5 ways to spark more collaboration on campus

Whether you're trying to find the next big idea to inspire today's donors or make a data-informed decision on how to allocate academic resources, you won't be able to do it alone.

To tackle these challenges, campus leaders often need to collaborate between departments, disciplines, and across seniority levels. Without a collaborative workplace, your campus might struggle to surface innovative ideas or get mired in hours of cross-unit conflict.

Pulling from research by faculty at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Business, Jessica Love rounds up five proven ways to spark collaboration in the workplace.

1: Design a collaborative work environment

People are more likely to work together if they share the same physical space. Ben Jones, a Professor of Strategy, points to Pixar as an example of a company that designed its offices to encourage collaboration.

"They were very intentional about wanting people who are artists and animators, and the coders, and the music people, and the screen writers to be constantly bumping into each other in random ways to spark ideas," says Jones.

Collaborative spaces and open offices can work in higher ed, too, writes Ann Forman Lippens, a practice manager at EAB's Facilities Forum. The University of Toronto's facilities unit, for instance, reduced the total number of private offices by 30% and decreased workstation size by 25% to enhance collaboration and improve communication within and among teams. After the change, staff reported higher productivity, increased teamwork, and more collaboration across the Facilities teams.

2: Assemble the right team

If you want to reimagine student recruitment or active learning, you might think you need the brainpower of 40 or more campus leaders. But small teams can be more innovative than large ones, according to research from Dashun Wang, an Associate Professor of Management.

Wang found that small teams are better equipped to come up with novel and experimental ideas, and then large teams can further develop those ideas.

3 reasons why collaboration is critical for data-informed decision making

3: Define responsibilities

"One of the biggest mistakes that leaders of new teams make is that they say something like, 'our rule is that we have no rules,'" says Leah Thompson, a Professor of Management and Organizational Change. But this approach tends to create a paralysis where everyone waits for everyone else to take charge, she explains.

Instead, create a charter that identifies the team's goals and who is responsible for what. "Teams that develop a charter end up being more nimble, having more proactive behavior, and achieving their goals more than teams that don’t bother," says Thompson.

4: Reward cooperation

Reward your employees who look for opportunities to cooperate with others, recommends Love. These workers, called consistent contributors, "look for the collective good first and personal good second," said the late Keith Murnighan, a longtime Professor of Management at Kellogg.

Research by Murnighan found that consistent contributors can alter the dynamics of a group by making everyone more cooperative. If you're assembling leaders from around campus to tackle an issue, consistent contributors can help defuse suspicions that each group member plans to put their own department first. "In a larger group, if someone consistently acts as a friend, it’s easier for others to act as friends and everyone benefits," said Murnighan.

5: Choose the right tasks

Not every task will benefit from collaboration, writes Love. She points to research by Jan Van Mieghem, a Professor of Managerial Economics, who found that when doctors in charge of a patient (hospitalists) confer with specialists, the hospitalist's productivity slowed by about 20%.

"It’s not that any of these physicians are just sitting back and being on Facebook or reading the newspaper. They’re continuously busy," says Van Mieghem. "But being busy may increase interruptions. At the end of the day, being busy may not equal being productive."

Instead, weigh the potential costs of collaboration when deciding how many people (and who to include) in your meetings and projects, recommends Love (Love, Kellogg Insights, 3/13).


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