Summary: Collaboration skills can be defined as the interpersonal and intrapersonal qualities and competencies we leverage to collectively solve a problem or make progress toward a common goal. They routinely top the list of skills companies need most, and, like any group of skills, they can be developed. In this post, we will explore what collaboration skills are and how to improve them.
Sweat from my brow dripped into the soil, and in that moment I felt more connected to the small-plot farmer standing before me. How many gallons of sweat has he dropped right here? I wondered.
At 63 years old, Thein Than had the wiry build and strong hands of a man who’d spent a lifetime pulling and twisting, lifting and lowering, digging and filling. It was 2016, and I had traveled to Myanmar to write a feature for Stanford Social Innovation Review. In the humid air and open skies of his small farm in Myanmar’s Ayeyarwady Region, he told me story after story about how his physical labor was now significantly reduced.
Why? Not because he was working less. Or because his farm was producing less. Or even because he hired employees to do the work. It’s because many of the tools he had relied on for decades—including his trusted bamboo stalk with a rusted water bucket on each side—have been replaced by tools that, to him, are infinitely better. So much better that he’s been able to double his family’s income and pay the educational expenses of his four children.
When we think about tools improving, we often think first about the underlying technology that enabled the improvement. But technological improvements do not arise spontaneously. They tend to be the outcome of collaboration skills in action.
In the case of Thein Than, his life was made easier thanks to a collaboration between himself, other farmers in the Ayeyarwady Region, and Proximity Designs, a social business that serves Myanmar’s underserved rural families by collaborating with them.
Proximity develops cost-effective solutions not by dreaming up ideas in a faraway corporate office but by being in “proximity,” by spending time and often co-creating with those they most want to serve.
The collaboration skills I saw them use—including applied empathy, the creation of psychological safety, and listening without judgment, among others—have propelled their success and allowed them to dramatically improve the lives of their customers. In 2019, thanks in large part to their empathy-driven approach to design thinking, they made Fast Company’s list of the 50 Best Workplaces for Innovators.
This five-minute video from the Skoll Foundation provides a glimpse into how they work:
Collaboration skills can be defined as the interpersonal and intrapersonal qualities and competencies we leverage to collectively solve a problem or make progress toward a common goal.
These skills all fit under the umbrella of emotional intelligence, but here’s one easy way to remember the difference: interpersonal is about how you directly interact with others, while intrapersonal is how you interact with yourself. There’s a clear connection between the two. Intrapersonal development involves building self-awareness, a quality that can inform the perception of our interpersonal qualities.
Okay, with that in mind, let’s take a step back to define collaboration before we dive deeper into skills. There are many collaboration definitions out there, but one of the most cited comes from a 1995 conference paper titled The Construction of Shared Knowledge in Collaborative Problem Solving (link here, purchase required). In the piece, authors Jeremy Roschelle and Stephanie D. Teasley define collaboration like this:
“Collaboration is a coordinated, synchronous activity that is the result of a continued attempt to construct and maintain a shared conception of a problem. We make a distinction between ‘collaborative’ versus ‘cooperative’ problem solving. Cooperative work is accomplished by the division of labour among participants, as an activity where each person is responsible for a portion of the problem solving. We focus on collaboration as the mutual engagement of participants in a coordinated effort to solve the problem together.”
If you are wondering, yes, they also make a distinction between synchronous and asynchronous activity because their focus was on synchronous face-to-face collaboration. Now, as a quick refresher, the “synchronous activity” they mention refers to an important distinction in collaboration. Synchronous communication happens in real-time (i.e., video conferencing or a phone call). Asynchronous communication has two phases: message delivery and message reception (i.e., email or text messaging).
In today’s remote and hybrid workplaces, it’s critical to consider the collaboration skills and tools necessary for both synchronous and asynchronous communication. Asynchronous is talked about far less, so I’d like to give a special shout out to Vidcast. Because I am part of a busy, distributed team at Webex, I’ve found Vidcast to be a helpful tool. It’s an asynchronous video solution that allows us to spend less time trying to align our calendars to book meetings and more time focusing on what matters. Here’s a quick demo:
With that baseline definition of collaboration in place, let’s understand collaboration skills by exploring how they map to the larger pillars of effective collaboration. A 2014 paper titled Creating a Collaborative Organizational Culture from the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School refers to these collaboration pillars as “building blocks,” and the authors specifically highlight these three:
And while they state that this list is not exhaustive, they also identify the following nine collaboration skills:
At this point, you might notice that these nine skills and the three skills I saw Proximity use (applied empathy, the creation of psychological safety, and listening without judgment) all ladder up in various ways to the three building blocks of effective collaboration. The truth is, as I sit here thinking about the various collaboration skills I’ve used over the years, I can’t come up with one that doesn’t fit into one or more of these building blocks.
If you are anything like me, you may also notice how a few of these collaboration skills, such as “improving self-awareness,” can be seen as lifelong pursuits that take many forms, from participating in public speaking workshops to undergoing psychotherapy and practicing mindfulness meditation.
So to make things a bit more practical here, let’s apply those three building blocks of effective collaboration to the story about Thein Than and Proximity Designs. I will also ask you to be an active reader here—let’s make this article a collaborative experience, shall we?
Question: What collaboration skills do you think Proximity Designs used to build trust, effectively communicate, and make progress toward a shared vision and purpose?
Here’s what comes to mind for me from the perspective of Proximity. Bonus #1: I invite you to see what comes to mind if you try to adopt Thein Than’s perspective.
To build trust, Proximity had to:
At a more micro-level, they also had to engage in difficult conversations (think of the negotiation skill!) around certain farming practices and tools that were also pain points, even if the farmers were so accustomed to them that they didn’t seem worth changing.
To effectively communicate, Proximity had to:
To make progress toward a shared vision or purpose, Proximity had to:
In a 2010 article titled, Comparing Frameworks for 21st Century Skills, Chris Dede of Harvard University wrote:
“The nature of collaboration is shifting to a more sophisticated skillset. In addition to collaborating face-to-face with colleagues across a conference table, 21st century workers increasingly accomplish tasks through mediated interactions with peers halfway across the world whom they may never meet face-to-face… Collaboration is worthy of inclusion as a 21st century skill because the importance of cooperative interpersonal capabilities is higher and the skills involved are more sophisticated than in the prior industrial era.”
Fast-forward 11 years. The world is battling through a pandemic that has upended life as we know it, including how we work together. And people around the world are communicating regardless of barriers like time zones or language. It’s clear why collaboration skills are becoming more and more important.
Collaboration also took center stage in LinkedIn Learning’s 5th Annual Workplace Learning Report. In addition to cross-functional collaboration ranking #5 on the most important skills for 2021, the authors also stated:
“There are definitely two things — among too many to count — that 2020’s challenging circumstances helped us learn. First, we needed to build our resilience muscle to help us adapt to rapid-fire change. Second, we needed to learn new ways of working and collaborating in a virtual world.”
In this era where the lifespans of Fortune 500 companies are shortening, where rapid innovation is paramount, collaboration skills are critical because they often provide the foundation for cultivating team creativity.
Improving collaboration skills means going beyond intellectually understanding them. You need to gauge how effective you are in collaborative settings and how your skills land with cross-functional partners. You also need to spend time doing the inner work (think “improve self-awareness”) and exploring new ideas in the world of collaboration (there’s always more to learn).
Here are four ways to improve your collaboration skills:
Of course, I rely heavily on and surely have a bias for Webex, but I recommend seeking out and leveraging whatever tools you think would positively contribute to your team. As I mentioned earlier, Vidcast has improved my productivity due to reducing the need for meetings. Additionally, because I’ve been replacing long emails with short videos, it has helped me be a more human communicator across our global team.
And that really is the broader key to Thein Than’s story, and that of Proximity and Myanmar’s farmers. To the story of collaboration, really. The human element enables everything. Collaboration doesn’t work without empathy, and empathy is the bridge that connects you to the people you’re working with and the people whose problem you’re trying to solve.
Bonus #3: See how the team collaboration platform relied on by 95% of Fortune 500 companies is purpose-built to let your collaboration skills shine.