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10 Questions to Ask Before Beginning a Collaboration

How to create a satisfying and productive collaboration.

Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash
Source: Sharon McCutcheon/Unsplash

Whether you’re kicking off a collaboration with colleagues in the office, fellow students in a college course, or a team from an organization halfway around the world, set aside time to talk through basic expectations about how you will work together before the real work even begins. Doing so can help smooth the path for satisfying and productive collaborations, saving headaches and heartaches along the way.

The 10 questions below can help.

  1. What channel should we use for team communication? Email, text, Slack? Pick a channel and stick with it so everyone will know where to look for updates, past conversations, drafts, resources, etc.
  2. What's your contact information? Once your group has selected a communication platform, get everyone's contact information. Send a test message to make sure everyone can indeed reach each other. It’s worth verifying contact info before someone is inadvertently cut out of the communication loop.
  3. What's our expected response time? Do we all agree to reply to questions posed to the group within two hours? Two days? Set a standard that will work with everyone's existing commitments. Don't leave your team hanging: Honor what the group decides
  4. Where shall we store shared documents? Google Drive, DropBox, the file drawer in Bob’s office? Pick a spot everyone has access to. Set up a basic folder structure. Use it. On the off chance a team member falls ill or has to disappear for a family emergency, everyone will have access to the information and work they need to keep the project moving forward.
  5. When shall we hold our standing meetings and where shall we meet? Pick a standing meeting time that will work with everyone's existing commitments. Will you meet daily? Weekly? Set the time. Hold it as sacred. Pick a single location (e.g., Maria’s Zoom room; Google Meet; the coffee shop). No need to waste precious minutes re-negotiating meeting times or wandering around your co-working space looking for your team. Create a calendar invite with the location. Add everyone to the invite. Be there.
  6. What type of work do you enjoy most? Group members each bring real talent to the shared task. Knowing what type of work individuals are drawn to can help the group identify the team’s strengths and needs, as well as determine roles and responsibilities. Some people love conducting research. Others love writing. Keep in mind that, while everyone will ideally have opportunities to contribute their strengths, they should also have the chance to develop new skills.
  7. What do you want to get out of this experience? While group work sometimes feels like a huge undertaking, it can serve group members' broader professional development goals. Take a minute to explore what those might be so you can design the work in a way that supports the individuals who make up the group. What skills do you most want to learn or practice, for example?
  8. What level of polish would you like to work toward? Is this a “get it done” or a “make it perfect” situation? It's good to know upfront if you have some group members who are just looking to pass an assignment vs. others who want to ace it, for example. Knowing this in advance will help your group decide how to allocate work and can help prevent frustration.
  9. Who needs to do what by when? Maintain a single list of "do outs" that's accessible to everyone in the group. During meetings, keep track of who has stepped up for certain tasks and record by when they said that task will be completed. At the top of each and every meeting, review the action items that were due to ensure they have been done. Accountability is key to a positive experience.
  10. What else should we know about you? Take some time to get to know the individuals who make up your group. What else are they juggling? How do they like to spend their non-work or non-class time? What are they passionate about? Knowing group members as people is important to establish trust and rapport, and those are critical ingredients to positive and productive collaboration.

New collaborators who discuss these questions—and document relevant decisions—help create positive, productive, and well-functioning groups.

More from Deb Mashek Ph.D.
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