Overcoming Common Barriers to Collaboration, Part 2

Leadership Matters

Leading UX transformation

November 20, 2017

This two-part series describes some common organizational, cultural, and interpersonal barriers that hinder the ability of people and teams to collaborate effectively. It is important to understand what unique combination of barriers to collaboration exists within your own organization, then devise solutions to overcome those specific barriers. In Part 1 of this series, I described four common barriers to collaboration and provided solutions for overcoming them.

  1. A lack of respect and trust
  2. Different mindsets
  3. Poor listening skills
  4. Knowledge deficits

Now, in Part 2, I’ll cover the remaining five barriers to collaboration:

  1. A lack of alignment around goals
  2. Internal competitiveness
  3. Information hoarding
  4. Organizational silos
  5. Physical separation

For an organization to create a culture of collaboration, it must overcome these barriers. Whether your role is that of a leader or an individual contributor, you can help your team to overcome these organizational, cultural, and interpersonal barriers to collaboration.

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Barrier #5: A Lack of Alignment Around Goals

To be effective, a collaborative team must have a clear sense of purpose and unifying goals around which the entire team is aligned. According to Behnam Tabrizi’s research-based Harvard Business Review article “75% of Cross-Functional Teams Are Dysfunctional,” a key cause of dysfunction in teams is a lack of clarity and alignment around common goals—particularly, a failure to align with long-term, strategic corporate goals.

Strategic alignment … means that all elements of a business … are arranged in such a way as to best support the fulfillment of its long-term purpose. … Corporate leaders [must] make sense of strategic alignment at both the team / business unit level … and at the enterprise level.”—Jonathan Trevor and Barry Varcoe

A lack of alignment around clear business and team goals may cause disagreements about priorities and often results in failure—or at least wasting a lot of time, money, and effort. When a team is not aligned around a common purpose, this tends to exacerbate other team dysfunctions.

The Solution

  • Understand and commit to the organization’s purpose and current and long-term strategic goals.
  • Define compelling, unifying team goals that align with and support the organization’s goals and make people feel that they are part of something greater than themselves. Unifying goals give a team the sense that they share a common fate, engender passion, make lofty aspirations concrete, and focus the team on competing in the marketplace.
  • Set clear priorities for teams.
  • Resolve any conflicting priorities across disciplines.
  • Promote collaborative teamwork as a core organizational value.
  • Adopt methods that enable teams to achieve their goals collaboratively. Working collaboratively creates a sense of shared ownership and fosters and continually reinforces a team’s alignment around common goals.
  • Develop a common language of collaboration.
  • Ensure transparency and openness in communications among team members, enabling them to build a shared understanding of the problem they’re solving.
  • Make team members accountable for achieving both their team’s common goals and their individual goals.
  • Measure each team’s progress toward their goals.

Barrier #6: Internal Competitiveness

Collaborative company cultures are cooperative rather than competitive—at least internally. Cooperation enables more efficient use of a company’s resources than competition does because it reduces duplication of effort. Of course, competitiveness is a motivating force. Within healthy company cultures that focus on sustainably creating value for users, customers, employees, shareholders, and the business, uniting to compete against outside competitors energizes collaborative teams. Working collaboratively means setting aside narrow self-interest and focusing instead on winning as a team or organization.

Dysfunctional leaders sometimes pit business units, functional groups, teams, or individuals against one another by making them compete for money, scarce resources, or recognition. They may reward them only for their own narrowly defined performance goals rather than for helping or working collaboratively with others. Such incentives cause people to focus just on their own objectives and encourage hoarding behaviors. The selfish competitiveness that often results within such an organizational climate discourages collaboration.

The Solution

  • Direct people’s and team’s competitiveness toward the external marketplace, not toward their peers or other teams, functional groups, or business units.
  • Encourage teams to compete and win against outside competitors.
  • Balance external competitiveness with internal collaboration.
  • Make the common goal of a collaborative team the success of the overall team and the project on which they’re working—not the success of any individual or function.
  • Discourage competition between the diverse functions on multidisciplinary teams by creating a level playing field for them.
  • Make decisions as a team whenever possible. This means aligning on a solution together, not succumbing to groupthink or making compromises with which no one is happy.
  • Encourage people to help other teams, functional groups, and business units to achieve their goals. Don’t pit individuals, teams, groups, or business units against one another.
  • Ensure that people, teams, and business units leverage the work of others rather than falling prey to the not-invented-here syndrome and reinventing the wheel.
  • Discourage internal competition by devising a recognition and reward system that fosters collaboration.
  • Reward employees for the collaborative results they achieve rather than their individual performance or the company’s overall performance.
  • Reward teams that collaborate successfully to achieve their goals.
  • Reward behaviors that demonstrate collaborative values.

Barrier #7: Information Hoarding

Collaboration requires people to share information across teams, functional groups, and business units. How can the members of a multidisciplinary collaborative team share a common understanding of their goals and how to achieve them if they aren’t equally well informed? The sharing of information promotes collaboration and innovation. Thus, collaborative cultures tend to be information democracies.

Unfortunately, some people perceive advantage in knowing things that their peers or teammates do not, so they hoard information that would benefit their entire team. After all, as the old saying goes, “Knowledge is power.” Information hoarders selfishly focus on their own advantage rather than that of their entire team or organization, so they are loath to share their expertise and ignore requests for help. They tend to be especially reluctant to share their expertise and information with other teams or business units. Such behavior fosters secrecy and internal competition.

The Solution

  • Foster information sharing—the opposite of information hoarding—and identify and communicate the types of information people should share.
  • Ensure employees have sufficient time to help other people, teams, and business units and provide the information they need.
  • Build a corporate library of useful information resources—including books, journals, and periodicals.
  • Give all employees access to online resources such as data repositories, courses, training videos, and publications, ensuring equal access to information that supports continuous learning.
  • Deploy a digital asset-management system that allows all employees to retrieve images, video, audio, and documents.
  • Give all employees access to repositories of internally generated data such as analytics data, support-call logs, and research findings.
  • Provide technology solutions for sharing information. These may include knowledge-management systems, project-management systems, and communication tools.
  • Minimize the siloing of knowledge-management systems and other data repositories.
  • Allow employees to search for information in all repositories, providing transparent search results that bring the most useful information to the top and exclude only confidential information.
  • Allow employees to rate the quality of information within repositories to help them overcome information overload.
  • Make it easy for employees to request access to any information they need.
  • Encourage teammates working on projects together to share information with one another in a central repository.
  • Allow all team members to share information in such a repository with others, as necessary for their projects.
  • Secure only sensitive information that must be kept confidential.
  • Make permissions that provide access to information as broad as possible, sharing information with entire teams, functional groups, or business units.
  • Provide email distribution lists for teams, so when people share information or send out a meeting invitation, everyone on the team receives it.
  • Establish a mentoring program to facilitate the transfer of tacit knowledge across teams, functional groups, and business units.
  • Reward people for participating in the mentoring program.
  • Reward people, teams, functional groups, and business units for sharing information with one another, not just for doing their own job or for their own team’s results.
  • Make people accountable if they withhold information that others need.

Barrier #8: Organizational Silos

Insular, siloed, not-invented-here cultures develop when individuals, teams, functional groups, and business units are unwilling to extend a helping hand to others outside their group, fear asking for help from others, and fail to collaborate across silos. When teams work together in isolation, over an extended period of time, they may suffer from a lack of new ideas, continually reinforce their narrow beliefs, and develop groupthink. Such groups lack the diversity of opinion that is essential to successful collaboration.

A company’s culture may encourage self-reliance on the part of individuals, teams, functional groups, and business units to the extent that it discourages them from asking others for help, even when they really need it. People working in different business units may be unaccustomed to working together to solve problems and find it difficult to do so. Plus, star performers who are busy fulfilling their own objectives may not be motivated to provide help to others or feel the need to collaborate. In fact, they may perceive a request to do so as an imposition on their their time. A rock-star culture is the antithesis of a collaborative culture.

High-status teams or functions may not be motivated to collaborate with others they perceive to be unworthy of their attention, while low-status teams or functions may be uncomfortable reaching out to those they perceive to be beyond their reach. The study by Tabrizi to which I referred earlier also showed: “The reason why most cross-functional teams fail is because [silos] tend to perpetuate themselves—for example, engineers don’t work well with designers….”

The Solution

  • Collaboration itself breaks down organizational silos because it helps people form bonds with people on other teams or in other functional groups or business units.
  • Collaborate across teams, functional groups, and business units.
  • Communicate across the entire organization.
  • Encourage the development of networks of people who can help one another and their teams, functional groups, and business units to bridge silos.
  • Ensure that people can talk directly to others at any level in the organization rather than having to go through a chain of command.
  • Provide centrally located places where people working in different functions can meet serendipitously—for example, in breakrooms with free food and beverages or areas with comfortable seating.
  • Establish multidisciplinary teams with members from various business units to collaborate on common practices, processes, and systems.
  • Involve people working in different disciplines in user research and usability testing.
  • Reward people for gathering information and feedback from multiple functions and business units and, thus, gaining broader perspectives.

Barrier #9: Physical Separation

When the members of a collaborative team are closely colocated, they communicate with one another more. But the people on a collaborative team may be dispersed across remote locations or work in different buildings or on different floors of the same building. A well-known study conducted by Thomas Allen of MIT demonstrated that the amount of communication between engineers depended on the number of meters between their cubicles. When their cubicles were just 25 meters apart, communication dwindled to almost nothing. Thus, people may spend more time interacting with others who are at the same location, while neglecting to spend sufficient time with people with whom they should work closely—just because they’re a world away. This is especially problematic for large, global companies.

When people work in dispersed locations across different time zones, their busy schedules may make it difficult for them to spend sufficient quality time with their teammates to develop deep and trusting relationships. Physical separation of team members also makes it more difficult for them to find the people and information they need.

The Solution

  • Colocate the members of collaborative teams whenever possible to provide opportunities for casual, serendipitous communication.
  • Encourage cross-functional collaboration by colocating team members from different disciplines.
  • Ensure that dispersed team members meet face to face at least quarterly. It is particularly important for teams to meet face to face at the beginning of a project to allow team members to bond with one another.
  • Dedicate common workspaces to the use of particular collaborative teams. Such workspaces ensure that team members from dispersed locations can gather at any time and give teams a permanent place for the display of their work artifacts, which saves time. It is also important to provide quiet, distraction-free, personal workspaces for the times when individuals need to work on their own and get into flow.
  • Provide hardware and software collaboration systems for virtual team workspaces to ensure the optimal integration of remote team members.
  • Integrate collaboration tools into your work processes.
  • Employ digital whiteboards or focus video cameras on whiteboards to enable remote team members to see them.
  • Level the playing field by having everyone use the same collaboration tools, even those who are colocated.
  • Post project information, schedules, and status online rather than communicating this information in meetings. This ensures that everyone receives the same information.
  • Send out email notifications about updates to ensure that everyone sees them.
  • Post profile pages for all team members to the team’s knowledge base. This helps remote teams get to know one another better.
  • Use chat tools to indicate virtual presence and support both synchronous and asynchronous communication.
  • Establish core hours when everyone can work together if time zones permit.
  • Conduct virtual ideation sessions online. Asynchronous virtual sessions generate more high-quality ideas, as well as a higher number of creative ideas per participant, and increase the diversity of ideas. Using this scalable approach, there can be any number of participants. Virtual ideation sessions also eliminate some problems that are common to face-to-face brainstorming sessions, including dominant participants talking too much and preventing their colleagues from contributing and—because of the anonymity of the process—participants experiencing evaluation apprehension or there being a lack of objectivity in assessing ideas.
  • Encourage people to work in pairs—whether face to face or remotely. This is one of the most effective ways of collaborating remotely.


Counterproductive organizational practices erect barriers that hinder alignment, collaboration, and information sharing and instead foster information hoarding, internal competitiveness, and other dysfunctional behaviors in individuals, teams, functional groups, and business units. To overcome the barriers to collaboration that exist in your organization, you must first identify the particular barriers that afflict your organization, then devise solutions for eliminating them.

To create a culture of collaboration, you must incessantly promote collaborative teamwork as a core organizational value, make people accountable for dysfunctional behaviors that hinder collaboration, and reward collaborative behaviors.


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Edmondson, Amy C., and Kathryn S. Roloff. “Overcoming Barriers to Collaboration: Psychological Safety and Learning in Diverse Teams.” In Team Effectiveness in Complex Organizations: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives and Approaches. Eduardo Salas, Gerald F. Goodwin, and C. Shawn Burke, eds. New York: Routledge Psychology Press, Taylor & Francis Group, 2009. Retrieved October 8, 2017.

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Trevor, Jonathan, and Barry Varcoe. “A Simple Way to Test Your Company’s Strategic AlignmentHarvard Business Review, May 16, 2016. Retrieved November 18, 2017.

Principal Consultant at Strategic UX

Founder, Publisher, and Editor in Chief of UXmatters

Silicon Valley, California, USA

Pabini Gabriel-PetitWith more than 20 years working in User Experience at companies such as Google, Cisco, WebEx, Apple, and many startups, Pabini now provides UX strategy and design consulting services through her Silicon Valley company, Strategic UX. Her past UX leadership roles include Head of UX for Sales & Marketing IT at Intel, Senior Director of UX and Design at Apttus, Principal UX Architect at BMC Software, VP of User Experience at scanR, and Manager of User Experience at WebEx. Pabini has led UX strategy, design, and user research for Web, mobile, and desktop applications for consumers, small businesses, and enterprises, in diverse product domains. Working collaboratively with business executives, multidisciplinary product teams, and UX teams, she has envisioned and realized holistic UX design solutions for innovative, award-winning products that delighted users, achieved success in the marketplace, and delivered business value. As a UX leader, she has facilitated conceptual modeling and ideation sessions; written user stories; prioritized product and usability requirements; established corporate design frameworks, standards, and guidelines; and integrated lean UX activities into agile development processes. Pabini is a strategic thinker, and the diversity of her experience enables her to synthesize innovative solutions for challenging strategy and design problems. She is passionate about creating great user experiences that meet users’ needs and get business results. A thought leader in the UX community, Pabini was a Founding Director of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA).  Read More

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