Project Management

Mastering Collaboration Within a Team

28 Jun 2022
Tom Wujec
Collaboration is more than an attitude; it’s a skill that you and your teams can foster and develop to deliver more successful projects. But what specifically can you do to become a master collaborator? Drawing on his experience with Wicked Problem Solving, Tom Wujec offers a fresh perspective.

group of business people looking at glass work board with purple, orange, and blue sticky notes on it

My favorite scene in “Apollo 13,” Ron Howard’s classic film about the aborted 1970 moon mission, is the so-called “square peg in a round hole” scene. 

You remember it. NASA engineers have just discovered that the carbon dioxide (CO²) levels in the LEM—the landing craft where the astronauts are temporarily living after vacating the command module to conserve fuel—are rising, and they don’t have enough CO² filters. They can’t use filters from the command module because the LEM’s air filters are round while the command module’s are square. If they don’t come up with a solution, CO² levels in the LEM will continue to rise and the astronauts will asphyxiate.  

The engineer in charge says, “We have to make this (holding up the command module’s square air filter) fit in the hole for this (holding up the LEM’s round air filter) using nothing but that” (pointing to a table covered with miscellaneous supplies that could potentially serve as building materials). 

What I love about the scene is what it teaches us about collaboration. There is no time for feasibility studies, no neat engineering drawings or plans. The engineers must dive in and iterate various prototypes until they find a solution—which they eventually do. True, it’s a Rube Goldberg contraption, but it works, and it ultimately saves the astronauts’ lives. 

There’s a lesson in this for all of us. Collaboration—to “co-labor”—is critical in the modern world of work, but how can we collaborate more effectively? Can we take our collaboration efforts to what I call the “genius” level—where we’re doing work we love, we’re doing it really well, and we’re having outsized impact as a result? 

I think we can. There are three essential ingredients to a successful collaboration: 

  • Clarity: we need to be absolutely clear about the purpose, goals and processes behind our work 
  • Engagement: we need to be doing work that is relevant, important and absorbing 
  • Alignment: we all need to be moving in the same direction 

The NASA engineers certainly had all these ingredients. But they had one additional critical attribute: the right mindset. No one came into the project thinking they had the one-and-only solution. They brought no pre-conceived ideas or fixed mental models.  

Indeed, I would describe the engineers’ mindsets not as fixed but as fluid. They learned through experimentation and discovery—the way children, with their hyper-plastic minds, learn. They were able to “frame the work as a learning problem—not an execution problem,” as Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School has counseled.  

So, what can you as a project leader do to foster a fluid mindset and stronger collaboration among your teams? Here are three recommendations: 

Select and run better plays 

Plays—time-bound courses of action that consist of a key question, some type of visual model and a series of tasks—are a staple of Wicked Problem Solving®. Think of plays in the context of your favorite sport—let’s say football. Most games consist of a series of plays in which one team tests the defenses of its opponent, learns what approach is most effective in advancing the ball and then adjusts subsequent plays to score points.  

The same process applies in our work. Our world is hugely complex, and we can’t know everything about a project at its outset. So, we need to work together in a series of highly iterative and exploratory experiments where we test ideas, learn from their outcomes and then build those learnings into successive experiments.  

And it’s critical to make your ideas visible—to shift into another mode of thinking where we see ideas and information rather than keeping everything in our heads. Think about the Apollo 13 engineers: They were able to come up with a solution because all the available resources were right on the table in front of them. They could literally pick the materials up and experiment with different combinations.  

The same thing applies to running plays. When we see ideas, we process information more quickly and deeply. Carefully constructed plays help your people iterate and think more systematically about problems.  

Address both front- and back-channels 

Plays can be developed to address both a project’s front- and back-channels. The front-channel is all the tangible stuff required on a project—the materials and resources needed to see a project through to completion. The back-channel deals with how people “show up” on the project—what they think and feel about the work—the assumptions, mindsets and emotional baggage they bring to the task. 

Typically, the easiest way to address attitudinal issues is to lead with questions. Consider starting a project with a “question blitz”—having people surface questions about what we don’t know about the project or issues that might need to be dealt with. This shifts the dynamic from “telling,” i.e., imposing what we think is true, to exploration where curiosity and context are what matter most. You can find plays dealing with both front- and back-channels in the Wicked Problem Solving playbook.  

Focus on facilitation 

Finally, build your facilitation skills. Facilitation is about helping others achieve their goals with ease. The key to a successful facilitation is to understand where you are in the collaboration process: 

  • The first stage of collaboration is creative abrasion. Here you create a marketplace of ideas to address a problem. In this phase you’re striving to create a psychologically safe environment where people feel comfortable bringing forward diverse thinking and the widest variety of ideas. 
  • The second stage is creative agility. This is where you “work” the ideas, asking people to “plus up” the team’s creative thinking and then experimenting, testing and obtaining feedback on those ideas. 
  • The third stage is creative resolution. Here you determine the final course of action based on the learnings from the creative agility stage.   

Mastering these approaches can help your teams operate at a deeper level of collaboration. In our complex world, it’s not enough just to deliver great technical outcomes; we also need to satisfy the emotional, intellectual and social needs of our teams. Building robust collaboration skills can help ensure your teams are clear, engaged and aligned on its critical projects and with your organization’s most important goals and objectives. 

Tom Wujec Tom Wujec