5 tips for leaders who want to get more out of team collaboration

Jackie Colburn
6 min readJan 16, 2024

The new year has arrived and I have no doubt that if you’re a leader you’ve got big ambitions for what’s ahead. Maybe you’re kicking off a new project with your team, or ideating on a new product your company could launch. Whatever the endeavor, it’s essential to be intentional about how you plan for and guide collaborative sessions to make them a success.

As your team’s leader, it’s up to you to make sure that your workshops and meetings are filled with the right methods and activities to unlock their potential. It’s the key to making your time together more productive, and to keep the momentum going once you adjourn.

So, what happens when you have the best intentions for a workshop, but the end result is lackluster? It wouldn’t be the first time, and you aren’t alone if any of these common frustrations sound familiar:

  • “We plan all these collaborative sessions, but we never see good results coming out of them”
  • “My team simply isn’t engaged in collaboration when we come together as a group”
  • “I don’t feel confident that I’m activating my team to their fullest potential and, because of it, I fear we’re missing out on some major opportunities”

If you’re nodding your head right now, just know that you can get the train back on track. After years of facilitating teams of many shapes and sizes at organizations of many shapes and sizes, I’ve discovered a few insights that are critical to helping people do their best work. My hope is that you can apply these five learnings to your work, ramp up the effectiveness of your collaborative sessions, and have a more powerful impact on the teams you lead.

1. Always cater to different learning styles

This is sort of a cardinal rule when it comes to leading groups, but it’s amazing how quickly it’s forgotten. Everyone retains information differently — from auditory, visual, and conversational learning styles — and what works for one person might not work for another. Acknowledging this truth and adjusting how you run sessions is a major first step toward better collaboration and productivity.

For instance, always send the meeting agenda beforehand via email for those who prefer to digest information at their own pace. Then, when you start your session, write the agenda visibly in the workshop space or on a virtual whiteboard to cater to visual learners. Next, verbally read aloud the agenda when participants are settled to accommodate auditory learners. You might even invite a discussion about the agenda to support verbal processors.

Repetition of this process, especially at the beginning of each day for multi-day sessions, might seem basic or repetitive, but it’s an effective way to help individuals absorb and retain information. This goes for other collaborative moments where you’ll need to access visual, verbal, and auditory methods to reach everyone.

2. Balance time for reflection and conversation

In collaborative workshops, it’s key to strike a balance between reflection and conversation. Rather than defaulting to open conversation right away, provide moments for reflection before group sharing. This is important because it gives everyone a fair chance to articulate their ideas and also prevents the loudest voices in the room from monopolizing the conversation.

Some people are confident and comfortable processing their thoughts live while others need time to think alone first. Support both by allowing time for reflection, then sharing. Here are some activities you can try:

  • Ask participants to jot down an answer to a question silently
  • Give teams time to sketch their ideas individually
  • Ask people to read something then note their questions independently

3. Let people team up…or not

It’s a collaborative session, so people should constantly work together, right? Not necessarily. Remember, your team is made up of introverts and extroverts, and internal processors vs external processors, so paired work may not be the most productive method for everyone.

Rather than defaulting to group work every time, be flexible on how people spend their energy. I like to suggest that people work together, but always give the option for folks to work out their thoughts on their own if that better suits their processing style.

I’ve also had people ask to pair up with a specific partner to brainstorm on an idea. Generally my answer is “yes” when someone has a request like this, but you should always be mindful of old habits or power dynamics at play that may actually be a disservice to the group. You’ll need to stay attuned to the people and the culture of the group to help navigate that dimension.

4. Democratize sharing and decision making

This is another important method to safeguard against voices that monopolize conversations, or power dynamics that might sway a group. First, to encourage everyone to share their ideas, I like to embrace my inner Kindergarten teacher and call on individuals to ask them to contribute. This is especially important if someone has been quiet or isn’t likely to speak up unless called on (you’ll need to keep tabs on that as you’re leading, but do so gently so you aren’t forcing anyone into discomfort).

Another neutralizing activity I love is anonymous voting. There’s more than one way to run anonymous voting exercises, but the key point is that you’re giving folks space to vote on an idea or concept individually first before sharing that information more broadly.

For example, let’s say we’re in a Design Sprint and the team is voting on their favorite prototype. Rather than ask everyone to simultaneously go up and vote with sticky dots, I’ll give each concept a number and have participants write the number they are voting for on post-it notes, sticky dots, or by submitting their vote directly to me if we’re virtual.

This keeps the process unbiased, avoiding a situation where one person with power or influence may sway the group. It also protects against the strategic vote, a behavior I often witness where people hold back their answer, then cast their vote after others have been placed in an attempt to sway things a certain way.

5. Never skip wrap-up activities

As the leader, it’s your job to help the team align on priorities, like which idea they’ll pursue, or which set of options they’ll vet further, or how they’ll refine the prototype. Ideally, you’ll also take them through an action-planning exercise to define some initial next steps.

When I work with teams, we spend a lot of time intentionally approaching the transition from the workshop/collaborative session to the execution of the work, and planning steps to take. This makes all the difference between seeing things come to life or drop off.

If you know that this isn’t a strength of yours, assign someone to help you manage this step. Whatever you do, don’t make it this far and skip wrap-up activities — they’re an essential moment to look ahead, establish accountability, and keep your momentum.

If you want a closer look at the wrap-up activities I like to use, check out my detailed guide that you can lift and land for your own purposes.

In conclusion

Your facilitation skills as a leader are critical for maximizing the collaborative potential of your team, whether you’re navigating different learning styles, democratizing decision-making, or planning the right activities to get the most out of every team member.

My hope is that the strategies I’ve shared will help you create more inclusive and productive sessions, but I also understand if (instead) you’re feeling like this sounds hard and like a lot of work. The truth is, it can be a lot to manage, and that’s why facilitators like me exist! I’ve been helping teams get out of the weeds and on their way for over a decade. Send me a note if you want my help to facilitate your next session so you can fast track the benefits.

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Jackie Colburn

Weekly resources for facilitators and leaders. Learn tips and methods to run better workshops, accelerate teams and uncover new ideas. www.jackiecolburn.com