Teamwork that really works! An introduction to Smart Collaboration

Chances are, in the past year, you have spent a great deal of time working from home. And that means you’ll have been doing a great deal of collaboration online. You, like many of my clients, might have discovered that when you’re no longer seeing people face-to-face, it really does highlight issues with collaboration. Some of those issues may have already existed but were easy to ignore when you were meeting face-to-face. Some of which you may have already been aware of but online working highlights them. And some challenges will be new, as a result of working solely in the online environment. The past year has also reiterated just how important good collaboration is. It can easily be seen as the magic ingredient that makes projects fly, makes work satisfying, and creates innovation.

But how do we know if we’re doing the best we can in terms of collaborating? What’s the recipe for great online collaboration?

Heidi Gardner, Distinguished Fellow at Harvard Law School, set about researching this, and her research has now informed a new diagnostic tool that teams and individuals can use to understand and improve their collaborative skills and behaviours.

The great news? That this research is really accessible, and you can use it to build your individual capabilities as a leader, as well as the collaboration capabilities of your team.

Her research shows that, if you can get it right, your firm can attract and retain the best talent, and earn higher margins. You, as a leader or team member, can enhance your reputation, attain greater professional success, and enjoy benefits related to personal wellbeing. (You can read more here).

What makes for smart collaboration?

As individuals, we all have particular collaboration tendencies. Gardner’s research suggests that these fall into eight dimensions, each of which sits along a spectrum:

No place on each spectrum is good, or bad. It’s not best, for example, to be highly complex in your thinking, or highly complex, or in the middle. All of these can come in useful during collaboration if you know how to harness them and the opportunities and challenges that they bring.

If you want to be a smart collaborator, you will reflect strongly on your combination of factors, and think about what you will add to a team that you are a part of. “Rather than try to change an individual’s behavioural preference, the objective should be to help a person maximize their effectiveness by being mindful of when and how to use those natural tendencies,”, say Gardner and Matviak (2020: 8)

For example, if you are score highly as a risk-spotter and you are working on a team considering whether to go for a new project, you will likely be cautious about the new opportunity. Your voice will be important, spotting problems and trying to avoid them. You have a key role to play, particularly when the decision is being made regarding whether you should go ahead. And if the decision is made to do so, for identifying future problems that it could create. You will, simultaneously, want to remember that, because this is your natural way of dealing with risk. You may decide to give others the space to get excited and explore the opportunity in more detail without closing them down. You may also want to work hard to understand the vision that they are laying out.

Having a sense of where you are on each spectrum will help you to harness your strengths in team working. And this will make for smart collaboration on your part. It could lead to the following benefits, according to the research:

  1. Understanding your strengths – discover your collaborative tendencies and how to use them

  2. Enhancing your impact – deploy your strengths to increase your collaborative effectiveness

  3. Engaging your clients – identify needs and develop novel solutions through collaboration

  4. Growing revenue – provide unique solutions addressing complex higher-value issues

Smart Collaboration at the team level

As a leader, you may be interested not just in your own profile, but in that of your other team members. Because, if you are able to consider their collaboration profiles, you may be able to ‘problem spot’ for areas that are currently a problem or may become one in the future, and look at how you can work with these. If you can see where your different team members operate, you can:

  1. Differentiate – identify where you have team members with strengths that are going to come in useful in a particular situation. Perhaps a challenging client problem calls for some complex, abstract thinking.

  2. Problem-spot and solve – where you have team situations that aren’t working – perhaps there is conflict or the innovations that you need aren’t emerging, or there’s a lack of engagement. Can you see, from their set of smart collaboration factors, where this might be coming from? Can you help them as a group to work with their balance of skills and aptitudes in a way that is more open and positive? Research on diversity shows that being aware of it and being prepared to have a conversation about it can be a significant catalyst for change and performance improvement.

  3. Innovate faster – identify novel solutions by accessing and combining cross-domain ideas, rather than everyone just ploughing their own furrow. Because if you can manage smart collaboration between people with different natural styles and skillsets, you can benefit from their grouped knowledge, skill and information.

  4. Retain talent – engage staff, which makes them more productive and likely to stay. Working in a team that collaborates well is considerably more satisfying than one which has in-fighting, politicking or just fails to communicate at all.

Smart collaboration at the organisation level

As well as the benefits above, if you can tune your organisation into smart collaboration, you can:

  1. Engage your leaders – drive strategy and execution by ensuring that your top people know how to collaborate with each other, reducing silos, or successfully engaging with one another despite the silos.

  2. Grow revenue – address the more complex needs that the business and their clients have and deliver the higher value solutions that they require, and which competitors who are not necessarily as well organised to collaborate are unable to deliver.

  3. De-risk the business – increase client loyalty and return business through relationships that deliver results, and which are embedded throughout the organisation (due to collaboration with the client and with one another across silos).

What next?

If the above has resonated with you and you can see the value for yourself, your business and your people, you may be interested in hearing more about the Smart Collaboration Accelerator tool – which is taken by individuals who want to understand their collaborative approach with the intention of harnessing their strengths. There is power in taking it individually, but also as a leader in the whole team taking it and the results being combined into a ‘team profile’. It can form the basis of team coaching or training, as well as individual leadership coaching.

If you are interested in hearing more, please get in touch, and we can organise an exploratory call looking at how it might help you, your team and your organisation.


Did you find this post interesting? For more content like this, sign-up to my newsletter, ‘Dear Katie’, where I help solve real-life messy leadership problems.

Have a leadership problem of your own? Submit it via email – – and I will answer it anonymously in a future issue.