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Book Summary: Mastering Collaboration – Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive

Most organizations view collaboration as essential. Yet research suggests that more isn’t necessarily better. Successful collaborations require planning, a well-defined structure and clear objectives. This week’s reading recommendation offers practical advice on organizing collaborative teams to achieve results that outperform those of individuals working on their own.


Business, Management, Leadership, Business Image and Etiquette, Business Conflict Resolution and Mediation, Business Communication


Collaboration is one of humankind’s primal dynamics, but formal collaboration inside today’s organizations seldom works. Companies suffer when colleagues can’t get together effectively to develop smart solutions to problems. Leaders might pay lip service to the idea of collaboration, yet few know how to bring it about. As you might suspect, there is a better way. Collaboration expert Gretchen Anderson explains in practical terms how collaboration works, what it can accomplish, how to organize collaborative teams and which common collaboration pitfalls to avoid.

[Book Summary] Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive


  • The best way to fix difficult problems is to deploy a team.
  • When it comes to starting a collaboration, having more people involved is better. Eventually reduce the number of participants to a core group.
  • The “close collaborators” on a team include the “navigator, driver, historian, facilitator” and “critics.”
  • Collaborations won’t work without mutual trust.
  • Consider the physical and virtual spaces where the collaborating team will meet.
  • Effective collaborations require planning and a well-defined structure.
  • Collaborations need defined objectives.
  • Collaboration team members should always think big.
  • In any collaboration, one person should make the end decision, not the group.


The best way to fix difficult problems is to deploy a team.

Some problems require bringing people together to find a solution. Collaboration is the core group-based tool for solving challenging problems. If handled correctly, collaboration can generate new ideas and find solutions. Collaboration calls for assembling an eclectic mix of people and charging them with generating a result, even when only some of them will be directly responsible for implementing the fix.

Despite its potential efficacy, collaboration is never easy to achieve. Group efforts often go awry because most people don’t know how to collaborate, and no one teaches them. Collaboration can be frustrating and even messy due to the often confusing interpersonal dynamics that arise.

“Few teams…come together and launch something absolutely, catastrophically bad.”

When a collaboration fails, many participants develop a bias against future attempts and retreat to more comfortable settings – the status quo of life in silos. Within silos, rules are well-defined, and problems are simpler and more amenable to patchwork solutions.

When it comes to starting a collaboration, having more people involved is better. Eventually reduce the number of participants to a core group.

When you set up a collaboration, cast a wide net and invite as many people as possible at first to avoid alienating some people by not inviting them. Uninvited people can feel excluded and may end up opposing whatever solution your group develops.

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” ” (African proverb)

The beauty of true collaboration is that it allows for the most diverse viewpoints and the widest range of opinions, thus reducing risk and blind spots. Inviting diverse members gives you a collaboration group that is less willing to choose the safe solution instead of the best solution. A larger collaborative group means more people will invest in your project’s plan and result.

Some cultures are predisposed against the idea of collaboration. You can’t educate colleagues from those cultures about the value of collaboration, so focus on your group’s mission on solving a specific problem. When your efforts succeed, any observer’s inbred negativity should dissipate – at least to some degree.

Eventually reduce the number of participants to a core group who will do the majority of the collaborative work and develop the ideas that you will test as solutions to the targeted problems.

The “close collaborators” on a team include the “navigator, driver, historian, facilitator” and “critics.”

Collaboration requires the intelligent assignment of flexible roles – not positions. Roles establish limitations and duties that keep everyone on track. Roles in a well-conceived, properly structured collaboration include:

  • The navigator – Sets the direction and pace of the collaboration.
  • The driver – Works to focus everyone on potential solutions to the designated problem.
  • The historian – Chronicles collaborative activities and keeps track of the team’s findings.
  • The critics – Evaluate the group’s concepts and develop restraints to strengthen them.
  • The facilitator – Pays attention to the process of moving ahead instead of focusing on the subject of the collaboration.

The core participants and other group members will involve themselves in all aspects of the collaborative sessions. Less-involved parties will include stakeholders and experts whom you invite to address particular subjects.

“While not everyone is a natural collaborator, we can all adopt different behaviors and approaches to make working together better.”

Stakeholders are collaborators as well but usually aren’t responsible for developing actual solutions. Stakeholders shouldn’t try to mandate resolutions. Solutions need to originate with the main collaborators. Uninvolved onlookers stay outside the collaboration, watching how it unfolds.

Collaborations won’t work without mutual trust.

If the members of the collaborative group lack mutual trust, they will be reluctant to offer bold ideas. You can’t compel trust; it either exists or it doesn’t. Recruit people who already trust one another.

The essential paradox of trust is that it develops when people have shared strong experiences, but quality experiences require trust. Those participants who already trust one another represent an essential “anchor of trust” – a foundation on which the entire group can build.

Consider the physical and virtual spaces where the collaborating team will meet.

According to information architect Jorge Arango, the collaborative team and other interested parties need to craft the collaborative space carefully and not take any aspect of it for granted. The physical locale for the collaboration shouldn’t be overly designed. The adage that a messy work space connotes a brilliant mind has some validity in collaborative spaces where participants need to see a physical display of “brainstormed concepts” and other pertinent data. Expect the group to cover the walls with ideas, illustrations and anything else that helps the process along.

“The space becomes the canvas for ideas; the room itself becomes the artifact.” (Arango)

Successful collaborations depend on the physical and virtual locales in which they take place. Good ideas don’t flourish in dismal places. Those who arrange a collaboration should optimize its real and digital surroundings. Create a supportive environment for those who will meet face-to-face and enable those who prefer to meet virtually.

Effective collaborations require planning and a well-defined structure.

Collaborations aren’t freewheeling affairs that jettison normal rules and constraints. Collaborations are formal affairs requiring concrete plans and a clear structure. Every collaboration plan should state what the collaborators believe will happen, what steps are necessary to succeed and a reasonable projection of how long the group will need to do its work.

“Collaboration is a skill that many agree is crucial to deal with big, complex challenges where causes are unclear and the knowledge and abilities required are diverse.”

Collaborations are iterative. Participants should regularly revisit the original mandate and launch plan to ensure that everything remains on track or, if necessary, to update the initial vision. By design, the structure should support forward motion throughout the process of exploring, testing and learning – and should avoid wasteful deviations. Collaborations are worthless if they devolve into ad hoc conversations.

Collaborations need defined objectives.

Collaborations require clear, descriptive – but never prescriptive – visionary, urgent and specific objectives. They should point to a desired future state based on finding a timely solution to a major problem. Everyone in the collaboration group should know the objectives and why they matter. When participants learn more about the group’s specific challenges, the team should revise its goals as the collaboration progresses.

“Strike a balance among team members [so] there is productive tension and conflict about specific ideas, not individual people.”

While collaborations are the ideal mechanism for solving pressing problems, the objective for a particular collaboration may not be so consequential. The objective may be something more straightforward, such as getting the collaboration group to work well together.

The best approach is to work backward from the objective, seeking the best path. This means “thinking laterally” more than thinking in a linear or analytical way. In his book Lateral Thinking, Edward de Bono describes this process as implementing various perspectives to solve problems. Some perspectives will have little or nothing to do with the actual problem.

For an example of lateral thinking, consider how Greek mathematician Archimedes tried to figure out how to calculate the volume of an irregularly shaped object. Archimedes finally gave up and took a bath. In the tub, he had a eureka moment when he noticed that an object’s volume – that is, his body – equaled the amount of water it displaced in the bath. Collaboration teams should create the appropriate settings for achieving their own eureka moments.

Collaboration team members should always think big.

The collaboration team should never reject madly unrealistic concepts, because they could become groundbreaking resolutions. The group should discard constraints and promote divergent, expansive thinking beyond safe ideas. Members should take the most imaginative notions and make them practical. Conceiving the inconceivable helps the group turn seemingly impossible concepts into workable reality.

Don’t give up on generating imaginative, new ideas if they don’t emerge right away. In any collaboration, great ideas often arise during the group’s third round of meetings.

“Being inclusive of many different kinds of people, skill sets and perspectives is a core part of collaboration.”

One common challenge for any collaboration group happens when senior executives drop into a meeting and criticize the group’s latest evolving idea. To handle this problem, assume the executives have good intentions and view the criticism as beneficial advice.

After a comprehensive review of all the ideas examined during the collaboration, decide which offers the most feasible way to solve the problem. Beware psychological biases that can result in poor choices. Expect natural tension during this process, and make sure it doesn’t attach to individuals.

Disagreements will occur during any collaboration, but don’t let them become obstacles to good decision making. Use the five-minute rule to manage disagreements. Developed by Cooper, a San Francisco design consultancy founded by Alan Cooper, the rule kicks in when any disagreement lasts longer than five minutes. At that point, the team must explain the dilemma to a disinterested outsider. That will clarify the stalemate in the minds of the team members and often provide new perspectives for them to consider. ​​​​​​

In any collaboration, one person should make the end decision, not the group.

Don’t make decisions based on a popularity contest or blind votes, which can promote counterproductive groupthink. One person should be the ultimate decider. Collaborations should “democratize discussion, not decisions.”

However, the decision maker shouldn’t be a senior executive who had nothing to do with the process but pops in just to decide things. Such an executive wouldn’t understand the fine distinctions and background information that developed during the sessions. Make sure the ultimate decider can draw from the many viewpoints expressed during the collaboration.

Adopt the broadest possible approach to developing quality ideas. Share your ideas with the end users as you go along. Outside viewpoints from the people your collaboration is trying to support will help you discover flaws in your ideas. Heed their input. Learn from negative feedback. Test your ideas in different ways – for example, using prototypes or in a lab setting with a small group.

Use detailed documentation to keep stakeholders apprised of the group’s activities, to manage their expectations and to ensure that your work is what the stakeholders want. Team members should never assume that the stakeholders and other observers will fully understand and appreciate what the team develops. Apply the power of storytelling to explain your collaborative solution. People’s brains automatically respond to stories. Develop a narrative about your collaborative solution to engage people outside your group. Structure your story to include your team’s eureka moments.

Four storylines

“It’s not always about the facts – but about the greatness of the story.” (Balanced Team founder Christina Wodtke)

Collaboration isn’t only for business. It can help groups solve any difficult problem, regardless of context. Collaboration provides an opportunity to work with groups of people with diverse backgrounds and varied points of view. The clash of different opinions can be educational and productive. Collaborations enable people to develop lasting relationships with colleagues from different backgrounds who, in the process, become helpful sounding boards.

About the author

Gretchen Anderson consults on collaboration and product strategies. She worked in design consulting for Frog Design, Cooper and Lunar, and headed design at PG&E, the California energy company. She also served as vice president of product at

Gretchen consults with clients to inform their product strategy and improve team collaboration skills. She spent the first part of her career in design consulting at firms like frog design, Cooper, and LUNAR. She was Head of Design at PG&E, California’s largest energy company; she has led the design of the hardware and software of a next-generation surgical system; and served as VP of Product at Gretchen is a Bay Area native who left only long enough to get a bachelor’s degree from Harvard in History & Literature.

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