Effective Collaboration

Effective Collaboration is a Necessity, Not an Accessory

By on November 5, 2015

effective collaboration

“Effective collaboration is about maximizing time, talent and tools to create value.”

Evan Rosen


Building a successful startup is not a job for the Lone Ranger. Every entrepreneur must effectively collaborate with many people, including internal team members, partners, customers, and investors. Real collaboration requires leadership and initiative from the entrepreneur in order to drive the collaborative process and make the whole team better than the sum of its parts.

A few innovative companies, including the financial advice company The Motley Fool, are so convinced that collaboration is the key to their competitive advantage that they have added the role of “chief collaboration officer,” in the person of Todd Etter. Todd tells people that his primary role is to get people around him to creatively and intelligently think together. That’s the essence of effective collaboration.

While effective collaboration is easier said than done, it’s the backbone for any startup that wants to get their product off the ground. As Ken Goldstein, former Vice President & Managing Director of Disney Online, said: “Products start with people… which means products start with collaboration.”

So how can growing teams not only embrace the idea of effective collaboration, a relatively abstract term, but actually use it?

For starters, it’s important to note that even the entrepreneurs who seem to have an innate ability to attract and inspire others can improve their collaboration skills. Regardless of our title or position in the company, we are all capable of learning from the experience of others. You certainly don’t have to be a natural-born leader in order to help your team find angles for collaboration.

Based on my years of advising entrepreneurs and investing, here are the three strategies that successful startups use to make effective collaboration an integral part of how they work:

They value all forms of communication, not simply agreeability 

Successful startups make communication a visible top priority. Nothing undermines team collaboration like poor communication. This includes written, verbal and body language. You can typically tell an unhappy, disconnected team by the way they interact and carry themselves throughout the day. All team members need to know what is expected of them on any given task, what their teammates are thinking, and what has changed since yesterday. Each individual teammate should be encouraged to be a positive role model through their actions, and discouraged from relying on the initiative of others.

As with all effective communication, episodes of conflict will surely arise. Successful startups encourage constructive conflict and view it as a way to explore alternative ways of thinking. Surrounding yourself with “yes” people, or people with no conviction, may feel good initially, but it will not produce the kind of effective collaboration necessary for a startup to succeed. You need smart people, with emotions as well as intellect, and this means that conflicts will occur as different perspectives are surfaced. Successful startups do not let conflicts turn into fights; they use conflicts to help drive consensus.

Effective collaboration also means being strong enough to employ the two basic, but oft-neglected communication skills: asking and listening. The leaders of successful startups must be strong enough to ask for feedback, listen deeply to that feedback, and then act on it. Every entrepreneur, if they are committed to improving their team and their own effectiveness, will benefit from soliciting and actively listening to team feedback.

They lead, and let others lead

Successful startups foster individual credibility and trustworthiness. The surest mark of a trustworthy leader is one who delivers on every personal commitment, no matter how small or seemingly trivial it may be. Their actions, day in and day out, should showcase their willingness to both listen to and work with others. Effective collaboration is maximized on teams where everyone is credible in their own realm, and everyone trusts each other, including the leader. Again, actions speak louder than words.

But successful startups also recognize that everyone on the team needs to be a decision maker. Collaboration is not an excuse for anyone to avoid making a decision, and the expert on a certain part of a project should be given the chance to lead. People who are able and willing to make sound individual decisions, can make great decisions as part of a team if they’re given the opportunity to do so. The first decision of a startup leader must be to team only with people who can make timely, good decisions.

Effective collaboration can also be built when the leader introduces advisors to make team efforts learning opportunities. Successful startups occasionally see team projects as an opportunity to bring in outside experts to mentor team members, and guide them through complex issues and unfamiliar territory. They provide liberal access to inside leaders, with the expectation that collaborative efforts will be productive both for business and for personal growth.

They build a workplace where change is exciting, not painful

Successful startups build a culture where innovation and change are normal. Collaboration is wasted effort for a team when everyone knows that nothing is likely to change. An innovative team solution must be accepted with a positive attitude, and initial team instructions should always encourage creative thinking and solutions. Effective collaboration can only grow in an environment where change is exciting and expected, rather than rare and painful for all.

This type of environment can be built through encouraging and even incentivizing thinking outside the box, with a structured process. Chaos is the result of no structure, and is non-productive. Effective collaboration requires a balance of open-ended thinking within a leadership structure that drives to closure in a timely manner. Successful startups encourage each other to define parameters at the start of each project, and then measure progress along the way.

However, even a perfect environment must reward both effective collaboration wins as well as individual contributions. If a team only rewards individual achievements, collaboration, even in a team that embraces change, will be stifled. Rewards can come in a variety of forms—from appreciative words and extra days off, to paying for an employee’s travel and registration to attend a conference in their field. In my experience, a balance between team and individual drivers is the most effective approach.

The result: a win-win-win relationship

While these three strategies are the backbone for successful startups, it’s important to note that they must always evolve with the times. The increase of remote teams, for example, may present new challenges to effective collaboration. Team members that do not work together daily, or barely even know each other, will require extra effort to build and maintain communication, credibility, and trustworthiness. It’s up to the leader or entrepreneur to provide the bridge, the process, and the glue to keep the team efforts productive.

Thus, a positive approach to forming any collaborative team is to capitalize on preexisting or “heritage” relationships. Research has shown that when 20 to 40 percent of the members are already well connected, the team was able to provide stronger collaboration right from the start. It’s important to leverage these existing relationships, especially when new team members come on board and need time to understand the workplace culture.

Also, bigger doesn’t mean better when it comes to collaborative teams. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, famously nailed this with the “two pizza teams” rule: If a team can’t be fed with two pizzas, it’s too big. Throwing more people into a critical team is one of the most common productivity traps that new entrepreneurs can fall into. It can stop effective collaboration in its tracks, and in my experience individual performance levels often diminish as more people are added.

Ultimately, an effective collaboration is one that strives for a win-win-win relationship for the individuals, the team and the company. Smart individuals working together soon realize that their collective results simply could not have been achieved alone. Each individual ends up learning far more than they contribute. Likewise, winning teams spawn winning individuals. The end result is this: focusing on and investing in individual-to-team development will mean a win for the organization.

In today’s rapidly changing and highly interconnected business environment, it takes more than a lone inventive genius to build a business. Successful startups realize that incentivizing effective collaboration for the entire team is a necessity, not an accessory. Those that embrace it, will carry on. Those that don’t, won’t.

Have you done everything you can do to create this type of environment? What have you found to be the most challenging part of effective collaboration?


About the featured photo:

Marcus Robinson is an Irish painter, photographer and documentarian specializing in urban transformation and architecture. The painting featured here, an oil on wood titled “Big Man In The Sky,” is part of his latest project about rebuilding the World Trade Center.

A statement from the artist on the intersection of his work and effective collaboration:

“Walking along a steel beam, 1700 feet up in the air above New York City, is probably one of the more intense places to experience the need for effective collaboration! The ironworkers who are rebuilding the World Trade Center work as a team, fused together by years of training and the application of razor-sharp discipline, because their lives quite literally depend on it. For the past 9 years, while filming and painting the transformation of the site, I have witnessed extraordinary acts of dedication to their team ethos, and through this to a wider celebration of their shared humanity. It is this spirit that is at the core of my film and paintings.”

  • Martin, thanks for the article. I started out as a marriage and family counselor, became a writer to share what I had learned and what is helpful. I’ve been a one person business for a long time. Recently added a partner to help with social media connections and my question is this. Are there any important differences that need to be considered when creating a small collaboration team to bring my work (now going on 40 plus years to a wider audience? Most of what I read is about larger organizations and larger teams.

    • Martin Zwilling

      I agree there seems to be more written about large teams and large organizations, but I believe the concepts of effective collaboration are even more critical in small teams and small organizations. My focus is small startups, and I couldn’t think of one important difference for them as I put this article together. Perhaps you or others can offer me some new insights.

  • Erin M. Kelly

    Hi, Martin,
    Thank you for sharing your sharing your insight here. It’s refreshing to see someone who has had so much success be so open and honest. I myself am a writer, but work for several online publications including The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project (I also serve as Social Justice Editor at GMP.) My story and journey as a writer is one that I take pride in, as I have a disability – cerebral palsy. It’s a story that I’ve inadvertently built my career upon, and in doing so, I came up with the name WriterWheels. In fact, @WriterWheels is my Twitter handle and it’s coincidentally become my own brand. If I may ask, how do you manage your Twitter account? And by “manage”, I mean how do you know when to tweet and what to tweet so you keep your current followers but grow your social media presence at the same time? I currently have a good number of followers, but am looking to grow. Thank you for your time/

    • Martin Zwilling

      First of all, my Twitter account StartupPro, like yours, is managed to focus only on business – I ignore and never respond to personal requests, like “Hi, how are you.” I do respond to all questions about startups, and I do provide tweets on my new articles, and other good ones I see, so my intent is to add value where I can. Obviously that brings me consulting business, so I recommend that approach. It also grows my follower list and social media presence.

      • Erin M. Kelly

        Great advice. Thank you!

  • Michael J. Sliwa


    Thanks for your contribution and insight. I was wondering your thoughts on building a team environment where mistakes or set backs are absorbed and learned from? I taught high school for a dozen years and it seems to me that we live in a culture where people live in fear of making a mistake or being “wrong.” In fact, many students would struggle with making an educated guess or even offering their opinion. They also had difficulty making simple choices because they feared they would make the “wrong” choice. These are people entering the work force. High stakes testing has taken its toll. Do find successful start ups allow people to expand without fear of being reprimanded or ostrisized for possible set backs?

    • Martin Zwilling

      Yes, I do find that more successful startups listen to “out of the box” thinking, and don’t ridicule or penalize anyone for pushing the limits. I, like you, see many young people entering the work force who have low confidence and a high fear of failure, but somehow I attribute this more to parenting where kids are never allowed to fail. If people learn that failure is normal, and learn how to deal with it while young, they can handle the startup world much better.

  • Phaik Yeong

    A good read, thank you. I would like to add one thing. “Good decisions” are not always about the consensus, so having a good collaborative team ensures that all arguments are considered and given the weight they deserve.

    • Martin Zwilling

      I definitely agree that good decisions are not about consensus, but good decisions do require that all sides of the argument be heard before a decision, as you state. Thanks for a good clarification.

  • Appreciate the link to my article. Couldn’t agree more with the message!

  • Great insights here about collaboration and successful teams. With an increasingly diverse workforce, another critical consideration for teams collaborating on projects is working effectively across differences. As you mentioned in the article, good collaborations include navigating conflicts as different perspectives surface. In Ashlee Consulting’s work of developing more inclusive teams that value diversity and social justice, we’ve found that this skill is critical for productive and successful collaborations. Whether considering the different ways that men and women communicate or the ways in which people from different racial/ethnic backgrounds experience the work environment, not addressing differences like these can result in a team with members who feel unwelcome and as result, uninvested in the project. I’m curious, what are your recommendations for teams who are looking to establish inclusive environments that value working effectively across differences? Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

    • Martin Zwilling

      Thanks for your positive feedback. In the more inclusive environments you describe, I see a greater need for the team leader or leaders to communicate personally to each team member, and use proactive questions directed at specific members to make sure they are included and heard. The team leader has to bridge the differences.

  • Very well-written article! I really like how you tie everything together at the end with the win-win-win theme. I think that the ending really takes the concept of collaboration to the next level. Great job.

    • We’re glad you found value in the article, Mike! Thanks for reading.

  • Brian Bowers

    Great article and fantastic insight! I think one of the things I’ve realized working as a ‘full timer’ in organizations or doing ad hoc consulting or project-based work, is the importance of balancing collaboration, power, and leadership. This can be a real challenge for organizations both large and small. I’ve seen emerging, young leaders struggle with it as often as I have seen ‘C-Suite’ executives and directors.

    I think discovering where the boundaries are between your team members in each of these areas is something that is critical to developing sustainable synergies within a group. After watching teams and projects fall apart due imbalances in those areas, I am starting to realize there is a nuance and skill to effectively collaborating with team members without feeling a threat to one’s legitimacy, authority, and relevance within an organization. Some of it I think is achieved through effective communication and recognition, of course. But some of it is also achieved by finding and grooming leaders that are able to hone in on the mission and vision of the organization and work toward that goal. If they are always moving in the direction of the vision with the mission in mind (and not always fighting for a ‘chair’ when the music stops, as I once heard someone say), then they are able to effectively lead collaborative work and really build a culture around it that can drive an organization.

    This is also critical to succession planning as well (the culture won’t build itself and reproduce itself). I’m finding that this is leadership style is not as common as we think, and it has to be reinforced both from the bottom up and from the top down.

  • Charles Lines

    Yes, embracing conflict is very important for effective collaboration: angry
    people ‘talking at you’ may be the first stage in getting them to ‘talk with
    you’. Also, as you say, sharing leadership around is vital: doing so encourages leaders to emerge as and when their insights, skills (and enthusiasm) are needed. Sometimes these leaders emerge from unexpected places when least expected.


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