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How to Collaborate

A Working Definition of the Term “Collaboration”

While we all recognize the challenges associated with collaboration, probably the one that receives the least amount of attention is the overuse of the language, and therefore, the misinterpretation of the concept. The complexity of our work in the criminal justice field requires that we work together on a variety of issues—from offender management to community engagement and mobilization—and at a range of professional levels—from policy makers to front line staff. The fact that we call so many kinds of working together “collaboration” undervalues and underestimates the work involved in a genuine collaboration.

Chris Huxom [Creating Collaborative Advantage, London: Sage Publications (1996)] provides a helpful framework to describe the ways in which people engage work together.

While these are all beneficial forms of working together, they are not the same as collaboration.

A working definition of collaboration is joining together to make possible that which cannot be accomplished alone. That is, collaboration allows partners to reach an aspiration that would be impossible to achieve without each member of the team working toward the same end. It requires the partnership and the commitment of all members working toward a common goal to succeed.

The Relationship Between Collaboration and Teamwork

The focus of this Web site is on working together. Too often the problems we face are not reflections of a lack of knowledge or skill, but rather, a lack of understanding of the true nature of the problem to be addressed, and the resources at our disposal. Sometimes the necessary knowledge or resources rests with another—perhaps an individual, agency, or even a community—that could be mobilized in an effective way. But generally we fall short of identifying our assets, and even when we do know what their potential is, we have difficulty marshalling them in an effective way.

The information and tools that follow, therefore, are designed to help individuals and teams to understand clearly the work they are engaged in: the outcomes they seek, the values that guide them; the partnerships that will make success possible; the structures and methodologies that hold the greatest possibility for success; and the management of the relationships that are key to making the endeavor possible.

The Research on Effective Teams

In their pioneering work, Carl Larson and Frank LaFasto [TeamWork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong, Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications (1989)] set out to understand the workings of effective teams. In conducting their research, they identified a variety of teams in a range of different environments—such as community action teams, project teams, sports teams, tactical teams, surgical teams, public health teams established to fight epidemics, and executive management teams. Their research process examined three distinct sample groups—a broad and varied group, a narrower and deeper hypothesis testing group, and a broader and more unusual saturation group—to find the answer to the question: “What do those teams that are highly successful have in common?” From this investigation, Larson and LaFasto developed a paradigm which involves eight characteristics that must be present for a team to be successful.

In our work with collaborating teams, the Larson and LaFasto paradigm of effective teamwork has proven to be exceptionally helpful in assessing a team’s effectiveness, analyzing strengths, and identifying strategies to enhance collaboration. While their work did not focus specifically or even directly on criminal justice teams, it has demonstrated itself time and again as effective and useful with criminal justice teams of all varieties.

The Eight Characteristics of Highly Effective Teams

A Clear and Elevating Goal (Vision)

High performance teams have both a clear understanding of the goal to be achieved and a belief that the goal embodies a worthwhile or important result; teams with a ‘clear and elevating goal’ understand that whether the team succeeds clearly makes a difference.

Results–Driven Structure

The importance of structure is not in its presence or absence. More important is whether a structure is in place that is appropriate for the achievement of the performance objectives. To be successful, a team’s structure should be designed around the results to be achieved.

There are three kinds of teams:

There are four necessary features to team structure:

Competent Team Members

Competency is defined as the necessary skills and abilities to achieve the desired objective (technical competencies) and the personal characteristics required to achieve excellence while working well with others (personal competencies).

There are three common features of competent team members:

Unified Commitment

A unified commitment is best characterized by “team spirit,” or a sense of loyalty and dedication to the team. It is often exhibited by an unrestrained sense of excitement and enthusiasm for the team and its work; a willingness to do anything that has to be done to help the team succeed; and an intense identification with the people who are on the team.

There are two significant features of this characteristic:

Collaborative Climate

A collaborative climate is most commonly described in the adage, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Teams operating in a truly collaborative climate work well together, and trust is a mainstay virtue.

Trust is produced in a climate that includes three elements:

Standards of Excellence

Standards define those expectations that eventually determine the level of performance a team deems acceptable. Standards determine the type of technical competency required, the amount of initiative and effort required, how people are expected to behave with one another, how firm the deadlines are, and how the results will be achieved. Ultimately, standards dictate the rewards for success and the consequences for failure.

Pressure to perform can come from a variety of sources:

Three variables are integral to establishing and sustaining standards of excellence. They are the extent to which:

External Support and Recognition

External support and recognition is measured by the extent to which those individuals and agencies outside the team who are capable of contributing to the team’s success acknowledge and support the work of the team. (Interestingly, the external support and recognition factor seems to be more an effect of team success than a cause of it. It is noted more for its absence in poorly functioning teams than its presence in highly effective teams.)

Principled Leadership

Leadership can add tremendous value to any collaborative endeavor, even to the point of sparking the outcome with an intangible kind of magic. Effective leaders draw together the team’s vision, a belief in the opportunity for change, and the ability to meaningfully involve others.

Effective leaders:


Adapted from concepts in TeamWork: What Must Go Right/What Can Go Wrong (1989), by Carl E. Larson and Frank M. LaFasto (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications).