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  • Writer's pictureMatt Arnold

Creative Problem Solving: Collaboration as a Critical Capability

In an earlier post, I highlighted the four capabilities needed to help teams and organizations embrace creative problem solving in addressing complex problems. Those four capabilities are innovating, learning, communicating, and collaborating. This post will explore the need for improved collaboration, focused on maximizing team outcomes and improving team “talk,” so that teams are better equipped to address complex problems.

Point of View

As our world becomes ever more complex and interconnected, it is critical for organizations and individuals to cultivate collaboration as a critical competency. Complex systems don’t yield to previous best practices. To address complex problems we need to improve the way we collaborate. Unfortunately, most organizations and management are not equipped to support and develop high performing teams. This post will highlight ways teams can maximize team outcomes by focusing on how they improve group communication skills.

Collaboration at Scale

As the business world becomes more interconnected, it is becoming more complex. This complexity changes the way we must address problems. Where tame or technical problems, those that are known and straightforward, can be addressed by more traditional business methods, complex problems require strong teams and effective collaboration. These teams need to be diverse. Additionally, we need to scale team work like never before.

Cross-functional collaboration has traditionally been limited to people within the same organization. For example, the design and dev teams focused on building a new site or app. However, more complex problems are requiring collaboration outside of our traditional organizations.

Where hierarchies of the past (and present) focused on efficiency. Today’s leaders are seeing a strong need for collaboration and social emotional intelligence. See the top ten skills organizations are looking for in employees, according to the World Economic Forum.

Eight out of ten of the skills organizations want in future employees are characteristics of strong team members. Unfortunately, schools and organizations rarely spend time on actually training or cultivating strong team skills. Thankfully, we are starting to see an increase in SEL (social emotional learning) curricula in schools across the country.

Maximize Outcomes

When it comes to improving team performance, there are four outcomes that need to be maximized: productivity, quality, consensus, and satisfaction. Please note the difference in output vs outcomes. Output is rooted in hierarchy and manufacturing (in other words, solving tame problems) and doesn’t serve us well when focusing on complex collaboration. A mindset focused on maximizing outcomes moves us away from a thought of a right answer. We are trying to get the best answer in a particular context. Outcomes also allow for more creativity from team members.

Team Talk

To maximize the four team outcomes, we need to be intentional about our group communication practices. There are four types of talk that are required to maximize team outcomes. Those types of talk are task, role, team and trust. These types of talk are all forms of communication that help teams collaboratively make sense of the world and find their way.

I explored the types of talk in more depth in an earlier blog post you can read here. Additionally, I created a short video about the bullseye that you can watch here.

Diversity and Inclusion

Healthy teams are similar to a healthy ecosystem and thrive on diversity. Teams develop their own culture and identity. High performing teams do not focus on demographic similarities. Diversity helps in collaborative sensemaking and wayfinding because we have more (mental) models and perspectives at our disposal. As Jay Forrester, former MIT researcher, said “we all use models.” Each of us have our own mental models. If our mental models are too similar in a group we tend to see phenomena the same way and have trouble thinking outside of the box. It's not enough to have diverse teams, we need to work to make sure all team members feel included in the team. A sense of inclusion helps drive trust and safety (see below).

Recently, Harvard Business Review published a study that shows that team diversity is positively correlated to innovation. The more diverse the team, the more innovative. So, when confronting complex problems, diversity is an asset.

Trust and Safety

As individuals and teams we do or best work when we feel safe and are around people we trust. It is imperative that organizational leaders cultivate trust and provide a psychologically safe place for their teams to work. If a team is too tense, they play tight. I tend to see this most in organizations working on developing an innovation team or practice. The organizational culture is typically one that focuses on reducing defects and driving efficiency. While those are necessary for mature organizations to protect margin, the result is that most teams focus on not making a mistake. That in turn means trying to play it safe and hampers aspiration. Do your best as a team member to support those around you and building a safe, trusting environment.


While teamwork may feel frustrating and difficult at times, it doesn’t have to be. I hope this framework helps you understand the dynamics at play in your team’s work and provides tools to help you maximize the positive team outcomes of productivity, quality, consensus, and satisfaction. And, ultimately, improve your team outcomes.

Contact Spark Consulting Group for more ways that we can help you elevate the performance and outcomes of your team.


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