Recently Forrester Consulting published a study on collaboration. While the study focused on technology companies, from our experience, we believe that this report rings true across industries. Not surprising, the key finding is that cross-collaboration is vital to organizational performance, customer satisfaction, and employee engagement, yet few organizations have the culture, processes, and tools to support it.

Creating effective collaboration is not a new issue. The ability to collaborate runs counter to how most organizations are designed with hierarchies and organizational silos. For example, think about your work relationships—your boss and your direct reports. Now think about the relationships in other departments, functions, or even outside of the organization whose work touches yours in some way. Which of these relationships are you going to prioritize day-to-day? Studies show that most employees prioritize vertical, not horizontal relationships. Additionally, many talent processes such as performance evaluations, promotions, and compensation reinforce and reward individual performance. These processes inadvertently place focus on one’s own status, agenda, and motivations instead of what is best for the team or what colleagues can learn and achieve together.

Collaboration is tied to “HOW” work is performed within and across an organizational system. It is grounded in a belief system that fosters respect for colleagues’ contributions, openness to experimenting with others’ ideas, and sensitivity to how one’s actions may affect both colleagues’ work and the mission’s outcome. In other words, it’s ground in culture and organizational behavior. Forrester reports that from a human perspective collaboration requires:

  • The freedom to share information and ideas with colleagues
  • Two-way feedback between employees and their managers, as well as cross-functional colleagues
  • Opportunities for people of all levels to weigh in on decisions
  • Strong interpersonal connections with teammates


To support the human element required for collaboration, two skills are imperative: Effective listening and clarity.

Effective Listening: On the continuum of inquiring and asserting, many of us have been taught that the skill for success is being able to assert one’s opinion and persuade others. While this is necessary, without solid listening there can be no collaboration. Inquiry is critical because often what we see, know, and take for granted on one side of an interface is different from what people experience on the other side. Effective listening requires:

  1. Asking good questions – Ask open-ended questions to allow your colleagues to express their thoughts and feelings and provide more information, reflect upon their situations, and feel heard. A simple yes or no is not enough. Ask “what” or “how” questions such as “What are our options?” or “How do we make this work?” Clarifying questions seek information by restating the speaker’s remarks. The effective use of questions also allows you to contribute to the conversation with more data and insights.
  2. Suspending judgment Try not to be critical, either mentally or verbally, of the other person’s point of view. Allow your colleagues plenty of time to fully finish their train of thought. You might find that what you were initially going to disagree with wasn’t such a bad idea after all. Keep an open mind. People who listen with an open mind avoid anticipating what they think their colleagues are going to say. They do not jump to conclusions, but hear their colleagues out entirely and make an effort to understand their lines of argument.

Clarity: Listening to multiple perspectives and gathering a range of ideas can add confusion and ambiguity. For a cross-functional team to move forward together, someone needs to cut through the fog and clearly articulate the path forward. Effective collaboration requires:

  1. Clarity of purpose – It’s important that everyone on the team share a common purpose and have a clear understanding of why they’re doing what they are doing. This is particularly important if the team takes a new direction. It is important for motivation. Often when people get busy with their day-to-day tasks, they forget the bigger “why.” Being reminded of purpose and helping colleagues connect to a common purpose enables a team to persevere through difficult challenges that naturally occur with any important initiative.
  2. Clarity of plan – Clarity of plan means that everyone knows what success looks like and is clear on the strategies and specific tasks and timelines to reach the goal. This isn’t a “set it and forget it” process. Plans inevitability change as the team makes progress and takes in new information. It is critical to have a dynamic process where everyone is in the loop on plan changes and together are making the needed course corrections.
  3. Clarity of responsibility – While it makes intuitive sense that everyone needs to know their part to execute the plan, without clear communication and expectations especially when there are interdependencies in the work, frustration and strife can set in. Each task should have one owner. When no one is responsible for something it doesn’t get done. When two or more people are responsible for the same task, it still may not get done, or it may lead to people stepping on each other’s toes. Using a tool like a RACI chart can help with defining exact responsibilities and decision-making rights associated with each role.


Creating a culture for sustainable collaboration takes intention, a belief system that reinforces the power of inclusion and interconnection, processes and tools that bring transparency to the work and forge shared purpose and action, and key skills. You may not be able to change your organization’s structure or performance processes, but you can choose to adopt skills and behaviors, such as deep listening and creating clarity, to enhance cross-functional teamwork and drive collaborative outcomes.


The EMI team is energized about transforming organizations through sustainable collaboration. Contact EMI for more information about how we can help you achieve organization effectiveness: / 770.587.9032.