Lots of organizations tout their collaborative work environments, but collaboration can mean different things to different groups. For some, employees occupying low cubicles or sitting in open bullpens promotes collaboration. For others, collaboration is achieved through a matrix organization where individuals have multiple reporting responsibilities. And still others take collaboration literally, insisting that every task be accomplished by cross-functional teams.

Many organizations recognize the importance of collaboration, but few have broken the code on how to do it successfully. Problems arise when employees are uncertain who owns which initiatives because only the people at the top have the big picture. When territorial issues arise, most people are reluctant to escalate them to the highest level so problems go unresolved. In one organization, all the major divisions have their own department for technical innovation. None have adequate resources and they are loath to give up their resources to other divisions. The result is not collaboration but the starvation of technical innovation.

Collaboration needs to start with a shared goal. When all parties are clear on what success looks like they can work toward that goal. Without an agreement on the desired result, people may be working at cross-purposes.


One organization I worked for had sales goals and manufacturing goals. Sales was measured on the number and dollar value of contracts signed, but because the manufacturing division had adopted lean manufacturing principles, low inventory levels meant that all too often the sales team could not meet their goals because manufacturing didn’t make sufficient product. Once the goals were redefined to support overall profit goals, the sales and manufacturing teams worked together to achieve targets that worked for all.

Once the goal is clear, it is important to set up a process to define who owns what parts of the initiative, how you will communicate, how decisions will be made, and how disagreements will be resolved. Typically teams are not privy at a detailed level to what the other teams are working on which can lead to misunderstandings.

For example, in many organizations the product managers think they know what their customers want and insist that the marketing team take their ideas into account when devising promotional strategies. But the marketing team may trust their customer satisfaction surveys and data collection over product managers’ anecdotal findings. In a healthy organization both groups would talk through their ideas and come up with a workable solution. But what if they disagree? If it’s unclear who has the final say in the decision making, discussions can become deadlocked. And elevating the problem to higher ups can make both groups look bad.

Applying the RASCI model, an old and admittedly tedious process, can help teams avoid these problems and promote effective collaboration. Under the model, teams are defined based on which ones are Responsible, Accountable, Supportive, Consulted, or Informed for each aspect of the initiative. By defining these relationships, teams know what role they play, who owns the ultimate decision, and where they can go for support. While it takes time at the beginning to define and agree on these assignments, ultimately the RASCI model saves time and reduces discord during the initiative.

Creating a detailed process flow can also be helpful because it clearly and graphically indicates where collaboration is needed. When team members all create the flow together, they can identify and resolve gaps and overlaps before the initiative is underway.

Collaboration doesn’t happen by accident. It requires forethought, planning, and good communication to make sure all parties are working together and not at cross-purposes. As one of the founders of the quality movement, W. Edward Deming often stated, “It isn’t the people, it’s the process.” If you get the process right, a collaborative team can produce brilliant results.