Team Collaboration – Ten Simple Tools


One dictionary definition of the word “collaborate” is “to work jointly on an activity especially to produce or create something together”.

I’ve been thinking lately of the recent nationalistic actions in the US and Britain as two prominent examples of collaboration efforts that failed for many reasons. It is easy to blame. Sometimes the set up for the collaborative organizational structure is too cumbersome, appears or is unfair, or is inefficient and unable to respond to the needs of all individuals. Sometimes it is just that people have their own agendas and are unconvinced that the collaborative efforts will serve them well. We need to ensure collaboration can work. I want us to remember that the art (and science) of collaboration is more important than it ever has been in the history of humankind. Process facilitators help people collaborate and so our profession is more important than ever. How do we set the stage for collaboration in any setting? What are the stages of collaboration? What are my favorite tools for collaboration? And, generally, how can we be more effective in our efforts to collaborate in complex, high stakes situations?

Let’s look at ten ridiculously simple, “anyone can use” tools – one or two for each of the six stages of helping groups be collaborative.

How do we set the stage for collaboration in any setting?

The most important thing to do for any group is to ensure enough of the right people are in the room and that there are intentional efforts to build trust and safety. We ‘ve written a lot of blogs about that so check them out below. One is called ten tried and true teambuilding and trust-building techniques. That will get you started. The bottom line is to have people CONNECT with each other and with their common cause. They must see that they have a common problem and if is solved, everyone will benefit. There is a great list of “Practices that Build Trust” in the IAF book called Creating a Culture of Collaboration. The chapter is “Is your organization an Obstacle Course or a Relay Team?” The author is Paul P.T. Wong. (Page 243) Here are a few of my favorites:

  • Practice what you preach
  • Don’t promise anything you cannot deliver
  • Take great care to nurture and maintain working relationships
  • Whenever a misunderstanding occurs, clear it up as soon as possible
  • Practice forgiveness and grace when others let you down
  • Follow procedures and due process; only cut corners when clearly justifiable
  • Earn trust by building a reputation of being competent and trust worthy

Think about Brexit and the Paris Climate Agreement. Which of these were not diligently applied?

Tool 1: The tool here is to co-create a list of practices to which your group can agree to follow as they go through the collaboration process.

What are the stages of collaboration?

There are many stages to effective collaboration. I’ve come up with six. The first is to build trust as noted above. The second is openly and fully be willing to share data that helps everyone see the largest possible picture. The third is to identify gaps and/or discrepancies in that big picture. This stage might also sometimes include identifying who might be able to shed light on what these gaps mean. The forth can include one or more of the following activities: building consensus around what is most important to pay attention to in the data. It can also include ways to strategize/ innovate around how to deal with the gaps. The fifth is to create a short term action plan which is constantly readjusted and renewed as more facts and experience becomes available. The last stage would be to conduct a retrospective review on the collaboration process and results and make adjustments for the next collaboration project to do even better.

Frameworks that use some, all or even more than these steps are the ToP strategic planning model; the Theory U framework and the Future Search Process (see below for references). There are many more.

What are a few of my favorite tools for collaboration?

We recently used a very effective technique for sharing data openly to create a very big picture for a complex educational system. There were about 15 individual educational organizations who all have similar missions but are working towards achieving that mission in many different ways. To leverage their impact, they needed to begin to understand what was the best data for each of them to collect. We realized the most effective way for them to SEE the big picture was to have them visually map it out for themselves. We did a pre-survey so that on the day of the event, they had asked enough questions to bring the right data. We used different colors of paper to show different answers. E.g., red was “no we do not collect”; green was “we do collect”; light green was “we are on the verge of collecting it”, etc. This is what it looked like when we got all their data up:

Tools 2, 3, 4 & 5: The tools we used for this stage were: a pre-event survey; two large sticky walls to post data; a coding system for their answers so no reading was really required; a set of open-ended questions they answered in mixed small groups to better understand what they were seeing and what were the gaps; and an opportunity to adjust or add to the data posted on the wall as a result of having these conversations. The questions included:

  • What data are you collecting now?
  • Why are you collecting that data?
  • How are you collecting that data?

After everyone had digested what data was in place and noticed the large variations in what people collected, (the gap), they focused their efforts on building preliminary consensus on which pieces of data they could all easily collect so they had at least some common reference points to build a systemically more robust program. This included tools 6, 7 and 8 noted below.

Tool 6, 7 & 8: We offered them a clear open-ended, goal-oriented question which was: What do you recommend as the best 3-5 data points that would best demonstrate overall program success?; and, a loose form of “dot voting” as a way for them to indicate their preliminary choices for data they all might collect. They were given extra sheets of paper and encouraged to offer new ideas (innovate) for data collection that no one was collecting yet. (Yes, tool 8 is just extra sheets of paper and permission to add new categories!)

Tool 9: The tool for stage 5 of this process is an action planning template of some kind, this could include headers such as what are the steps we need to take to move this data collection project forward, who will do which steps, when will we complete them by; when will we check in with each other; and how will we know we are successful (e.g., evaluation measures)

Tool 10: Doing a retrospective review can be as simple as handing out the document of the team’s work, having pairs review it,underlining key words and asking them these five questions: what did we do? What were high points/low points? What did we learn? What must we do differently next time?

How can we be more effective in our efforts to collaborate in complex, high stakes situations?

I believe if we follow the six stages of collaboration, and apply two specific values we will be much more effective in our efforts. The two values come from the Technology of Participation methods:

Profound respect and inclusive participation.

I believe this is true not only for complex project team collaboration but even for much bigger situations such as solving global climate change or when country “independence/interdependence” is being discussed.

Please share your thoughts with me!

Some Additional Resources

Blog: What’s the Strategic in Strategic Thinking and Planning?

The Power of Presence and the Theory U Framework

Future Search Process

TedTalks on Collaboration

Cultivating Collaboration: Don’t Be So Defensive!
Creating a Culture of Collaborative Innovation
Why Collaboration is an Individual Effort


A recent interview with me and many more resources on this wonderful website,

Barbara MacKay

Barbara loves “everything facilitation”. She thinks BIG! She loves working with other facilitators around the globe to create transformational results for client groups. She loves teaching others how to do that. She loves presenting at global facilitator conferences. She loves certifying new professional facilitators. If you also love what process facilitation can do for the world, connect with her – virtually or in person. She believes facilitation processes, used well, will provide the roadmap to a more just and sustainable world.

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