Achieving great collaboration is often a tricky balance between encouraging individuals’ expertise, and getting everyone working together as a team.

In “Collective Genius: the art and practice of leading innovation” the authors describe this as one of the paradoxes of collaboration “affirming the individual and the group”. They explain how leaders need to:

“encourage and support the individuals in their groups because they are the source of ideas that constitute the raw material of innovation. Yet the ultimate innovation will almost be a collective outcome, something devised through group interaction. Rarely will it be the result of one person’s flash of insight”.

New challenges are popping up each day that can only be solved by bringing together multiple viewpoints. But the starting point will always be the skills and knowledge that each team member brings.

So what can you do to acknowledge each person’s input and get the best out of your team?

Start with yourself. As well as developing your deep domain expertise, there’s an extra layer of skills that you can develop for working better with other people. Essentially it’s what Tim Brown of IDEO calls being T-shaped – having a deep domain knowledge as well as the ability to work with people across disciplines. And research shows that it really does only take one person in the team to make a difference.

Keep your team small, diverse and clearly define roles.  If you’re building a team from scratch for a new project, be aware of its size and who will be on it. The larger a team, the less productive and effective it will be, and tendencies like group think and social loafing (when team members put less effort in than they would do working alone) start to creep in. Go for diversity – in thinking and personalities – and make sure everyone is clear on their unique contribution. Even if people have similar technical skill sets, be sure to clarify why their perspectives bring something different.

Foster mutual respect. From “Collective Genius”:

“Mutual respect means that community members all consider each other competent, even though each brings different abilities and strengths. It is the belief that every member has something of value to offer. That belief is critical because it fosters the listening, openness, and transparency that are necessary for innovative collaboration and risk taking”

Welcome and manage conflict.  Innovation needs conflict – the clashing of ideas and viewpoints to create something new – and it’s inevitable this will happen if you’ve chosen a specialised and diverse team. Welcome conflict, and help the whole team to understand its value too. But make sure it’s the productive kind – challenging each other around tasks and ideas, rather than getting personal.

Better meetings and brainstorming sessions. There will always be times when you need to bring your team together to generate ideas, discuss project progress and make decisions. To avoid more outspoken and extroverted members dominating meetings, design workshops with exercises that give everyone the chance to contribute . For example, break out into smaller groups, give people time to think on their own first, and use visual methods for communicating ideas (check out Resources for more ideas on how to run great workshops and meetings).

What other methods have you used to get the best out of your team? 

Image credit: Sean MacEntee on Flickr (adapted)