Agencies thrive on team collaboration. How well your people work together often defines your agency's success. This guide will show you how to develop a culture of team collaboration, no matter the age or size of your agency.
Few words describe the modern workplace more than this one. Management gurus write books about it. Fortune 500 companies declare it their defining value. And agency leaders can't stop extolling its virtues.
But for all the buzz around this word, collaboration is still poorly understood and even more poorly implemented. "Working well together" is an easy goal on paper, but hard to achieve in practice. Cultures, egos, and schedules clash. Some critical tools break down. There is never enough communication - until there is too much of it.
This guide seeks answers to these problems, and many more along the way. I'll discuss team collaboration approaches, best practices, and collaboration tools. I'll also share collaboration resources and long-term strategies to help you work better together.
Why Invest in Team Collaboration: Benefits & Challenges
Before we do a deep dive into the cultural values, strategies, and tools that enable better team collaboration, let's tackle the basics. In this section, I'll help you understand team collaboration better. I'll also cover some of the little known benefits of team collaboration and the challenges you must tackle.
Understanding Team Collaboration
Team collaboration is deceptively easy to define. If a group of people work well together, you'd say that you have good "team collaboration".
But the problems emerge once you get into the details.
For one, what exactly defines a "team"? Is a freelancer who drops in 5 hours/week also a part of the team? Is team collaboration the same as teamwork? If not, then why not?
Technically, you can define collaboration as the "process of working with someone to produce something".
This collaboration is different from teamwork in that the collaborators don't always have the same goals. You might have collaboration within the team, within different teams, and even within different organizations.
In all these situations, the collaborators will also have their own goals. Sometimes, these goals will be in conflict. The design and development teams might collaborate on a website, but they'll also jockey for credit in front of the CEO.
Thus, while the goals of a team are the same, the goals of collaborators are more complex.
Solving the collaboration problem requires a multi-faceted, long-term solution. You can't just buy a collaboration software and expect your organization to collaborate like Google or Amazon. You have to develop a culture that values team collaboration - and all the skills, virtues, personality traits that lead to it.
The 4 Key Benefits of Team Collaboration
Is investing in collaboration even worth it?
It's easy to dismiss team collaboration as a new-age management buzzword. But behind the buzz, there's a solid body of evidence testifying to the benefits of team collaboration.
1. Collaboration radically improves performance
It is no secret that people work better when they're around others. But the magnitude of the performance improvement will surprise you.
According to a study, the mere perception of working together on a task can improve performance drastically. People who work with others (or thought they were working with others) stuck to the task 64% longer than solitary workers. They also reported lower fatigue and higher success.
This performance boost carries over to company-wide results as well. According to a study, companies that emphasized collaboration were 5 times more likely to be high-performing than their non-collaborative counterparts.
2. Better collaboration means higher productivity
How much could a suite of collaboration and knowledge sharing tools (such as Workamajig) improve productivity by?
Almost 30%, according to a study by McKinsey.
Better collaboration - either through better practices or software implementation - has a known impact on productivity. In one Deloitte Australia study, the company even estimated that better collaboration could add $46B to the country's GDP annually.
It's easy to see why collaboration would improve productivity. When you collaborate better, you also communicate better. You spend less time on irrelevant back and forth and more time on productive tasks. If you can share knowledge and insights freely, it results in higher productivity.
3. Collaboration makes for happier employees
What happens when your workers have better performance and higher productivity?
Their happiness increases, of course.
The Deloitte Australia study I mentioned above also found that employees who collaborate are 10x more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.
Another survey by Deloitte/Ipsos concluded that "Digital collaboration tools are a tacit factor in making employees feel valued and happy in their jobs"
You can guess why there is a relationship between collaboration and employee happiness. Collaborative company cultures are inherently more welcoming and open. If there is a belief across your business that people can seek (and find) what they want, it encourages employee engagement.
And more engaged employees are happier employees.
4. Collaboration makes you a more attractive employer
As an agency veteran, you know that there is a war for talent out there. Not only do you have to compete against conventional agencies, you also have to ward off overtures from consultancies and tech companies.
One way to make yourself more attractive to younger employees is to focus on collaboration - practices as well as tools.
Consider these statistics:
- 41% of millennials prefer to communicate electronically instead of face-to-face conversations.
- 77% of millennials want flexibility in their work hours.
These statistics highlight the changing nature of work, especially as millennials (and Gen Z after them) dominate the workforce. The kind of workplace millennials envision has collaboration at its center, not at its periphery.
For instance, a PwC study found that the chance to work with "strong coaches and mentors" is the most valuable training opportunity for millennials.
To attract this vital talent pool, you need to change the role of collaboration in your agency as well. From the periphery, it has to move to the heart of your business.
The 4 Key Team Collaboration Challenges
If you are to do team collaboration right, you have to first know what stands in your way.
The challenges to effective team collaboration are many and varied. From bad tools to poor communication practices, a range of things can derail your collaboration efforts.
Let's look at some of the key team collaboration challenges you need to overcome:
1. Goal misalignment
One of the characteristics of collaboration - as we noted earlier - is that participants don't always share the same goals. Individuals within and across teams have different personal and professional goals.
For instance, the design team lead doesn't always want the same thing as the development team lead, who doesn't want the same things as the agency principal.
In the absence of a clear goal that everyone agrees to - at least partially - your collaboration efforts will suffer.
2. Organizational structure
Collaboration thrives on rapid decision making and free & fast sharing of knowledge.
What happens when decisions have to be kicked up the hierarchy before the project can go forward?
Derailed projects and disastrous collaboration, of course.
"Things are complex and challenges happen quickly, so the idea of things moving up the chain for someone at the top to have a view of what needs to be done is not practical", Clare Dyer, chief people officer of UK-based KCOM says.tw
Of course, flatter organizations have their own issues, especially with accountability. A dynamic structure where decision making is distributed but accountability is not can improve collaboration (more on this below).
3. Poor communication practices
Despite all the hand-wringing about communication, most teams still struggle with it. In fact, a recent study by ESI International found that 80.9% of teams need help with communication skills.
Communication, of course, is at the heart of collaboration. If your team can't communicate well, it will also struggle to work well together.
Part of this challenge is easy enough to solve. Switching from dated (such as email) to modern tools (such as Skype) can improve the speed and transparency of communication. McKinsey estimates that this switch alone can lead to 20-25% improvement in productivity.
The other half of the problem - free and fair sharing of knowledge and a culture that values clear communication - is harder to achieve.
Yet surmounting this challenge should be a key goal, regardless of how much you value collaboration in your agency.
4. Company culture
Collaboration is essentially about the free flow of information. In a collaborative company, a junior developer wouldn't hesitate to reach out to a senior colleague in another team for help.
What happens when your culture prioritizes secrecy over transparency and hoarding information over sharing it freely?
Your collaboration efforts suffer, of course.
At its heart, collaboration is a "company DNA" thing. You can have all the tools and tactics in the world, but if collaboration isn't a priority for your people, you will struggle with it.
This is a massive challenge to overcome with no short-term fix. But as we'll see below, even a few small steps can yield surprisingly promising results.
In the sections to follow, we’ll look at some models, approaches, and strategies to tackle team collaboration before reviewing some collaboration tools.
How to Choose the Right Team Collaboration Model
By definition, collaboration is the process of people working well together.
What this definition misses is the inherent complexity in any collaborative undertaking.
Should you accept input from any source or only a select few team members? Who makes the decisions in the team? Should input from some senior team members carry more weight?
These are important questions with no easy answers. You’ll have to factor in the structure of your agency, the goals of the collaboration, and the distribution of decision making powers.
As such, there are four separate models of collaboration that you can adopt in different circumstances.
Before you can understand these four models, however, you need to know about the openness and governance in collaboration.
Two Key Issues in Collaboration: Openness and Governance
There are two essential questions in any collaborative exercise:
- Who should this collaborative process be open to?
- Who makes the final decisions?
These two questions relate to the openness and governance of the collaboration respectively.
The openness of the collaboration defines who can contribute ideas and input to the project. Broadly, you can divide it into two categories:
Open network collaboration
This is when you invite ideas from anyone within and outside the team. You don’t qualify for expertise or experience. Rather, your goal is to get as many ideas and viewpoints as possible.
An example would be asking for ideas from the developers, users, managers, etc. when designing a website (and not just the designers).
Open network collaboration:
- Works best when the quantity of ideas is more important than the quality.
- Works well for problems that aren’t easy to define and require fresh perspectives.
Closed network collaboration
This is when you limit participation to a few selected members. Usually, these are people qualified by expertise, experience or decision-making powers. Instead of lots of ideas, your goal in closed network collaboration is to get a few high-quality ideas that you can implement quickly.
An example would be getting input from UI/UX designers when creating a company website (and not just anyone).
Closed network collaboration:
- Works best for problems that are well-defined and have proven solutions.
- Attracts higher quality ideas and top performers, though the range of ideas tends to be narrower.
Besides participation, the other facet of any collaboration is its governance, i.e. how decision making powers are distributed across the participants.
Governance can be either hierarchical or flat.
A hierarchical governance structure has centralized decision making. The collaborators share their ideas, but a single person (or group of people) decides which ideas to implement, which to ignore.
- Is controlled by a single decision maker who dictates the rules, limits and participants in the collaboration.
- Has participants with their own motivations; participants only partially share the project’s goals.
In flat governance, all decision making is completely distributed. Instead of a single decision maker, all participants take part in making decisions.
All participants in a flat collaboration share the same goals. Since they have equal decision making powers, they also have equal motivations to reach the collaboration’s stated outcome.
The Four Models of Collaboration (And How to Choose Between Them)
How open and distributed your decision making is has a certain impact on the nature of your collaboration.
Thus, the combination of these two elements - openness and governance - yields four distinct models of collaboration.
Each of these models is suited for different problems. Using the right model for the right problem can improve the results of any project in your agency.
Let’s look at these four models and how to choose them.
1. The “Innovation Mall” Model
In an “innovation mall” model, participation is open but decision making is hierarchical.
That is, anyone can contribute ideas to the project. But all decision making is done by a select group of people.
Think of it like a “mall” where decision makers can choose from a range of ideas. The decision makers themselves don’t have to contribute to the collaboration; they can simply select the best ideas from all the options on offer.
The innovation mall model has a few distinct features:
- You get a large number of ideas from beyond your core domain of expertise.
- Since decision making is hierarchical, you can control the direction and participation in the collaboration.
- Capturing and organizing ideas from a number of contributors can be a challenge.
- Filtering out poor quality ideas and controlling the flow of discussion can be difficult
Additionally, you also need the right kind of knowledge-sharing tools to collect input from all participants.
Choose this model if:
- You want a range of ideas and have the resources to filter them out
- You have a clear idea of the direction of the discussion and are comfortable making decisions
This model is ideal for projects that require highly creative, cross-domain approaches. If you’re redesigning your company website or developing a new product, you’ll want to use this team collaboration model.
2. The “Elite Circle” Model
In an “elite circle” model, participation is closed and governance is hierarchical. Instead of inviting ideas from everyone, the decision makers select a few experts and ask for their advice.
This is perhaps the most common model of collaboration among agencies. In fact, you might even say that an agency itself is an example of an “elite circle” (i.e. a group of highly skilled experts who offer their ideas to stakeholders).
An example would be hiring a couple of design consultants to help you redesign the website (as opposed to asking everyone for input).
- You get only relevant ideas from the best experts at your disposal
- You don’t have to waste time filtering ideas
- Identifying and selecting the right experts for the right problems can be a challenge
- You miss out on innovative ideas from non-traditional or non-domain experts
Choose this model if:
- You have a ready list of experts and proven performers to tap into for ideas
- Your problem requires traditional solutions
- Your decision makers are confident of picking the right option
You’ll use this model frequently when implementing anything that demands domain expertise - a CRO campaign, a SEO plan, etc.
3. The “Innovation Community” Model
In an “innovation community” model, participation is open and governance is flat.
That is, everyone can contribute ideas to the collaboration. And everyone chips in when it comes time to make decisions.
A great example of the innovation community model is open source projects. Anyone can contribute to an open source projects. The community also decides which features to implement, which to ignore.
- You don’t have to deal with the burden of decision making
- It creates a sense of engagement and can make participants feel invested in the project
- Decision making can be slow since you have to get consensus from everyone
- The participants have to make sure to weed out irrelevant ideas
Choose this model if:
- You want to give your team members a sense of ownership in the project
- You want team members to take decisions without your help
- You want to build an autonomous “community” that can grow on its own
You’ll most frequently use this model on internal projects that don’t require centralized ownership. Think of employee-focused and employee-owned projects such as an internal wiki, a company intranet, an internal tool, etc.
4. The “Consortium” Model
In the consortium model, participation is closed and governance is flat. That is, a select group of people come together to share ideas and make decisions on projects.
This model is frequently seen in the upper echelons of organizations. Your agency’s partners coming together to decide the business’ direction is an example of a consortium at play.
- You get ideas from proven experts
- All participants get a sense of ownership in the final decision
- Non-participants can feel left out of both the decision making and the idea sharing
- You miss out on ideas from outside the consortium of experts
Choose this model if:
- You want limited participation and rapid decision-making while also giving the participants a sense of ownership
- You already know which experts you need to solve the problem
You’ll put this model to use when collaborating on projects that involve domain experts but with no clear owners (such as developing an internal app for the development team).
In a sufficiently complex project, you’ll sometimes switch between these team collaboration models over the course of the project. You might start off the project by picking a consortium of experts to decide the project’s direction. At kick-off, you might invite ideas from everyone on the team, a la the “innovation mall” model.
Once the project kicks off, you might switch to the traditional “elite circle” model to keep the team lean and efficient.
Don’t hesitate to try out different models for different problems.
How to Improve Team Collaboration: Tactics and Tools
Making your agency teams collaborate better is neither easy nor immediate. You have to invest time and resources to develop better collaboration habits across your agency.
In this section, I’ll discuss strategies, tactics, and tools you can use to help your teams work better together. Some of these tactics will show rapid results. Others require a more fundamental change in your business model or organization’s structure.
1. Adopt a flatter organizational structure
Hierarchy can be useful for collaboration, but more often than not, it acts as an impediment. When teams are limited by formal roles, they are less likely to share ideas, motivations and goals, as one study found.
In the study, Lindred Greer, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University, wrote:
“The egalitarian teams were more focused on the group because they felt like ‘we’re in the same boat, we have a common fate...They were able to work together, while the hierarchical team members felt a need to fend for themselves, likely at the expense of others.”
This is less of a tip and more of a long-term organizational philosophy. You don’t have to change your existing hierarchy overnight. But keep this at the back of your mind every time you re-organize your agency. A flatter structure can help you collaborate better and respond to challenges faster.
2. Create a knowledge database
What happens when a new client walks through your doors? Do you scramble to create policies, processes, and documents from scratch? Or do you consult experienced team members and use existing templates?
Many agencies lack a centralized knowledge base that team members can tap into for insight, advice, and templates. This hampers collaboration and impacts productivity negatively.
As Brad Egeland wrote in an earlier article on this subject:
“Ideally, there is a central repository of project templates and documents from past successful projects. There is no need to re-invent the wheel on every creative project. A knowledge database on which teams can collaborate and share files and documents is ideal to ongoing successes on similar types of projects.”
One way to develop this knowledge base is to use a project management software like Workamajig. Since Workamajig centralizes all data, your teams can learn from each other.
You can share documents within Workamajig and grant access to employees across teams
3. Facilitate communication
Communication, of course, is the cornerstone of collaboration. But often, some team members “hoard” all communication within the team. A few others - especially introverts - get neglected and don’t form the strong bonds necessary for collaboration.
According to an MIT study, when communication bonds between even a few team members are weak, the team tends to underperform. Top-performing teams typically have uniform distribution of communication across all team members.
The solution to this problem is to:
- Make communication as easy as possible, and
- Involve all team members - especially introverts - in every communication
Start by switching from high-friction communication channels (such as email or phone) to low-friction channels (such as Slack). Anything that makes it possible for team members to contribute to discussions in a casual manner can help.
Next, identify team members with low participation in discussions and meetings. Make a conscious effort to involve them in future communications. You can specifically ask for their input during meetings, or assign them duties that would push them to get involved.
4. Establish clear “rules of conduct”
A common mistake in team collaboration is assuming that everyone on the team actually knows how to work on a team.
The truth is that unless the team has been together for a long time, team members will have different ideas of how they’re supposed to work. Being “on time” might mean something completely different to Alice than it does to Dan.
This can be a source of significant misunderstanding and conflict - two impediments to effective collaboration.
“Rules of conduct clarify how you’ll make decisions, keep everyone informed, run meetings, hold one another accountable, assess progress, and continually improve.”
Drafting the rules of conduct should be a collaborative exercise itself. You want to get everyone’s input and get them to decide on the team’s rules (i.e. the “innovation community” collaboration model).
Here are some questions you can ask to facilitate the process:
- What rules - formal or informal - has the team always followed?
- What rules would they like to add? What would they like to remove?
- If they were to initiate a new person to the team, what would be the top 10 rules they would have to follow?
The rules everyone agrees on should become the team’s rules of conduct.
5. Identify and encourage “connectors”
A major barrier to collaboration is mistrust in others competence and ability to finish a task effectively. Barring a draconian internal employee rating system, how can you be sure that someone you want to collaborate with will actually do the job?
This is where “connectors” and “influencers” come into the picture.
Connectors are your organization’s best connected people. These are usually extroverts who seem to know everyone else.
Connectors play a critical role in facilitating collaboration. Since they know a lot of people, they can serve as a “bridge” between unknown collaborators. They can vouch for expertise, cue people into each other’s work habits, and help identify collaboration opportunities.
Your goal should be to identify the connectors in your agency. Once identified, let it be known through formal and informal channels about their availability.
At the same time, encourage connectors to find and connect people or teams looking to collaborate.
6. Embrace diversity in your agency
On paper, you’d expect diverse teams to struggle with collaboration on account of their difference. But according to one study, diverse teams outperform their homogenous counterparts precisely because of their difference.
The study found that people in homogenous teams often agree with each other. While this makes the work easier, it also leads to less dissent and a narrower range of ideas.
That is, the disagreements in diverse teams actually improves the quality of results.
Diversity, of course, should be a long-term initiative. Refer to this article for ideas on how to implement diversity in your agency.
7. Create spaces - real and virtual - that facilitate collaboration
When Yahoo revoked its employees’ work-from-home privileges in 2013, its chief of human resources said, “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions.”
This notion that such encounters are the keys to collaboration lies at the heart of modern workplace design. Research even shows that “chance encounters and interactions between knowledge workers improve performance.”
Your goal, thus, should be design physical and virtual spaces that can help create such encounters.
How you go about this will depend on your budget and space availability. Citrix, for instance, designed a work space where all furniture is on wheels. Teams can move furniture around to create mobile collaborative spaces as per their needs.
Citrix’s collaboration-friendly office space design. Notice that the desk has wheels to make it easy to move around (Image source)
Facebook had a simpler approach: it placed thousands of employees in a single hall. Similarly, Telenor, the Norwegian telecom giant, placed coffee machines at strategic locations to encourage people to meet and talk to each other.
Adopt the same philosophy to how you design virtual spaces as well. Instead of just email and messaging apps, think of creating company intrants, groups, and virtual rooms. Encourage people to use these virtual spaces as their default communication channels.
The easier you make it for people to work with each other, the better your team collaboration.
Before we leave, let’s take a quick look at some team collaboration tools you can use in your projects.
10 of the Best Online Team Collaboration Tools
While collaboration isn’t merely about using the right tools, they can definitely help the process. You’ll ideally want different tools to take care of different aspects of team collaboration - communication, project management, knowledge sharing, etc.
Let’s look at some popular team collaboration tools below:
Slack makes collaboration easier by encouraging conversations, not just messaging. You can create dedicated “channels” for different teams or projects. You can also host video calls and install a number of “Slackbots” to automate common tasks.
Flock is similar to Slack, but with a slightly steeper learning curve and a smaller price tag. Like Slack, you can converse in real-time, host video calls, and create channels or groups for projects and topics.
The gold-standard in video conferencing still remains a favorite thanks to its widespread adoption and robust audio/video quality.
Appear.in is meant for hosting video calls with a number of participants. It’s friendlier and cheaper than GoToMeeting and even has Snapchat-like filters to make the entire video chatting experience more casual (and thus, better for collaboration).
Despite the competition, Skype remains one of the most popular chat apps around. It might not be flashy, but it has all the features you’d want in a chat tool. Plus, almost everyone already has an account on it, making adoption easier.
Zoom is one of the more flexible video conferencing tools on this list. You can use it to host a one-on-one video call or a webinar with 10,000 guests. Robust video quality and user-friendliness make it a worthwhile option.
The Google Docs and Drive combo takes care of both file sharing and document collaboration. For agencies, it’s particularly useful since many clients already have Google accounts and can access Drive/Docs content easily.
Dropbox is perhaps the closest competitor to Google Drive. Paper competes against Google Docs but Dropbox has no Google Sheets alternative. Dropbox’ robust file sharing and Paper’s makes it a compelling alternative to Google Drive/Docs.
Building a centralized knowledge base should be a top priority if you want to improve team collaboration. AnswerHub lets you do exactly that with a user-friendly Q&A format. Think of it as an internal wiki written entirely in the form of questions. Though it’s targeted towards developers, it is equally useful in agencies.
Crowdbase acts as a centralized repository of documents. Your teams can collaborate on its platform to create templates, policies, processes, etc. You can also build a library of answers and expert knowledge that you can share with specific people or teams.
You can’t really run a project well without a competent project management tool. Workamajig brings your entire agency on a single platform and makes the collaboration much easier.
Instead of using multiple apps, you can use Workamajig to run virtually every aspect of your agency - creative management, traffic management, agency finances, and even sales & marketing.
Check out the free download below to learn more about how you can build better teams.