In the 21st century, collaboration trumps strategy. It’s collaborate or evaporate. The forces of complexity, diversity and speed now shape our workplaces: the complexity of challenges, the diversity of workforces and the speed of change.

Accelerating collaboration is the foundation for success in dealing with these forces. In knowledge-based enterprises, fostering collaboration is job one for leaders, managers, and learning and development professionals.


Organizations rely on all kinds of teams to produce results, and collaboration is the secret sauce that makes or breaks every team. Leadership teams craft strategy. Project teams drive innovation, implementation and execution. Collaboration isn’t easy and doesn’t happen naturally. It needs nurturing and support to flourish.

Real collaboration emerges when all team members feel comfortable contributing their best work and bringing forward their disruptive ideas and contrarian opinions – all in the spirit of progress. Like all skills, real collaboration is learned and developed over time, through persistent effort, practice, feedback, experience, discovery, adversity and success.


No team moves quickly from forming to performing. You have to be slow in the beginning to be fast later. Here are five ways to move toward successful collaboration.

1. Use cognitive diversity as the new driver.

Talent comes in all varieties. Sameness in thinking produces only minor variations in the status quo. If they are managed well, differences in thinking produce innovative solutions and breakthroughs. Leaders must look beyond personality types to assemble teams of people with a deliberate mix of cognitive skills, like creative thinkers, analytical thinkers and critical thinkers.

2. Develop a common language and ensure equal participation.

Down with dominators; up with collaborators. Alex Pentland’s research indicated that the more team members participate equally and the shorter, more focused their contributions are, the higher the team’s productivity is. As teams learn to work together, they develop a common language for collaboration.

3. Design disciplined processes.

Make sure team members set clear outcomes in advance of each meeting. Develop routines and timed phases for each planning and problem solving process to avoid wasting time, talent and money.

4. Create rules of engagement.

Groups need to co-create their own norms and mechanisms to self-manage through conflict, impasses and challenges. Invest in facilitator training, team charters, experiential learning, reflections, sabotage lists on collaboration killer behaviors, after-action reviews and coats of arms to develop rules of engagement.

5. Speak with positivity.

John Gottman’s and Marcial Losada’s research demonstrated that if people and teams speak to each other in positive, supportive ways, they are much more likely to succeed. The magic number is a 5:1 ratio of using positive to negative language. Shift from cynicism, dismissiveness and defensiveness to leaning in, being supportive and continually clarifying.


Jo Hopkins is a performance leadership consultant who works with high-performance teams in the UK. Her task was to develop collaboration within a multi-disciplinary group of 30 world-class medical experts supporting British athletes and coaches at the Rio 2016 Summer Games.

To help the team learn how to collaborate and solve problems together, Hopkins first used a research-based thinking strategies system to map the team members’ cognitive styles. She then used a collaborative thinking process methodology to guide the group’s planning, conflict resolution and problem solving.

Hopkins provides this advice for process collaboration:

  • Have a clear vision of the collaboration culture needed to produce successful outcomes. Take the time to envision in detail what your common purpose really is, what success looks like and which collaborative behaviors will achieve results.
  • Match your process to what motivates your audience. Sports scientists thrive on hard data and discipline. Hopkins used that understanding to use the appropriate instruments, design content and craft crisp thinking processes to enable planning, problem solving and decision-making.
  • Build small pods to overcome the team’s challenges. Use the team’s diversity of thinking styles to build small work groups with specific tasks.


Tim Dixon, an independent consultant in Canada, has 25 years of experience building teams and collaborative cultures around the world. He uses a powerful mix of leadership development, strategy, team-building, problem-solving and experiential learning.

Dixon uses the Think Tank technology platform with leadership teams and large, distributed organizations. This technology helps create a level playing field, encouraging greater participation. Technology can offer leaders a powerful way to leverage and harvest their team’s full range of intelligence. It can open up greater access to collect more diverse ideas and make the process of weighing and rating options and solutions faster and more effective.

In one 18-month design thinking process, Dixon used the technology platform as his online co-creation tool to bring together Canada’s major insurance companies to produce big data tools and services for their sector.

Dixon has this advice about using technology as part of a collaboration methodology:

  • Take the time to really clarify your outputs. Spend time upfront identifying the high-yield issues and correctly framing your questions. Build the right frames to envision new possibilities. The right questions move you from observation to insight to ideas.
  • Get a jump start on using the technology to engage others earlier in the innovation process. Before you formally gather your group for a session, identify the issues and frame the challenges with others. For example, form small teams with diverse thinking styles and experiences and ask each team to tackle one aspect of a SWOT or environmental scan. This pre-work can produce a rich analysis of complex challenges and provide clear direction when the group comes together to draw insight from their research.
  • Blend it like Beckham. Balance online input with real-time, candid, face-to-face dialogue to obtain better engagement and results.

Leaders can use a technology-based collaboration platform to eliminate the organizational power dynamics that can inhibit the full participation needed to harness the “wisdom of the crowd.”


Having spent three decades in leadership development in the conference center industry, Lisa Gilbert knows how the power of place can foster collaboration and innovation when leaders need to tap into their organization’s collective intelligence. In 2004, she joined the Kingbridge Conference Centre and Institute as general manager to co-create a conference venue designed for leaders who want their teams to expand their thinking and inspire change. Because of her work, Gilbert appreciates the power of finding the right environment and conditions for teams to solve problems through collaborative exchanges.

The right place can enhance collaboration, and the wrong one can undermine it. Unfortunately, the decision of where to meet is often made with little thought on how the physical environment impacts social and human dynamics.

Gilbert sees an increasing value of taking a team off site to do mission-critical work and prime the pump for collaboration, especially with the trend toward remote and virtual teams.

Gilbert offers this advice on using the power of space and place to foster collaboration:

  • Find places that align with your overall purpose. Collaboration is different than attending an event. It is not listening to speakers and executives and watching show and tells. Know the difference between a hotel and a conference centre. True collaboration is enhanced in campus-like places that expand people’s thinking. They offer a sense of freedom to nurture learning and collective work.
  • Decide on focus and forging versus attractions and distractions. For serious collaborative work, seek out places that will stimulate a consistent and mindful focus on great thinking. Look for places where your people can stay on site together to forge deeper relationships. Find places to bring people together – to meet, learn, work, eat, chat, relax, go for walks and runs, and have long talks together.
  • Be close enough and far away. Select collaborative sites that are convenient to an airport but avoid the noise and distractions of the city.


Smart pods are carefully selected, lean-thinking, whole-brain teams. A smart pod is a group of people with diverse cognitive styles, genders, backgrounds and experiences. Smart pod members are also selected to ensure the requisite technical knowledge and group problem-solving and collaboration skills.

Here are five keys to accelerating collaboration with smart pods:

1. Select for cognitive diversity. Include one or more members who excel at creative thinking, analytical thinking and critical thinking. Make sure you have at least one member with good social skills. Stack the team to match the task.

2. Select for gender diversity. Teams with both men and women tend to outperform single-gender groups.

3. Select for demographic diversity. Find people who bring different perspectives to the group, with a deliberate mix of generational, cultural and ethnic perspectives.

4. Select for knowledge and skills diversity. Find people who bring a variety of expertise, experience and skill sets to the team.

5. Train in these types of diversity. Build collaborative norms and skills within each smart pod.

To build the right mix for a smart pod, use a simple matrix of potential members to make more intelligent decisions about who should be on the team for the right mix of diversity of thinking styles, genders, ages, cultures and experience.

Use three agreements to build and manage each smart pod:

  • We commit to creating a safe environment that supports each person’s contributions and growth.
  • We appreciate the value of each person’s individuality and respect the uniqueness of each other’s thinking styles.
  • We agree to ensure that each member participates equally, with no one dominating conversation time.


We need to make collaboration and innovation better. The workplaces of today have more talent than at any other time in history, but too little talent is engaged, and not enough brainpower is harnessed. Real collaboration can build corporate capacity for managing change and disruptions.

Learning and development professionals must rise to this challenge by providing leaders and teams with better collaboration skills and more effective tools and processes to bring out the best in their performance. We need a new operating manual to accelerate collaborative teamwork and innovation. This manual is the first step toward charting the future.