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Why Collaboration Doesn’t Work: How Product Leaders Can Create More Effective Teams

Why Collaboration Doesn’t Work: How Product Leaders Can Create More Effective Teams

  • Product Leadership /
  • Product Strategy /
  • Product Team Culture /

Jonathon Hensley

Product leaders today are always looking for ways to move faster, be more efficient, and simultaneously unleash people’s creativity. One of the primary elements of this effort is collaboration. 

Ironically, in the attempt to streamline, and promote collaboration, people across teams are often misaligned. Efficiency and impact are compromised, and ultimately, progress is hindered.  This affects the entire organization. In the pursuit of collaboration more often than not we end up with more meetings, more status updates, and more progress reports. This is especially true when  it comes to multidisciplinary digital product teams ranging from product managers, user experience designers, and engineers that are working across departments and often with external partners. 

Collaboration is an intricate part of success. You won’t find a product leader or team that doesn’t talk about the importance of collaboration, but most don’t have a clear understanding of what collaboration truly means and what is required. Ask yourself:

  • What does collaboration look like? 
  • What does it take to have a successful collaboration? 

Can you answer these questions? Would those answers align with your organization’s definition, understanding, and intended outcome? If your answer is yes then you are far ahead of most people’s organizations. Treasure your strategic advantage, protect it, and keep pushing forward. If the answer is no, then it is mission-critical to challenge yourself and your team to define what collaboration is and what success looks like. Without alignment (a shared understanding) on the definition and successful implementation of collaboration, it’s just another buzzword. 

The 2 Foundational Factors of Effective Collaboration

The common challenge is that the concept of collaboration is thought of too narrowly, often as a culture value, a tool, or a process. While all of these things are helpful, they don’t address the underlying foundation and the 3C’s of true collaboration. Collaboration is a skill like anything else that must be practiced every day. There are two major foundational factors to collaboration, the first is trust and the second is alignment. Let’s unpack both. 

1. Trust is critical to high-level collaboration.

Stephen M.R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust talks about the issue in this way. That you can’t have true collaboration without people who trust one another. If people don’t trust each other then they can coordinate but not truly collaborate. He goes on to explain the idea that people operate on a continuum of coordination, cooperation, and collaboration. 

People don’t have to trust each other to coordinate, but as you work towards cooperation and collaboration the essential foundation of trust shifts people and teams to higher levels of performance. 

The impact of this clarity is profound. It unlocks a critical understanding of what empowers teams to be authentic, creating a safe environment to learn, explore new and innovative ideas, and solve problems. 

2. Alignment will keep your team committed and moving forward.

The second major factor of achieving true collaboration is alignment. If a team is misaligned it erodes people’s commitment, communication, contributions, hinders performance, and delays decisions. This is completely antithetical to the intention of collaboration but is a remarkably common scenario. 

Alignment extends far beyond roles and responsibilities. It is about how you integrate your unique disciplines, experiences, and perspectives with others to achieve a common goal. This clarity and focus allow people to effectively determine how they will best collaborate with one another.  

Here’s a common scenario you may have experienced. Two people work together but have different managers. Each manager has a different perspective, goals, and expectations for the project. Now,   alignment must be built beyond the two coworkers. It must be between the coworkers and the managers. To do so, each member of this ad-hoc cohort—two workers, two managers—must reconcile their expectations, and align around a shared goal and understanding of what a successful outcome looks like. In other words, all four must be on the same page. 

3C’s of Effective Collaboration 


The first of the 3Cs is essential to any effective collaboration is commitment. It evokes a strong sense of intention for many, and for some requires vulnerability. Commitment can be easily taken for granted, we might assume that the word means the same thing to all of us. I can assure you that it doesn’t. When collaborating with others there needs to be a clear commitment to a shared outcome, something that everyone understands. Commitment is a declaration we make to the seriousness  of our intention. 


The second of the 3Cs that has to exist in any effective collaboration is communication. If everyone is speaking a different language or has a different understanding of what is being said, how do you effectively communicate? This challenge is present in every organization at every level. Imagine you are trying to create a digital product to solve a well-defined problem.   All of your team members are using the same terminology, but it means something different to each team member. How will this disconnect impact your team? Communication needs to be clear and focused. 


The third of the 3Cs that is key to any effective collaboration is contribution.   It is essential (imperative) to understand your own contribution and the contributions of every person you are collaborating with to achieve your intended outcome.  We have to remember that we build teams to take on a new opportunity or challenge that is too big for people to do on their own. The most successful teams and collaborations don’t just combine different hard skills; they  empower each individual to bring their unique talents, attitudes, skills, knowledge, and style that collectively enable them to perform with excellence. True collaboration embraces everything a person brings to the table. This  facilitates increased productivity, and an inspiring sense of collaboration that moves everyone on the team – and the project – forward.

3 Steps for Improving and Facilitating Effective Communication

1. Ensure Clarity and Focus  

Great collaboration requires everyone to be clear about what they’re doing, why they are doing it, and the outcome  they hope to achieve together. Ensure everyone on the team is clear, that expectations are aligned and outcomes are understood.  

You can now begin to understand who across your organization will need to be involved to create, execute, and support your product. Essentially, defining a clear picture  of roles and responsibilities early in the process. 

2. Build a Common Language and Shared Understanding

One of the most significant contributions to failed collaborations is the lack of a shared understanding. This challenge is present in every industry and organization. In larger organizations even a different business unit may have their own terminology and acronyms. To improve your collaborations work to bridge the gap, develop a shared language and understanding. This will help to build alignment and trust. 

3. Don’t Assume

To quickly build alignment and trust share your expectations and ensure you are clear about the expectations of others. One of the most significant challenges to building stronger teams not having well defined expectations. It’s also important to remember that when things shift while working  you need to get realigned before going forward.

Take Collaboration to the Next Level

Move beyond coordination. Focus on more effective collaboration, starting by building a foundation of trust and alignment across your team. With the foundation in place everyone can apply the 3C’s in your everyday practices. The result will be more fun, impactful and value focused collaborations. 

Forward. Digital. Thinking.

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