5.2 Successful Collaboration

A Look at Successful Collaboration

Perhaps you are just beginning your academic career, or you may be finishing it up. Either way, whether you’re someone new to college or someone who has been in school for a while, you’ve probably had some experience working in a group or on a team of some sort. Maybe you you’ve been part of an athletic or academic team. Perhaps you have some group experience from being a cheerleader, a boy scout or girl scout, or a member of the 4H Club. Either way, you’re likely familiar with the inner workings of a team or group environment.

This page will look at some strategies aimed at effective collaborative writing in both academic and workplace settings.

Establish clear objectives and tasks

Office team
Figure 5.2

Successful collaboration is created by the use of several strategies, including the ability to establish clear objectives and tasks. Just as with individual writing, team writing must employ clear objectives. It is imperative for the success of the project that the objective is clear from the outset. Clear objectives serve as a goal or end result the team aims to achieve. Those goals or objectives serve as a sort of “lighthouse” that can be seen from a distance to help guide the members to a successful end result.

Each member of the team should know from the start what is expected them. They should know their specific part and the connection of that part to the tasks and roles of other team members. Each member should see their role as important and one, which, if not completed, will negatively impact the project.

It is important, then, that the team develop a space to meet and discuss the project—to ask questions, share ideas, provide input on the overall project, etc.

Conduct effective meetings

Another strategy of successful collaboration is the ability to conduct effective meetings that allow members to comfortably share their views and expertise. Being able to do so is often contingent on the ability of the team to employ careful listening skills versus just allowing a member to speak where team members just hear what is being shared. The difference in the two – listening versus hearing – is defined by intent and purpose. In The Science and Art of Listening (2012), Seth Horowitz delineates the two this way: “The difference between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening is attention.” In order to listen versus hear what is being said, then, you must choose (or intend) to understand what is being said, you must give your attention to what is being said. “Listening is a skill that we’re in danger of losing in a world of digital distraction and information overload.” (Horowitz, 2012). “The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat,” he continues, “but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.” (Horowitz, 2012).

Set a project schedule

Successful collaboration is also dependent upon setting a project schedule. In today’s technological world, there is an abundance of tools that enable teams to successfully achieve their end result by have a clear view of what is needed and when. Tools such as WorkZoneBasecamp, and Microsoft Project, among others, allow teams to know the schedule of their project and see the progress throughout.

Keep them honest

Maintaining a sense of ethical responsibility toward the project and team members is not only important, but it is also imperative for the success of the project. In Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases (2011), Manuel G. Velasquez outlines ethical standards that are helpful to consider in collaborative situations:

          • Rights: Everyone has a right to engage in intellectual discussions at work without fear of reprisal. Likewise, when a document or product is produced, the general public has a right to expect that honesty was central in its production.
          • Justice: Everyone should receive the same justice regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation. Team members should be treated the same. If not, the team can become divided into separate “camps,” and the project can, in turn, become derailed.
          • Utility: Consideration should be given for how group decisions will impact all involved. When the group operates as one unit, members will consider the impact that decisions will have on each of its members. The idea of operating as silos is thrown out of the window because it is understood that what affects one affects all.
          • Care: Because the group operates from the “inside-out” mindset, care is given to those who are closest to members and with whom members work.

Encourage discussion and diversity

Finally, successful collaboration is contingent upon the very definition of collaboration as discussed earlier in the chapter—fostering an environment that promotes communication, learning, maximum contribution, and innovation. In other words, team members must feel comfortable sharing and at times debating about their ideas. Members should be allowed to fully operate in the diversity they bring to the team. No team member should be made to feel that her contribution is less important than that of other team members because she may be differently-abled. Likewise, a team member who is a part of the LGBTQ community, even if his sexual orientation is not considered a part of the majority in the workplace, should be allowed to communicate ideas on the project from his perspective. Allowing a contribution of ideas from diverse perspectives is best for the project because it takes into consideration the diverse audience who will most likely be the readers of the project. In the end, openness in discussion creates a product that considers the audience, a primary rule in writing for technical audiences.

Choose effective leaders

Collaborative writing teams depend on excellent leadership to guide the project in the right direction and keep participants on track. Without leadership, team members may act as if it’s an everyone-for-themselves game. It would be as if, instead of pulling in a straight line during a tug-o-war, everyone on your team pulled the rope in whatever direction suited them best, including opposite the direction you should be pulling. Good leadership gets everyone pulling in the same direction.

The further you go in your profession and the more you move up in terms of responsibility and pay scale, the more likely it is you’ll occupy a leadership role. This may be far from now or perhaps you have the drive, personality, and people-managing skills for such a role already. Either way, you must consider the leadership role you’ll occupy as one whose success depends largely on communication skills.

Common leadership roles

The skill set that makes for an effective leader can be learned just like any other. Leaders take on the role because they are appointed, elected, or emerge into the role through attrition (for example, someone stepping into a leadership role when someone else has vacated it). Team members play an important role in this process.

A democratic leader is elected or chosen by the group. The democratic leader involves the group in the decision-making process and ensures group ownership of the resulting decisions and actions as a result. This process is characterized by open and free discussions; an effective democratic leader encourages this diversity of opinion.

An appointed leader, on the other hand, is designated by an authority to serve in that capacity irrespective of the thoughts or wishes of the group. This could go well or not. Such a leader may accomplish all the designated tasks, perhaps by any means necessary, but a group that refuses to accept their role as leader is going to be a dysfunctional one. The work environment is likely to be a toxic one under such leadership if the appointment is based on cronyism or nepotism (meaning that they became leader only because of who they know or are related to). Such a group will be pulling their tug-o-war rope in divergent directions until the unpopular leader leaves or is forced out (either from above or below) and a new leader properly endorsed by the group  emerges into that office.

An emergent leader is thus different from the first two paths by growing into the role often out of necessity. They may enter into the role merely because they know more than anyone around what needs to be done. When the appointed leader may have leadership skills but know little about the area they manage, group members will naturally look to the most senior experience team member for guidance. If the democratic leader fails to bring the group together, or does not represent the whole group, subgroups may form, each with an informal leader serving as spokesperson. In this way, the emergent leader is favored in any true meritocracy, where skill, talent, and experience trump other considerations.


Additional Resources



"Collaborative Writing." Open Technical Communication. [License: CC BY-SA 4.0]
"Teamwork." Communication at Work. [License: CC BY 4.0]


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Technical Writing at LBCC Copyright © 2020 by Will Fleming is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.