The key elements that make up a great team collaboration
All team collaborations have similar basic elements that are required for success, whether it is just between 2 people in an informal collaboration or a team with many individuals created for a large multi-organizational project. The basic key elements of a great team collaboration are: collective knowledge of team members’ communication method preferences, collective understanding of roles and responsibilities for all team members combined with clear decision-making processes, established and collectively understood project timelines, milestones and expected products, accessible processes for conflict resolution and shared technical and/or methodological processes.
Collective knowledge of team members’ communication method preferences
Communication method preferences can include simple things like whether you have preferences about what method you use to communicate with most, in-person conversations (or via zoom), over the phone, using email, or via a type of direct messaging. Knowing how you like to communicate and what works best for reaching you can be very helpful to know just for your own benefit, and letting other team members know how best to reach you can prevent minor and sometimes not-so-minor conflicts from arising if they are having trouble communicating with you.
It may also be useful to consider if there are certain types of communications that you prefer using different methods for. For example, email might be the best way to communicate about deadlines and to schedule meetings, but brainstorming sessions work better for you in-person or on zoom, and getting a quick response from you would require using an app’s DM or text. Having this information about your teammates can also save you time and frustration, if you know the best way to get a response from them, you are more likely to receive a quick response, and if the communication is sensitive for any reason, then they’ve told you the best method to use and you don’t have to guess.
Ideally, particularly if a team will be working together for a while, information about everyone’s communication preferences is kept in a location that is accessible to everyone. This can also be a conversation that the team has at the outset (or periodically as new team members join), which can serve both the practical purpose of communicating these preferences and is an excellent team building activity to help everyone get comfortable working with each other.
Collective understanding of roles and responsibilities for all team members combined with clear decision-making processes
At the very least, you should be aware of your role and responsibilities on any team, but it is very helpful for everyone to know what the roles and responsiblities for all team members are. Just the exercise of articulating this can expose gaps or unintentional overlaps in responsibilities, before they can cause problems as the project progresses. Having these roles and responsibilities recorded somewhere and accessible to all is a good practice that will have many benefits, such as make on-boarding new team members easier.
A particularly important aspect of roles and responsibilities is who has decision-making power on the team. Sometimes this is a straightforward question, if it is a small team with a single team lead who has final say on all decisions. However, in larger teams or in teams that include members from different organizations, decision-making processes can become much less obvious and can lead to confusion. A good place to start is to figure out what types of decisions might come up, and map out visually who would be involved in those decision-making processes, what their input would add, and who has the final say. This is of course helpful for team members who are included in decision-making to know, but it is particularly important for those who aren’t included, because then they will know who to go to with concerns or suggestions regarding decisions made or in the making.
Established and collectively understood project timelines, milestones and expected products
This element may seem like the most obvious, but it is surprising how frequently timelines and milestones (intermediate goals to achieve as you work towards the final goal) in particular are not written down anywhere. As with all of these elements, it is extremely helpful to write down these types of project plans and share them in a way that is accessible to all team members. This way everyone will be on the same page and can be quickly made aware of updates as changes are made.
An important thing to consider when setting project timelines, milestones and expected products is to include information about which deadlines or products are flexible and which are definitely not. Also, for teams that will be working together on future projects, it is very useful to keep clear and evolving records of project timelines. Timelines in particular are almost inevitably subject to change during the life of a project, and having a written record of both the original timeline and adjustments that are made as the project continues are very useful to have in order to set realistic expectations (or make adjustments to the team) during the planning process for the next project.
Accessible processes for conflict resolution
Conflict resolution processes can be an intimidating thing to bring up in any work environment, for team members at any level. Part seven, conflict resolution strategies from a non-leadership position, will go into more detail about how to navigate conflicts in a team environment, but for the purpose of setting up a team for success, the important thing about the conflict resolution process is that one exists (in writing), and it is accessible to all team members.
The process may look like a formalized and complicated set of processes in a large institution, or in an informal team it can simply be a guide for what types of conflict team members are expected to handle on their own (and perhaps include resources for how to do this), when a team lead(s) or supervisor(s) needs to be involved, and who to go to if a team member feels that they can’t resolve an issue on their own. A conflict resolution process doesn’t necessarily need to set out every step or cover every conceivable conflict that may arise (in fact it almost certainly won’t), but having at least a basic process in place and understood by all, ideally before conflicts arise, will make dealing with the inevitable conflicts that all teams experience both easier and quicker to handle.
Shared technical and/or methodological processes
The level of investment and time that is put into technological and/or methodological processes is very dependent on the industry or type of project. However, there are some technological processes that all teams have to navigate, and, as is the theme with all of these elements, having these processes agreed upon in advance, written down, and accessible to all team members greatly improves everyone’s experience of working in the team.
At the very least, all teams need to communicate with each other, and in this day and age that generally means using technology, such as email and apps like Slack. Additionally, most teams will need to do things like schedule meetings and share files (at the very least records of all of the key elements listed above, and likely things like meeting notes). For these types of teams, having a plan for file sharing and storage and knowing team members’ technical communication preferences may be enough. For teams that rely more heavily on technology, having agreed upon (and written down!) processes can both greatly improve the speed of communication between team members and decrease the inevitable technological frustrations that team members will have to deal with.
For team members who are not the team lead(s), it may not be in your power to set up these best practices. However, no matter what your position on the team is, you can always do something to improve the team and your experience working in it by sharing your own preferred communication methods, asking other team members about theirs, and asking clarifying questions of your team lead(s) and/or supervisor(s) about the project timeline, milestones and expected products, your role and responsibilities, and technical processes. If you feel comfortable going further, you can also point out the lack of one (or more) of these elements, and offer suggestions and/or ask your team lead(s) to address it. Other strategies to address gaps will be discussed further in part three, common issues that arise when some or all of the key elements are missing and what you can do about it.