Six Spaces Required for Effective Collaboration

What makes collaboration work? The first thought probably centers on the workplace design. Many articles have been written and offices showcased on how space can help facilitate conversations and give people the flexibility to solve problems together.

The second thought may be around culture. After all, collaboration is about people working together, and the intangibles of how individuals are incented and supported matter. The right culture raises attentiveness to what matters most and how to achieve what matters most. Collaborative efforts bring it all together.

Designing the right space for effective collaboration is needed but our view of space design needs to grow. Space in several forms all need design attention so collaboration can flourish. Champion-level collaboration produces meaningful results, and we need to significantly change our space design thoughts and actions.

Lets focus on the six spaces required for effective collaboration.

1 – Physical space. There is little doubt that well-designed space can bring people together in effective ways, and there are different types of space to design. Planning Design Research divides physical collaborative space into three types: Formal, Informal, and Remote. Each need to be thought through to find ways for individuals to work productively and collaborate effectively.

Collaborative Design Tips:

  • Arrange places to think and work. Create points of intersection in which individuals can talk and exchange ideas. Establish work spaces for people to work together, solve problems, and pursue ideas.
  • Questions to test: Can individuals work together without being disturbed? Can individuals work seamlessly, less time dealing with logistics and more time interacting? Can individuals find a location to think and work uninterrupted?

2 – Aspiration space. One of the keys to effective collaboration is clear purpose. The first level of purpose is the goal or mission of the initiative achieved or problem solved. The second level is what do different stakeholders hope to gain from tackling this project. Clarity on the aspirations of the project and the people involved lessens the process friction. More to the point, clarity of aspirations melts the politics of self-centeredness.

Collaborative Design Tips:

  • Communicate with clarity the purpose of the work to be done. Help others visualize what the change will look like when completed. Ask others what they want to gain from the work and position them to realize this experience.
  • Questions to test: Can colleagues excite their team members with the same sense of purpose? Are team members gaining their desired experience?

3 – Pursuit space. Effective collaboration enables pursuit. Pursuit is an important mix of freedom to act and honesty to accept the results. In the middle of this mix is a strong sense of responsibility to act and accountability for actions taken. The pursuit space can be messy, meaning there are times of uncertainty, mistakes, and success. Trust cleans up this space where statements of “Trust me” and “I trust you” set the right, authentic tone.

Pursuit Design Tips:

  • Develop a project or initiative charter and communicate the mission, responsibility, and accountability checks. Be specific – define who will be doing what.
  • Questions to test: How often do others swoop in to “take over” and then leave? How many meetings are required to communicate status and results (e.g., once per week or three times and three different people per week)?

4 – Think space. Collaboration contains a mix of characters yet each collaborator needs time and space to think. All talk produces mediocrity. Think time produces breakthroughs.

Some think collaboration is all about brainstorming. Get in a room with a lot of people and gain everyone’s best ideas. However, what studies have found is the opposite. More original ideas are generated when they are not interacting with others.

Think Design Tips:

  • Carve out time each day to just think. Block time on your calendar to unplug, read, consider, and evaluate. Protect this time.
  • Question to test: Does your think time remain unfettered and un-interrupted each day?

5 – Heart space. “You can’t fake passion,” says Barbara Corcoran. The reason is you have to believe in the organization, team, people, and mission being pursued. Collaboration will not succeed with a group of passionate people. Collaboration will succeed if the heart of the people engaged feel at ease in where they work and who they work with. Feeling at ease in not about comfort zones; it is about confident zones.

When respect reigns, our hearts believe we can succeed. When trust is embedded, our hearts believe we have the capability to solve challenges. Where clarity of mission and responsibility shine, our hearts put our passion to work. This is what makes up a healthy heart place for collaborating partners.

Heart Design Tips:

  • Engage in the critical conversations to ensure clarity of roles, expectations, responsibilities, and accountability.
  • Questions to test: Does the team leader spend more time engaging with the executives than with the team members? Is there a spark in the eyes of the people doing the work or is there dread and frustration?

6 – Technology space. Technology plays a role in collaboration. Technology enables. Technology extends our reach. Technology enables us to pursue in more productive ways. In collaboration, technology should not crowd any of our other four spaces. Just the opposite. Technology should reduce the clutter and support.

Technology Design Tips:

  • Identify the tools required to get the work done quickly and productively. Procure them and use them actively.
  • Questions to test: How much time is spent making things work versus working to make things happen? Are the tools closing the gaps to get the work done together?

Collaboration takes a mix of diverse and complementary spaces. All need to be designed appropriately for effective collaboration. Collaboration cannot thrive on physical space alone.

Why Expanded Space is Vital for Collaboration

Collaboration is a mix of being active and very engaged. When this alignment occurs, true collaboration is natural. The reason is all involved are at the Champion level. Some may call this full engagement, but I call Champion Collaborators.

Scaling to Champion Level Collaboration chart

Source: Activate Leadership: Aspen Truths to Empower Millennial Leaders, 2015.

These five levels help guide leaders and team members to consider where they stand in terms of new project and initiatives. The question arises: What level are you participating at for a given initiative?

Level 1 Ignorant: No awareness of people or issue

Level 2 – Familiar: Passing knowledge of person or issue

Level 3 Comprehensive: Base knowledge of person or issue

Level 4 – Interactive: Conversational and on-topic; mutual interest leads to involvement in supporting a resolution to the issue or situation

Level 5 Champion: Deeply engaged with others in solving issue, resolving a situation, or pursuing a cause; close identification with issue, situation, or cause

As a team scales this curve, the individuals become more than familiar with the issue or initiative at hand. They move beyond being just conversational. What happens is they understand the true purpose behind what needs to be done. Simply stated, the team gets it and they are inspired by the work. Their heart is fully into the work and collaboration escalates to meaningful levels.

This is the leader’s challenge: Design the space to collaborate at the Champion level. Each and every space needs to be designed well. Champion level collaboration is what makes work flow and real results happen.

Millennials: Space to Collaborate and Lead

Designing a more complete space for collaboration is vital because there is also a generational shift underway. Millennials want space that is flexible and open to collaboration. Walled in offices are out and lounge areas are in. With Millennials being the largest part of the workforce now, companies are working to design more unique spaces to embrace the newest generation in the workplace and provide an environment to promote collaborative working relationships.

Much more than this, Millennials want leadership that delivers more than just conducive physical space. A recent Deloitte survey highlighted what the next generation expects from their leaders. Millennials expect the following leadership traits:

  • Strategic thinking
  • Being inspirational
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • Vision
  • Passion and enthusiasm
  • Decisiveness

These traits require more expansive space designs.

David Borrelli,’s AVP of Commercial Sales for Canada, states it well:

“…if you’re a company that wants to attract the next generation of talent — read: millennials — you better have a corporate culture that knows how to be collaborative.”

Collaboration can be designed so people collide and exchange ideas and insights. However, office design alone cannot create the space for Champion-level collaboration. Other spaces need to be designed to empower problem-solving and the next generation of leaders.

Maybe this is a Millennial mindset yet we know it is much more than this. Collaboration calls us to a new way of working together across generations.

Collaboration is ready for a redesign. Champion collaboration produces greater engagement and results. Millennials are ready to shift to work that embraces all areas of collaboration, bringing together physical, aspiration, pursuit, thinking, heart, and technology spaces. When all these spaces align for collaborative work, just imagine what can be achieved!

Photo Credit: María F. Romero via Compfight cc