Five attributes determine whether collaboration will work and deliver the value you expect. 

Ability is the first of the five to understand.  Ability describes the group of attributes that are required to actually describe and/or resolve the problem. In the category of ability I would include attributes like knowledge, expertise, and ability to learn, listen and analyze to name a few. A group without the capacity to tackle a problem or without the skills to be able to learn to tackle a problem will fail more times than not.

 Authority describes the power or right to give orders or make decisions.  Collaborative teams must have the appropriate level of authority to make the choices required to deliver, to meet their commitments. I would suggest the authority delegated to the team provides the tools to leverage the resources needed to deliver.  The team must have clear directions on the level of authority they have been granted and what processes must be used to gain approval for decisions that are beyond their levels of authority.  As Mike Burrows (@asplake on Twitter) pointed out when discussing the difference between control and authority, “When you delegate authority you demonstrate to all that you trust someone (or some team) to get the work done.”

 Trust is a term that has many layers.  Teams must trust each other’s motives.  Solving the problem, meeting the goal must be the paramount goal of all of the members of the collaborative team.  When members believe someone has an ulterior motive, they will tend to ostracize that member or at the very least de-value their contribution.   In many instances groups use team-building exercises to build this trust; however trust isn’t about exercises is about understanding motives.  Macavelian politics and collaborative groups are not good bed fellows.

 Commitment is a sense among two or more individuals that they will do what it takes to deliver the project and that level of effort will be matched by the others. Commitment is a multilayered concept; commitment can be assessed against the goal or the success of the team.  Interestingly I would suggest that even though commitment to goal and commitment to team are different concepts they have the same end effect.  All of the members of the collaborative team must embrace one or the other.  Commitment is the fuel that keeps the group moving forward. 

 Another type of commitment is the commitment of the organization to support the collaborative team; in essence, the commitment is to having the problem solved.  This is more than management support. The whole organization will need to change.  Many collaborative teams fail because they do get the support they need from the organization.

How important is commitment?  As note in “User Commitment and Collaboration:   Motivational Antecedents and Project Performance,” commitment is so important that the level of commitment to the goal is predictive of the success of collaborative efforts.  The research strongly suggests that commitment is critical for both making collaboration happen and the ultimate success of the collaborative effort.   When commitment falters, trust will also, therefore leaving a group of competing humans rather than a team.

The final attribute of successful collaborative teams is recognition – at the very least anticipation that they will be recognized before they deliver and the realization of that recognition when they do.  Without the anticipation of recognition, commitment will falter.  Recognition is the motivator that pushes a team toward a goal.  It is the brass ring off in the distance.  Without recognition you have to rely on the pure altruism of the team or individual political motivation.  Organizations as diverse as NASA and CISCO have gone as far as incorporating recognition of collaboration into their bonus programs.

Summary

Collaboration is a nearly ubiquitous problem-solving technique used in today’s business environment.  As a tool it is not perfect; it can be slower than individual strokes of genius; at times it can deliver watered down solutions; and collaborative teams can lose their ability to think outside the box.  On the other hand, collaborative efforts can marshal many points of view to create solutions no individual stroke of genius would be able to deliver.  Given the power of this technique, it is important to have the knowledge of what it takes to actually make a collaborative effort work.  Synthesizing a group of individuals into a collaborative team requires a combination of ability, authority, commitment, trust and recognition.