known or predefined,
its members are more likely to invest time and
energy in collaboration.
At the BBC we studied the teams responsible for the radio and television broadcasts of
the 2006 Proms (a two-month-long musical
celebration), the team that televised the 2006
World Cup, and a team responsible for daytime television news. These teams were
large—133 people worked on the Proms, 66
on the World Cup, and 72 on the news—and
included members with a wide range of skills
and from many disciplines. One would imagine, therefore, that there was a strong possibility of confusion among team members.
To the contrary, we found that the BBC’s
teams scored among the highest in our sample
with regard to the clarity with which members
viewed their own roles and the roles of others.
Every team was composed of specialists who
had deep expertise in their given function,
and each person had a clearly defined role.
There was little overlap between the responsibilities of the sound technician and the camera
operator, and so on. Yet the tasks the BBC
teams tackle are, by their very nature, uncertain, particularly when they involve breaking
news. The trick the BBC has pulled off has
been to clarify team members’ individual roles
with so much precision that it keeps friction
to a minimum.
The successful teams we studied at Reuters
worked out of far-flung locations, and often the
team members didn’t speak a common language. (The primary languages were Russian,
Chinese, Thai, and English.) These teams,
largely composed of software programmers,
were responsible for the rapid development of
highly complex technical software and network products. Many of the programmers sat
at their desks for 12 hours straight developing
This document is authorized for use only by Hao Liang in MAN 6165 – Principles of Collaboration at University of South Florida, 2021.
Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
harvard business review • november 2007 page 10
code, speaking with no one. Ironically, these
teams judged cooperative behavior to be high
among their members. That may be because
each individual was given autonomy over one
discrete piece of the project. The rapid pace
and demanding project timelines encouraged
individual members to work independently to
get the job done, but each person’s work had
to be shaped with an eye toward the overall
team goal.
• • •
Strengthening your organization’s capacity for
collaboration requires a combination of longterm investments—in building relationships
and trust, in developing a culture in which senior leaders are role models of cooperation—
and smart near-term decisions about the ways
teams are formed, roles are defined, and challenges and tasks are articulated. Practices and
structures that may have worked well with
simple teams of people who were all in one location and knew one another are likely to lead
to failure when teams grow more complex.
Most of the factors that impede collaboration today would have impeded collaboration
at any time in history. Yesterday’s teams, however, didn’t require the same amount of members, diversity, long-distance cooperation, or
expertise that teams now need to solve global
business challenges. So the models for teams
need to be realigned with the demands of the
current business environment. Through careful attention to the factors we’ve described
in this article, companies can assemble the
breadth of expertise needed to solve complex
business problems—without inducing the
destructive behaviors that can accompany it.
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Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams
To Order
For Harvard Business Review reprints and
subscriptions, call 800-988-0886 or
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page 11
Further Reading
Can Absence Make a Team Grow
by Ann Majchrzak, Arvind Malhotra,
Jeffrey Stamps, and Jessica Lipnack
Harvard Business Review
May 2004
Product no. R0405J
The authors focus on the virtual nature of
complex teams, arguing that companies don’t
need to bring far-flung team members together to get their best work. When people
collaborate virtually, they feel freer to contribute outside their areas of expertise. And because they don’t have to wait for meetings to
make decisions, their projects advance faster.
But to reap these advantages, team leaders
must manage work processes and social dynamics shrewdly. For example, rather than depend on videoconferencing or e-mail, which
can be unwieldy or exclusionary, use online
team rooms, where everyone can easily see
projects’ status, discuss the work, and be reminded of decisions and commitments. Hash
out differences in teleconferences, which also
help foster group identity and solidarity.
Boosting Your Team’s Emotional
Intelligence—for Maximum
by Daniel Goleman, Vanessa Urch Druskat,
Steven B. Wolff, Jon R. Katzenbach, and
Douglas K. Smith
HBR Article Collection
March 2001
Product no. 617X
Emotional intelligence is a key collaboration
skill. This collection explains how teams can
perform more effectively by sharpening their
EI. In “What Makes a Leader?” Daniel Goleman
defines the five competencies of EI for individuals, which include knowledge of one’s
weaknesses and ability to control one’s impulses. In “Building the Emotional Intelligence
of Groups,” Vanessa Urch Druskat and Steven
Wolff take EI to the team level, outlining
norms groups need to strengthen their emotional intelligence. Norms include letting the
group express emotions and handling conflict
constructively. In “The Discipline of Teams,”
Jon Katzenbach and Douglas Smith address
another building block of team EI: mutual
accountability based on collective discipline.
A disciplined team has several defining characteristics, including a common purpose and
specific performance goals.
This document is authorized for use only by Hao Liang in MAN 6165 – Principles of Collaboration at University of South Florida, 2021.

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