A master-class in collaboration

How do you get people to collaborate effectively?


I saw one way of doing it last weekend. Three of the factors that helped collaboration were: random teams, a good brief, and a tight deadline - more about those in a moment.


Entrepreneurs in Action is an event for senior secondary school students, run by Young Enterprise.

Sixty young people gathered in Wellington and were placed in teams of six, each supported by a business. My conflict of interest declaration is that my partner works for Sustaintability Trust, which supported the team that won.


Young man in t-shirt with 'There is no planet B' on it
Team Sustainability Trust were on-message: There is no Planet B

I saw the final presentations for the main challenge on Sunday morning.


They got a briefing on Saturday morning: to create the business case for an online tag game for the American market. The plan had to be handed in Saturday night, and the team pitch presented on Sunday morning.


Random teams mean people are not type cast

The 60 people met on Thursday night, all equals as participants in the event. They had no idea of who they would be teamed up with, so it was in everyone's interest to get along. They were randomly assigned to teams on Friday morning and introduced to their support organisation.


In 'real' life, the temptation is to hand pick teams to achieve the desired mix of skills, to type cast. At Entrepreneurs in Action, people arrived in teams without history. They had the opportunity to offer what they thought the team needed at the time, without being automatically assigned as the numbers or the graphics person.


Of course it makes sense to play to your strengths. But if you think you're only on the team because of a particular ability, that might be the only thing you feel can offer or will be asked to contribute.

Yes, boundaries help creativity, and they can also limit collaboration.


A good brief leaves room for creativity

The brief for the main challenge had sufficient detail to mean that all the pitches were about the same type of game and addressed the need for validation.


But it also left scope for each team to create a unique path to the desired outcome. The pitches variously included storylines from te ao Māori, in-game rewards, bit-coin currencies, real-world hydration drinks, game skins that could be traded as non-fungible-tokens. (Yes, some of it was quite mysterious to me.)


Briefing a team to collaborate on a creative challenge has some relationship to high-trust delegation. The team needs some direction and boundaries, and freedom to bring ideas to the table. In this case, the brief hit a sweet spot that allowed the random teams to collaborate on ten distinctly different business plans.


Deadlines help manage time and effort

The teams that performed strongly used the time constraint to advantage. Collaborating to a deadline requires decisiveness. When the clock is ticking, there's less temptation to obsess on details or get caught up in personal politics. Instead, the focus is on:

  • What milestones does the team have to hit?

  • What are the most important elements?

  • What are likely to be the most time-consuming elements?

  • What tasks can be split up?

  • What are the interdependencies?


The most successful pitches demonstrated these three factors. The extent of collaboration showed up when we saw each member of a team speak to specific element - everyone had a part to play. The creativity was evident not only in the concepts and business cases, but also in the presentation style and delivery. And the tight deadline worked, because everyone delivered!


Want more on collaboration? These are some of our other blogs that identify the preconditions and barriers:


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