How to Drive Engagement and Performance with Team-Based Collaboration

We are part of an unprecedented work environment, with technology changing on a seemingly daily basis and teams working together from all corners of the world. Some of us may feel the need to compete with our colleagues to stay ahead in—or even just keep up with—today’s ever-changing business environment. But if you want to create a collaborative workplace culture that will produce breakthrough results that digital, agile, and other business transformations are built to achieve, then collaboration trumps competition by a long shot.

Making Uniqueness Useful

A recent HBR Big Idea Series, The Power of Hidden Teams, discusses the results of the ADP Research Institute’s global engagement study, which found that most of the work, in every industry, in every region of the world, and at every level in an organization is actually teamwork. The article states that 83% of workers say they do most of their work in teams, and that the team is the reality of people’s experience at work. The authors conclude that it is the quality of this team experience that impacts the quality of people’s overall work experience. This reinforces the notion of team-based collaboration as a lever for improving engagement and performance at work, as well as for enhancing organizational functionality. As the authors put it, teams are “the best method we humans have ever devised to make each person’s uniqueness useful.”

Emerging Tribal, Networked, and Collective Structures

While traditional, hierarchical organizations get bogged down with status, power plays, and “red tape,” collaborative organizations adopt a more fluid and loose structure. Individuals are given greater responsibility to take smart risks and make decisions appropriate to their role and the task concerned. In collaborative organizations:

  • Team members have a hunger to learn and are willing to continually improve and learn by doing.
  • Individuals recognize the need to change the broader working environment and are trusted to implement and sustain the desired changes, including governance processes and funding models and processes.
  • There are investments in software tooling and automation to support people to work smarter and faster.

Examples of Collaborative Workplace Cultures

New, inspirational, and adaptive models for embedding team-based collaborative workplace culture have evolved that are timely, agile, and relevant for 21st-century organizations. Our research indicates that there are four collaborative constructs for organizations to explore:

  1. Teams and teaming: These teams are defined by what they are trying to achieve, may be transient, and are made up of a collection of diverse and different roles required to complete the purpose, goals, or tasks. By sharing their complementary skills, knowledge, and experience, they can contribute to a particular task, problem, creative conversation, discussion, or activity through effective team processes, trusted relationships, role clarity, and mutual accountability. Australia Post’s structure is a great illustration of teams and teaming:
  2. “A typical team at Australia Post has a business analyst, a designer, a tester, several developers and an “iteration manager” who operates like a conductor, managing the workflow to get the best out of the team. Gough says he looks for “T-shaped people” who have deep knowledge of their specialist area (the vertical part of the “T”) but know enough about other areas to help out if needed (the horizontal part of the “T”).”

  3. Tribes: ANZ uses terminology from the so-called “Spotify model,” where it arranges workers into “tribes” of 150 people and breaks down those tribes further into between 20 and 30 squads. Each squad has a mix of people and skills to enable it to function autonomously and be self-contained. Differences and diversity are maximized through creating discord, disagreement, and even conflict to co-create generative solutions. The example below on tribes is excerpted from IT News’ coverage of ANZ’s Agile transformation:
  4. “Getting cross-tribe collaboration is something we’re really working hard on again now to go ‘How do we keep people aligned across tribes so that we don’t reinvent the same problem and solve it in one tribe and then solve the same problem in another tribe? Part of the solution to that is to have “cross-tribe collaboration groups called chapters and guilds”—essentially comprising people with common interests and experience—such as user experience—that have the remit to roam across tribes.”

  5. Collectives: These are larger groups of individuals, connected by technology, who self-organize and work together on common projects without relying on internal hierarchies. They may exist temporarily or over long periods. Membership is voluntary and people willingly share knowledge, skills, resources, experience, and wisdom to create a free, transparent, and safe space where people are motivated to contribute to the whole or the common good. Popular funding platform Kickstarter is a well-known collective working toward their mission to “help bring creative projects to life”:
  6. “We work as a team. Team Kickstarter is only just over a hundred people—still a tight-knit group, considering everything that’s happened so far. Every week brings new challenges, and every week we work together to meet them. […] We like to be happy, healthy, and inspired. […] We’re working to build something meaningful and lasting. We try to approach everything we do thoughtfully.”

  7. Ecosystem: A business ecosystem is a network of organizations—including suppliers, distributors, customers, competitors, government agencies, and academic institutions—that get involved in the delivery of a specific product or service by cooperating and collaborating internally. The goal is to compete externally by driving new collaborations to address rising social and environmental challenges by harnessing creativity and innovation to lower the cost of production or allow members to reach new customers; accelerating the learning process to effectively collaborate and share insights, skills, expertise, and knowledge; and creating new ways to address fundamental human needs and desires. Deloitte provides a deeper look at business ecosystems as part of their Business Trends series, including this non-profit case:
  8. “Take as an example the Global Food Safety Initiative (GFSI), a non-profit organization whose members include many of the world’s largest food producers, distributors, and retailers. It helps coordinate a global, co-creative, and collaborative approach to addressing the growing challenge in a global food system of ensuring safety for consumers and protecting the reputation of the industry. Some of its members compete ferociously in their markets, but also collaborate aggressively to ensure the certification, shared standards, superior monitoring, and shared learning and leading practices that together create a safer food industry and boost consumer confidence.”

In a Nutshell

As Adam Kahane states in his new book, Collaborating with the Enemy:

“Collaboration doesn’t mean that either you prevail & get what you want, or both of you sacrifice & meet somewhere in the middle. The higher potential of collaboration with diverse others is that together you’ll be able to understand more of your situation & so will be able to create new options that are better than the ones you’d been able to imagine or implement separately—better than forcing, adapting or exiting.”

Adopting some of these new models enables organizations, teams, and their leaders to shift their focus from defensive competition to constructive collaboration. Their goal is to create high-performing, collaborative workplace cultures where people feel safe, have the time and space to deeply connect and co-create value, and have permission to freely share ideas, wisdom, knowledge, information, resources, and perspectives.

The best way to achieve that goal is through building trust, creating discord and conflict to generate creative ideas and innovative solutions, focusing more on co-creation, and emphasizing collaboration instead of competition.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from

About the Author

Avatar photo
Janet Sernack

Janet Sernack is the Founder & CEO of ImagineNation™ a global network of future-thinking leaders in innovation consulting, culture, leadership & team development, and coaching for individuals, teams & organisations. She applies her 30 years of global experience in consulting, culture development, change management, leadership & top team development, innovation education, and coaching interventions to her current work in innovation & entrepreneurship. She leads the way in helping businesses adapt & grow through disruption, by challenging businesses to be, think & act differently to co-create a world where people matter & innovation is the norm. Contact Janet at to find out how ImagineNation can partner with you to learn, adapt, collaborate and grow your organization in the digital age.