Avoid This Mistake When Collaborating

Throughout most of my career, I’ve made a big mistake in the way I’ve led teams, and wouldn’t be surprised if you have, too.

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 — and my approach for many years — is that carefully spelling out the approach is essential, while leaving individual roles within the team open and flexible will encourage people to share ideas and contribute in multiple dimensions.

But research has shown that the opposite is true. Collaboration improves when individual roles are clearly defined and well understood and when individuals feel their role is bound in ways that allow them to work independently. Without this clarity, team members may waste energy negotiating roles or protecting turf, rather than focusing on the task.

On the other hand, 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 more time and energy in collaboration.

Consider a team of doctors and nurses working in a hospital emergency room. The next patient’s condition is unknown; the tasks that will be required of the team are ambiguous. But at no time while the team waits do they negotiate roles: “Who would like to administer the anesthesia? Who will set out the instruments? Who will make key decisions?” Each role is clear. As a result, when the patient arrives, the team is able to quickly move into action.

At the BBC we studied teams responsible for the radio and television broadcasts of special events and daytime television news. These teams were large — ranging from 66 people in one case to 133 in another — and included members with a wide range of skills from many disciplines. One would imagine that there was a high possibility of confusion among team members.

But we found the BBC’s teams scored among the highest in our sample with regard to how clear team members were about their own roles and others’. Every team contained specialists who had deep expertise in their given function, and each person had a clearly defined role. There was no overlap in responsibilities from the sound technician to the camera operator. Yet the tasks the BBC teams tackle are, by their very nature, uncertain and to some extent ambiguous, particularly when they involve covering breaking news. The trick the BBC and others in the television industry have pulled off has been to clarify team members’ individual roles with so much precision that it keeps friction, internal competition and the possibility of omission mistakes to a minimum.

In the same research, we also studied successful teams at Reuters — teams that worked in far-flung locations and in many cases didn’t speak a common language. 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 developing code, speaking to no one. Each individual was given autonomy for one discrete, well-defined piece of the project. The rapid pace and demanding project timelines encouraged individual members to work independently to get the job done. Yet because each individual’s work had to fit seamlessly into the final product, shaped with an eye toward achieving the overall team goal, these teams judged collaborative behavior to be high among their members.

The leader’s role, as I learned through my research, is to ensure each team member’s roles and responsibilities are clearly defined for the specific project at hand. Conversely, leaders should help team members understand the project’s importance and ultimate objective but leave the exact approach to the team’s discretion.

Tamara J. Erickson is the author of What’s Next, Gen X? Keeping Up, Moving Ahead, and Getting the Career You Want. She can be reached at editor@diversity-executive.com.