Productive Collaboration

by Dave Hamilton, Director of Programs, EXPLO Elevate
This is Part 2 of Designing for Collaboration: Read Part 1 HERE

In Part 1 of this two-part series on collaboration, we offered “5 Must-Answer Questions Before You Collaborate.” If you’re following along, then you have already:

  • Determined the project ahead will benefit from collaboration
  • Decided on the optimal group size and who you will invite
  • Named the assets these team members bring to the project
  • Checked for gaps in those assets to determine “what’s missing?” and “who else can help you?” and
  • Named a measurable outcome for success.

This pre-work creates the conditions for collaboration. And so here you are, standing in front of your very own Justice League, ready to take on whatever challenge lies ahead. What now?

Step 1

Huddle Up

Don’t start the work with the work. The beginning of collaborative work should mirror the moments before a big game. Gather your team in the locker room. You don’t need to hoot and holler. This is not a Ra-Ra moment. Instead, check-in on people’s overall mindset. These moments create cohesion, build empathy, and pay dividends later when the team is pressing against deadlines and running on fumes.

Start meetings with a weather prompt. Given the following icons, where are you on this spectrum?

The person who responds “double tornado” might have a good story to share and might also need to take the meeting off (chances are they won’t be able to focus anyhow.) Once everyone votes, offer this: “Is there something we could do/say/answer right now that would move you even one step towards clearer skies?” If so, address it before you move on.

Step 2

Establish Ground Rules

Before working together, decide how your team will work together by establishing operating ground rules. Longstanding teams might not take this step for every new project, but new teams should. It’s important to establish ground rules even if the people in the group know each other well.

Without seeming overly pessimistic, assume the team is going to hit a rough patch. It’s better to determine what will happen when that happens before it happens than to try and figure it out when tensions are high. 

Craft ground rules from scratch as a group or, if time is tight, start with a pre-filled in list such as the suggestion below:

In this example, note how there is a missing rule at the center. Ask the team to react to and edit the existing rules and then ask, “What’s missing? What belongs in that gap?” 

Use this step also to determine what happens if and when we act outside these rules? How might we call each other out in a way that allows us to both express our feelings and preserve each other’s dignity?

Step 3

Frame Project Goals as “How Might We…” Questions

Questions invite your team to think together. In part one, we shared the following formula for productive teamwork. This formula starts with creating a shared sense of purpose. 

It’s not uncommon to establish a goal with a statement like, “We need to…,” “We must…,” “Our goal is to….”

In schools, a Department Head overseeing several sections of the same course might say, “We need to make sure every student taking this course has a similar experience regardless of the instructor.” This goal seems solvable: ensure every teacher covers the same material, assigns the same work, and uses a standard assessment. 

At the same time, statements (like this one) can imply you have already determined the approach. Therefore, the team is not helping to solve the problem as much as they are executing tasks. Statements also invite immediate pushback. “Why do we have to do this? Who is this coming from? What’s the problem with the way it is now?”

Instead, reframe the goal as a “how might we..” question. In this case, “How might we ensure every student taking this course has a similar experience regardless of which class they are in?” The question invites the team to contribute and share ideas before determining a course of action.

The phrasing of the question is essential. “How might we” is not “how should we” or “how do we.” Both imply only one correct solution. “Might” invites a variety of solutions. It suggests the team could create and test a handful of ideas to see what happens and compare results.

Step 4

Use Multiple Modalities for Gathering Ideas

When designing for collaboration, you are also designing for contribution. All teammates will have different personalities and work style preferences. For instance, not everyone likes to share ideas aloud. Before you launch into a discussion:

  1. Give people time to think. 
  2. Restate the challenge question you have drafted together and offer three minutes of silence for the team to jot down their initial ideas. 
  3. Consider collecting ideas on sticky notes. Sticky notes are a highly efficient tool for brainstorming because you gather the most significant number of ideas and invite the highest contribution in the least amount of time.

(If you oversee a distributed team, you can still offer sticky notes by using a virtual whiteboard such as Mural, Miro (both paid subscriptions), or Google’s free Jamboard.

Remind everyone how brainstorming is a process of creation and not evaluation. For some, evaluation is irresistible. If your teammates try and challenge ideas during a brainstorming session, ask them to record their thoughts and hold onto them. Promise you will make time for them in the next step when we start to sort.

Step 4

Look for Easy + Impact

To generate momentum and build team camaraderie quickly, set up early wins. Following your brainstorm, sort all ideas on a 2×2 “Effort vs. Impact” matrix. Sorting is an evaluative process and an excellent time to invite colleagues to share any challenges that came to mind during the brainstorm.

(1) Adapted from Mind Tools’ Action Priority Matrix.

Easy + Impact projects have a high impact and take the least amount of effort. Focus on these at the outset. “Major Projects” also have a high impact but require more effort. Revisit ideas in that quadrant to determine if you could subdivide them into more actionable quick wins.

In the case of our Department Heads, ensuring an equitable experience for all students taking the same course is a significant project. An easier win might be to ask teachers to develop a shared reading list for all sections or co-create one common prompt for the final writing assignment.

Step 5

Focus on Roles Over Tasks

Clarify each team member’s role in the project. You might establish a Jobs-to-Be-Done or a Who-Do list (A Who-Do list is simply what we need to do and who will do it). This demonstrates both accountability and trust among teammates. 

Jobs-to-be-done are not tasks. A common assumption in project work is that it’s essential to lay out all tasks in a clear, step-by-step path before you get started. In a study of 55 large teams across 15 multinational companies, researchers found, “Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood—when individuals feel that they can do a significant portion of their work independently.” In addition, the researchers noted, “team members are more likely to want to collaborate if the path to achieving the team’s goal is left somewhat ambiguous.” (2) Gratton, Erickson

Think about your team as a movie crew. When working on a film, a crew has a clear, measurable goal (film this scene.) Instead of emphasizing all the step-by-step tasks involved, movie crews name specialists and allow each specialist to focus on their role: camera operator, sound technician, lighting designer, set dresser… Each has an eye towards the shared purpose and the freedom to make their own task list and solve their own problems along the way.

Step 7

Launch, Loop, and Learn

Agree on the process. What are the expectations? How often will team members communicate, and by what method? Encourage the group to check in regularly and to keep a rapid-prototyping mindset. Give the group permission to try. “If you have a viable idea, please test early and often. Do not let one idea become too precious.”

Communicate updates on progress via email or in your project management software. Reserve meeting time as a safe place to ask for help. When the team is together, start with reflection and encourage everyone to lean on the group’s expertise. What’s working? What observations will help us best understand your challenge? What will you try next?

Finally, use in-person meetings as a time to share gratitude. Once a team completes a project, team members want to know their efforts matter. To build a collaborative culture, celebrate the team’s accomplishment, and communicate the change that resulted from the work. (3) Meinert

  1. “The Action Priority Matrix.”,
  2. Gratton, Lynda and Erickson, Tamara. “Eight Ways to Build Collaborative Teams.” Harvard Business Review, November 2007,
  3. Meinert, Dori. “How Leaders Can Foster Better Collaboration.”,
    May 29, 2019,