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How to Set Productive Collaboration into Action

Here are 11 tips to encourage employees to build better ideas.

Collaboration is essential for long-term innovation. Working together and sharing information enables employees to draw on expertise from the entire organization, avoid costly mistakes, and ultimately achieve a collective goal.

Yet many of today’s large companies still operate as siloed structures. While cubicle farms give a sense of efficiency and hierarchy, they prevent cross-pollination and dialogue across the enterprise. By design, silos prevent information from flowing outward; they discourage people from seeking out new ways to collaborate and build better ideas.

Productive collaboration isn’t about exchanging cubicle farms or offices for an open-plan setting. Nor is it about adding another layer of tasks or meetings. It’s about pooling resources, forming alliances, and achieving common objectives together. It should fit naturally into employees’ workflow and streamline the process of getting projects to the finish line. If you’re striving to create a more collaborative workplace, follow these 11 guidelines.

1. Identify and include dissenters. Find employees with new perspectives and get them involved in creating better solutions. To achieve this, Southwest Airlines gathered workers from its in-flight, ground, maintenance, and dispatch operations for a cross-discipline brainstorm. Over a six-month period, teams met for 10 hours each week to figure out the highest-impact changes that could be made to its aircraft operations. Of the 100 ideas generated and ultimately sent to senior management for review, three resulted in sweeping operational changes. One solution dramatically reduces the number of aircraft “swaps,” which are disruptive events that occur when one aircraft has to be substituted for another during mechanical problems. Results like this are possible when employees who aren’t the usual suspects are included in the problem-solving process.  

2. Staff projects with unlikely suspects. Teaming up people from unrelated departments and having them work in the same space increases opportunities for fresh ideas and connections. When BMW begins developing a new car, project team members in engineering, marketing, and sales, for example, are brought together from disparate locations to the company’s central research and innovation center. Close proximity hastens communications, prompts face-to-face meetings, and stimulates impromptu brainstorms.

3. Designate a “connector.” Break down silos between divisions by designating someone in your organization to act as the official connector. This individual will actively track innovation activities across departments and connect people whose experience or capability matches a project need.

4. Dedicate budgets to collaborative projects. Assigning funds for innovative and cooperative work is the ultimate indicator to employees that senior management is serious about prioritizing collaboration.

5. Implement a user-friendly collaboration platform. Enable secure communication, file sharing, and progress tracking across departments and geographies.

6. Create a peer-to-peer mentorship program. Pair individuals from different parts of the organization to serve as each other’s go-to person for idea generation, advice, and resources. At Intel, people are matched by their specific skills instead of their job title or years of service. It’s not uncommon to find a veteran executive assistant mentoring a newly promoted manager. Matchmaking and relationship building takes place through the company’s intranet and emails, enabling employees to share best practices quickly throughout the global organization. Written contracts and solid deadlines ensure that the program delivers tangible results.

7. Reward people for not doing things. Encourage teams to work smarter—not harder—by rewarding them for reducing unnecessary processes, reports, or paperwork . Originally started at Commerce Bank, which was then acquired by TD Bank in 2007, was an organization-wide “Kill a Stupid Rule” policy, designed to eradicate inefficiencies. This rule rewarded employees with a US$50 gift card for addressing a superfluous or problematic banking rule and coming up with a more customer-friendly solution. The bank actively encourages managers and tellers to submit their ideas through its intranet system.

“Encourage teams to work smarter—not harder—by rewarding them for not doing things.”

8. Compile quarterly “learning lists.” After every project, make a list of evident mistakes and lessons. Share the list across the organization every quarter to ensure the errors aren’t repeated.

9. Communicate breakthroughs. Showcase collaborative projects through your intranet, newsletter, and other internal channels to motivate and inspire employees.

10. Create a physical area for people to gather. Walls between cubicles hinder conversation, but a common space in the office encourages employees across roles and functions to interact.

11. Hire proven collaborators. Which qualities are lacking in your organization? Do you need more staff with interpersonal skills? More negotiators? Enthusiastic cooperators? Make a list of your needs and hire people who demonstrate these skills

Knowing what you want to achieve through collaboration—whether it’s cost savings or faster prototyping, for example—will help you take a focused approach as you implement these guidelines. And as with any new initiative, measuring results requires benchmarks to compare against. Before beginning, you should be aware of hard metrics such as how long it currently takes to bring a product from concept to market, the present number of feedback loops, how much time is spent on customer support, and how much is lost through duplication of work.

Productive collaboration brings together knowledgeable individuals who can add value to other employees and the company as a whole. As collaboration gets underway, note softer metrics like the level of cross-functional participation on projects, and communication between departments and regions. As organizational silos open up, the opportunities for ideas to become actual solutions will increase.

For more information about increasing productivity and innovation in your own business, email us at and ask for our full “Collaboration Checklist,” which includes 23 tips on how to achieve successful collaboration.

Lisa Bodell
Lisa Bodell is the founder and CEO of futurethink and author of Kill the Company.

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