This article about Collaboration is the second in a series of three articles about Developing 21st Century Leadership. This write-up offers an illustration of the approach we would take to help your leaders and executives develop great collaboration skills.



Not surprisingly, the World Economic Forum places “Collaboration” amongst its top 7 skills every leader needs in times of disruption. Leading through disruption requires leaders to engage the entire leadership team and other key stakeholders, both internal and external, around a common vision and shared goals.

However, there are many aspects to collaboration and we would want to know more about why and in what context(s) an improvement in collaboration is required.

The most common application we are asked to develop is for leaders and their teams – with different approaches for teams of direct reports vs cross-functional project teams.

As an engaging, memorable and enjoyable introduction to teamwork, we often start with a team-based, competitive/collaborative problem-solving/construction exercise using lego. The lasting impact of the exercise means we often use it in advance of providing any theory or model of team-work – that comes later. The task for each team is to re-create an exact replica of a lego structure that is out of view and outside the room. Team members may view it one at a time for no more than one minute. Memorising what they see, they have to share that knowledge with their team and collaboratively build the structure. Time constraints and a feeling of competition with other groups create a real sense of urgency. Slowly it emerges that no team can complete their object as vital pieces are missing from their ‘kit’. But, through collaboration and borrowing, it is possible for all teams to complete successfully within the overall time limit.

The need for communication, interpersonal effectiveness, individual expertise, best use of individual abilities, planning, adapting to unforeseen challenges etc make this a highly dynamic, invigorating exercise that participants often remember as a powerful analogy of the real team/collaboration challenges they face. Using some participants as observers, we facilitate a team-led review of insights and lessons learned, adding our own feedback and perspective as well.

To build on and expand learning about collaboration further, we use a selected range of research findings. In one study, the findings of 40 years of research into effective teams found a constant thread of 5 principles.. We share a one page précis of the article, inviting participants to read it and reflect on how relevant the 5 principles are for the work teams they are leading/participating in. We might then re-organise participants into five ‘interest groups’ asking each of them to come up with ‘improvement strategies that would work in the teams we lead’. Captured initially on a flip chart, they would be made available for all participants as a reference document for action planning and implementation after the programme.

One further area deserves special attention – Collective Intelligence. In just the last few years, researchers at MIT and Carnegie Mellon University have identified the teams with high collective intelligence outperform teams with higher average individual IQ. This is a remarkable finding. They also found the 5 behaviours that teams must practice if they want to improve and use collective intelligence.

We start by referring to the research and the collective intelligence behaviours which are easy to understand. When working as a group to solve a complex problem 1. Everyone must speak. 2. Everyone must speak often. 3. Everyone must listen with an open mind and genuine curiosity 4. Everyone must pay attention to both the words that are said and the disposition or feeling of the speaker 5. Ideas and solutions develop well when participants practice ‘building on’ and ‘adding to’ each other’s contributions.

To develop these skills, leaders need to experience them for themselves and practice them in collaboration with others. Typically, we do this by dividing the whole group into two. One group sits in a circle of chairs as the discussion, the other group sits outside as an observing group. The discussion group is given a topic as a question they need to answer collaboratively. for example, ‘How does AI improve the service we provide our customers?’ Guidelines for the answer are that it should be an agreed list of 3 to 5 bullet points. One person is invited to ‘lead’ the discussion – their responsibility is twofold a) to make sure the question is answered and b) to make sure the 5 skills of collective intelligence are used. The role of the observing group is to notice the effect of the collective intelligence skills. The discussion runs for 20 minutes.

After the discussion, the main point of reflection is ‘What was it like to use the collective intelligence skills?’ and ‘What difference do we think they made to the discussion and to the outcome we achieved?’

There are many take-aways from each of the above activities. The lego project brings collaboration to life in a real and memorable way that is also relevant to the dynamics of direct report and cross-business project teams. The research-based articles give leaders confidence in knowing what has been proven to work as well as a set of improvement guidelines they can use in their own teams. And the exercise on collective intelligence gives leaders a new set of behaviours for working collaboratively – and more productively – with the teams they lead.


We hope the above provides a helpful illustration of how we may go about developing collaboration amongst your leaders and executives.



Author: Tim Coburn (tim.c[email protected])