Just because you’ve cherry picked incredibly talented people to join you on your new startup venture doesn’t mean they will magically start collaborating with each other. Startups

Collaboration is not automatic. It’s an expectation that has to be set and then fostered. So, how do you encourage your team to be more collaborative? How do you build an environment where collaboration just happens? Here are some important pieces that need to be in place to build a culture of collaboration in your startup — a culture that fosters a collaborative environment.

It all starts with you

As the leader, you set the tone for your entire office. If you want to build a collaborative environment, your executive team (which may or may not be just you) must exhibit collaborative behavior. You must be open to exploring (or at least hearing) new ideas and different perspectives.

You also need to embrace both formal and informal mentoring by taking an active role in the daily coaching your staff. In the Harvard Business Review article “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams”, authors Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson point out that while both formal and informal mentoring are important, the latter form of interaction between executives and the rest of the company “was more likely to increase collaborative behavior.” The authors say this kind of executive support creates “a ‘gift culture’ — one in which employees experience interactions with leaders and colleagues as something valuable and generously offered, a gift.”

As the founder and CEO, you can establish and foster an expectation of collaboration by doing two very specific things:

  1. Communicate to individuals across the company that they are to work collaboratively within their team and their department so the company as a whole meets clearly defined goals.
  2. Give every employee clearly defined roles and responsibilities, so there is no question about who does what.

These expectations should be set on day one for each and every member of your team.

Focus on relationship building

Your employees don’t need to be best friends, but they do need to build solid relationships with each other. Better relationships mean increased collaboration, because communication and trust are built over time through relationships. And, communication and trust are the keys to sustained collaboration. No need to force the team building. Just focus on activities that get people interacting and build a genuine sense of community through shared interests and experiences.

Company sports teams (like softball or dodgeball), monthly luncheons or happy hours, potlucks, or group charity projects are all great ways to get people talking and interacting. These are activities where people can be themselves and get to know each other without a lot of pressure. Establish your own company traditions, too — things that are meaningful to all of you as a group and that bond your employees to the company and each other. At RTS Labs, one of the ways our employees like to unwind and reconnect with each other after a long week is to go on a walk around the lake near our office on Friday afternoons.

Give them the means to collaborate

Communication and collaboration go hand in hand. If your employees don’t have channels with which to communicate or time for brainstorming sessions, then collaboration will not happen.

Communication tools like Slack help make conversations easier and allow team members to share ideas without needing to travel to someone’s desk or call a meeting to gather the right people.

There should also be time for brainstorming sessions and ideation. When employees have to keep their heads down from 9 to 5 in order to get their work done, creativity is stifled and collaboration goes right out the window.

Encourage creativity, brainstorming, and ideas

In a collaborative environment, all ideas are heard but not necessarily used. Everyone has a voice. All ideas are presented. Then, the ideas are collaboratively sorted and prioritized under the guidance of a leader in order to find the best solutions.

A successful collaborative team should appreciate diverse perspectives. Sometimes, the best ideas come from the most unlikely places. For example, there’s a story about how years ago, the company that makes Tabasco® brand hot sauce was looking to grow their sales. So, they held an employee meeting, looking for good ideas. Lots of ideas came up — everything from changing the formula to redesigning the labels. But, the one idea that was a real game-changer came from an engineer. He suggested that they simply make the hole bigger, so that more sauce came out. It worked. More sauce was used, which meant more hot sauce was being consumed, and sales skyrocketed. (While the McIlhenny Company, makers of Tabasco brand hot sauce, claim this story is a myth, it’s a good example of how ideas can come from anywhere and thinking outside the box can achieve the results you want.)

Another great way to foster both creativity and collaboration is by allowing your team to work on projects they are passionate about. This is a common practice at companies like LinkedIn and Apple. Letting employees work on things they’re passionate about helps them flex their creative muscles, feel fulfilled in their jobs, and can also produce amazing things. Google’s Gmail came from a passion project!

Train them to be collaborators

Collaboration is not inherent to most people. Not only does a certain environment need to be fostered, certain interpersonal skills need to be developed. In that same article from Harvard Business Review about building collaborative teams, the researchers found that the following skills were crucial among employees to make effective collaboration happen:

  • Appreciating others
  • Being able to engage in purposeful conversations
  • Resolving conflicts productively and creatively
  • Being able to engage in effective program management

During onboarding of new employees and continuing education for current employees, adding these skills to the training and development process should result in better collaboration.

Fostering collaboration among your team is not an overnight process, nor is it something you can do once and never think of again. It take continuous effort and attention. There are many different ways to approach building a collaborative environment. Which of these techniques or approaches will work best for your teams?

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