Is Collaboration the Right Way to Work?

©2008-2009, Esther Derby

As a manager, your job is to organize people and work for success. That includes work design–figuring out whether you have a group or a team, and creating an environment where people can do their best work. I don’t know about you, but work design wasn’t part of my training as a technical person. And it’s not explicitly included in many business and management programs either.

The default belief seems to be “teams and collaboration are good,” and in a previous column, I wrote about the benefits of collaboration. But is collaboration always possible? Is it even the right thing to do in every situation?

In this article, I’ll show different levels of collaboration, and lay out the questions that managers need to answer to decide whether they have a group or a team.


Josh and Julie work in a tech support area. The primary responsibility of the unit is to configure, tune, and support servers. The workflow is controlled by a ticket system where the requestor submits an order with basic requirements and most of the work is handled first-in, first out. Of course, there are exceptions, when there’s extra lead time to order a special server or establish the configuration for a new product. But those orders are the not the rule.

And though different people excel in different areas and each brings unique talents, the most server installs in their company require a core set of skills.

Josh, Julie and their co-workers have a connection: they share professional skills, hold each other in high regard, and let each other know what they are working on. Julie, Josh, and their co-workers help each other when asked, but they don’t really collaborate. The workflow in their department isn’t conducive to collaboration, nor does the work require it. They may call themselves a team, but they aren’t engaged in teamwork. And that’s just fine. There’s nothing wrong with being a workgroup if that’s what the work needs.


Deb and Doug run test labs for two different products within the same company. Because their respective products are on different release schedules, there are times when the equipment in each lab isn’t fully booked. They cooperate with each other by loaning resources when its possible and makes sense to do so. Deb and Doug are working together to meet organizational goals. But they aren’t a team.


Frank and Frannie work in a product development group. Each has responsibility for a distinct product aimed at different consumer groups. They meet on a regular basis to keep each other abreast of release schedules. They consult with each other about market trends as they prioritize features. It is necessary to coordinate, but given the product mix in their company, it’s not necessary for Frank, Frannie and the rest of the group to collaborate with each other to achieve their goals. No team here.


Ellen and Eddy work on a large project-over 100 people. Their manager calls it a project team, but there are people on the “team” they wouldn’t recognize if they passed them in the hall. Their project is too big to truly be a team, though there are sub-groups within the larger project who function as collaborative teams. Groups larger than 12 or so almost always break down in to sub-groups-which may or may not be teams.


Abby, Alec and their four team mates work on a software development team. They have overlapping skills all of which are necessary to build the product. They jointly commit to a goal and work very closely to deliver working software in two week iterations. They share a goal, they are mutually accountable, and if they don’t work together, they won’t succeed-they are a team.

So, as a manager, how do you determine how to organize people to accomplish goals?

  1. Consider the work goals. Are people committing to a leader to achieve individual goals, or are group members mutually committing to each other and sharing accountability?
  1. Examine the skills needed to do the work. Does all of the work require the same (or similar) set of skills or does the work require broad range of skills?
  1. Analyze the work. Is the work mainly projects that one person can complete from start to end-individual products? Or does the work of several people need to integrate to create a coherent whole-collective products?

If you answered ‘yes’ to the second question in each pair, the work is probably best suited for a team.

On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with work groups that aren’t teams. If you answered ‘yes’ to the first question in each pair, the work probably best suited for a work group. It is important to determine which will best meet the needs of the work.

Building a team doesn’t happen by accident…. and your job as a manager will be different from the manager of a workgroup. I’ll talk more about that in a future column.

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