What to do when collaboration fails? Make teamwork more effective than ever with our list of common problems and their fixes
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On September 23rd, 1999, NASA watched in horror as the Mars Climate Orbiter went off course and vanished into space. The problem was a simple mathematical error—one employee had calculated the journey in metric units and another had interpreted the results in imperial.
But as NASA manager, Ed Weiler said, “People sometimes make errors. The problem here was not the error, it was the failure of [...] our processes to detect the error.”*
While you probably haven’t lost a $125 million robot, you know how frustrating it is when collaboration fails. It’s especially exasperating when you can’t spot the symptoms or identify the causes until after your project implodes (at least that’s only a figurative implosion in your case).
You’ll be happy to hear the Mars Climate Orbiter story didn’t end there. NASA realized they needed to build stronger company values that would improve communication, connect teams, and demonstrate the value of the work. The new processes they created led to the successful launch of five more rovers.
This guide will show you how to do the same by identifying what causes teamwork to fail and how you can fix it.
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*NASA News, 1999
What causes collaboration to fail?
In the aftermath of the Mars Climate Orbiter mishap, director Edward Stone said, “Even on the day of the encounter, it wasn’t clear to anyone that we were on the wrong trajectory. No one.”
Often, when collaboration breaks down, you can only spot the symptoms of failure—not the underlying cause. That’s what makes it such a challenging issue to fix.
However, you can use the signs of failure to spot issues when they arise.
Signs of collaboration failure
Here are a few possible signs of failure that will help you identify issues and get closer to understanding the cause:
- Delays and missed milestones
- Employees taking on duplicate tasks
- Burnout due to unequal workloads
- Disagreements and conflicts
- A decline in quality
- Inconsistent decision making
- Scope creep
- Limited creativity and lack of innovation
- Lower engagement and morale
- Increased turnover as members switch teams
- Lower profitability and lost revenue
Causes of collaboration failure
Below are some of the main reasons collaboration fails, each of which we’ll examine in more detail later.
How do you fix a lack of collaboration?
Despite intense media scrutiny, NASA still refused to point fingers at any one team member. Instead, they launched a thorough investigation into what happened and strove to do better.
The subsequent report listed factors like inadequate communications and understaffing alongside recommendations for training, audits, and verifications.
Twenty-five years later, NASA’s investigation is still an excellent template for how to overcome collaborative failures by examining your processes, mission, and culture rather than placing blame on individuals. That’s why we’ll explore the most common reasons why employees stop working well together, the most effective solutions, and how technology can improve collaboration.
Despite working toward the same goal, the NASA navigation and propulsion departments used two different measuring systems. They were so isolated from one another that this mismatch didn’t even occur to them.
Similar silos can happen in your company when teams become disconnected. Members become too focused on getting a result based on their own knowledge and expertise rather than what’s truly needed. So, while the navigation and propulsion teams probably did their best work, it was all for nothing because they weren’t aligned on measurements.
There’s also a danger of an echo chamber developing if smaller groups only hear their own ideas and don’t get perspectives from the whole team. That means members will not only plan routes that send your $125 million dollar project hurtling into space but do so with heaps of confidence.
Here’s how you can reconnect teams and encourage them to check in with each other more:
- Create a RACI chart to assign responsibilities. This will help you decide who to include in discussions and what their role should be. Including people from other departments helps avoid blind spots. For example, sales might notice how the marketing department has overlooked a key change in the target market’s preferences.
- Schedule points in your processes to collect feedback from these stakeholders and apply it. See how NASA introduced software audits and independent reviews after the Climate Orbiter mishap? If check-ins are a regular part of your initiatives, you’ll be more likely to implement them effectively.
- Give teams more oversight into organizational goals and what’s expected from them. That way they can work towards individual objectives like deadlines without losing sight of overarching aims like outdoing a competitor on quality. Plus, 87% of workers say clear, shared goals get them better prepared to meet customer satisfaction.
Get better at communicating with each other
During their investigation, NASA realized that communication had been a major factor in the project's failure. But the problem wasn’t a lack of contact—the navigation and propulsion departments had talked, their discussions just hadn’t been effective.
No doubt this issue resonates with you, especially if you work closely with other departments. You may have multiple meetings per week and your messenger apps open all day, but somehow miscommunications and confusion are still rife.
That’s because you have to find a sweet spot between encouraging communication and not letting it disrupt work. As 70% of employees say messaging and meetings are affecting their productivity, it appears many companies struggle to maintain the balance.
Follow these suggestions to improve communication without compromising productivity:
- Make communication one of your values: You can encourage and model open communication, active listening, and clear feedback. For example, the NASA report told project managers to create a policy where teams could share concerns with whomever they liked and asked them to regularly reinforce it.
- Put scheduling tools to best use: To find the optimal time for all team members, use meeting software that displays multiple time zones and lets individuals state when they’re out of the office. You’ll get higher attendance so teams can communicate at once. Bonus, participants will be more likely to come at a time that’s convenient for them and therefore feel more engaged in the discussion.
- Avoid toggle tax with collaborative software: Teams spend four hours per week swapping between apps and reorienting themselves. A digital workspace like Switchboard allows them to keep all the apps open in one space and communicate freely as they manage remote work there.
Give everyone clarity on their roles and responsibilities
The NASA report noted there were many opportunities to identify the error that led to the rover flying off course. However, nobody knew who should be performing checks, at what time, or even how to perform them.
Like NASA, you may notice work doesn’t get done if teams don’t understand their roles or there are gaps in the workflow. That could be as simple as not knowing who’s responsible for refilling the printer or assuming your colleague has proofread a brief before sending it to a client. But even simple problems can chip away at morale as mistakes, delays, and confusion leave teams looking for who to blame.
The fast-changing nature of roles can exacerbate the issue. Team members who’ve absorbed new responsibilities may become confused about which tasks they should do or what to prioritize. Otherwise high performers may also let essential work slip through the cracks or produce below-standard work if they become accidentally overloaded.
To make roles clearer, here are some recommendations you can follow:
- Regularly review and define all roles: As positions change, you need to monitor and update them. So, if your customer service reps take on some social media management to respond to complaints, you should note this.
- Show teams how their work interrelates and contributes to goals: Teams will be able to spot gaps more easily if they have the bigger picture. Just imagine, if NASA’s propulsion had known the navigation department wouldn’t check their measuring system, the Climate Orbiter could be on Mars right now.
- Train managers on how to strengthen decision-making and delegation: Your people should feel confident making decisions and flagging issues as they arise. It’s the role of a team leader to delegate work according to people’s strengths and upskill each team member in different areas via mentorship, training, and online courses.
Build trust and morale among your team members
After the Climate Mishap, NASA noticed that the navigation and propulsion departments had developed what they called “defensive mechanisms.” We can only guess what the teams were thinking but it indicates they didn’t feel safe to share concerns or report difficulties.
If your team also seems reserved, and no longer suggests ideas, offers feedback, or asks for help, you may also have a trust problem. Something in your dynamic might make members nervous about what may happen if they draw attention to themselves.
Rebuilding trust means you’ll be more likely to catch problems and notice opportunities as well as encourage people to stay on your team. That’s because feeling valued makes teams feel more at ease in the workplace. When they believe mistakes are okay and their good work gets noticed, they’ll be more inclined to contribute beyond what’s expected.
Here’s how you can maintain trust and create a sense of psychological safety:
- Lead by example by taking ownership over mistakes: The best way to show that mistakes are okay is by shouting about yours from the rooftops. So, if you forget to update a colleague about a project on time, apologize to them and tell the rest of the team.
- Encourage transparency over decisions: When everyone can see which actions led to what consequences, they’ll feel more secure about what they can and can’t do. For example, Luisa may feel more comfortable collaborating when she knows Manuel got his promotion based on his extra experience, rather than assuming he took credit for their shared project work.
- Recognize and reward collaborative behavior: Say, you see members actively listening and trying to compromise on shared tasks, you could shout them out. They’ll be more likely to keep behaving that way and others will be more likely to copy them.
- Organize team-building activities to break down walls: This can look like anything from remote lunch dates to meeting games and icebreakers. Switchboard includes a lot of these features so you can move seamlessly from getting to know each other to discussing a deadline.
Acknowledge and respect different working styles
As NASA has thousands of people working across (and above) the globe in a variety of roles and locations, they know the difficulty of accommodating different working styles. Even on your team, any two members may only have their shoe sizes in common.
Employees notice the difficulty: 74% of them say companies could do a better job acknowledging different personalities. Let’s say one team member likes hand-holding through new tasks and another likes to explore them alone. Neither will be satisfied or perform their best if your processes force them to meet somewhere in the middle without guidance or support.
So, you can use the following ideas to help mixed teams work together more effectively:
- Guide teams on how to identify and work alongside different styles: Online tests like 16 personalities and the Big Five can give you more insight into how team members like to work. Once they understand their colleague needs, say, five minutes to reflect before diving into a discussion, they can be more accommodating.
- Provide training on effective collaboration: You can explore different techniques for different scenarios that build teamwork in the workplace. For example, you can use role reversal to encourage empathy and reduce disagreements or rotate leadership to share more accountability.
Give everyone the resources they need to succeed
One of the best ways to have teams performing at their best is by making sure there are no skill gaps or missing resources. Because if, like NASA’s navigation department, your team just doesn’t know other crews use different measuring systems, mistakes will inevitably happen.
And likewise, if you’re using up-to-date software to share information and work together, collaboration will be more effective. The smooth processes and time saved on tasks will make everyone eager to use the tools.
Increase your team’s access to resources with these suggestions:
- Store information in an open, easily accessible knowledge base: That way if teams aren’t sure how to work together, or find a gap in the process they’re following, they can refer to your resources. You can write standard operating procedures (SOPs) so easily overlooked details like which software or measuring system to use are clear.
- Write meeting agendas and follow-ups: Without context, teams may spend conversations trying to catch up rather than truly engaging in a discussion. A list of talking points can help them jump into discussions and feel like the meeting was a worthwhile use of their time. Switchboard’s AI can also read your meeting notes and documents and summarize them into key points, so getting up to speed is quicker next time.
- Keep project work in one place: When work is spread across different apps, it becomes more difficult to find. Use Switchboard to keep projects in one digital space so team members always know how to access tools and information.
Why all your team needs is a little ‘perseverance’
Twenty-two years after the Climate Orbiter disappeared, NASA waited as their latest rover entered the Martian atmosphere. This was their riskiest mission yet and this time $2.7 billion was on the line. As the flight controller announced touchdown, the room exploded into cheers and applause.
Fittingly, the rover was called ‘Perseverance’.
That’s because NASA understands better than most that teams may fall out of sync and hit roadblocks but that doesn’t mean game over. Strong values, shared goals, and a sense of purpose can steer you back on course.
When you build a collaborative environment with tools like Switchboard, you get your team back on track and keep them there. You can seamlessly communicate, share insights, and address setbacks in our interactive digital workspace. The real-time features also allow for immediate problem-solving and restrategizing as needed.
The solutions you come up with may propel you further than you expected to go. After all, the Climate Orbiter may have vanished but the next rovers not only landed on Mars but lasted much longer than NASA could have predicted.
Reduce mistakes and learn more easily from the ones you make
Use Switchboard to manage team projects across multiple apps in one place so you can quickly spot bottlenecks, errors, and opportunities to improve
Frequently asked questions about when collaboration fails and how to fix it
How do you solve collaboration problems?
You can solve collaboration problems by identifying the symptoms, understanding their causes, and finding appropriate solutions. For instance, poor communication is often responsible for breakdowns in teamwork. Potential solutions include encouraging open discussion, coordinating meetings with scheduling tools, and using digital workspaces like Switchboard to finish tasks seamlessly.
What are the risks of not collaborating?
The risks of not collaborating are:
- Isolated team members
- Communication breakdowns
- A lack of trust
- Employees feeling undervalued
These issues can lead to missed opportunities, delays, and failed objectives. When you don’t fix collaboration problems, it can ultimately lead to lower morale, higher team turnover, and less success for your company.
How do you encourage collaboration?
You can encourage collaboration by making it easier for teams to work and communicate together during tasks. Switchboard allows you to do this with its digital workspace where individuals can open multiple apps and interact with them simultaneously. These rooms also save work in progress so teams in different time zones can return to them throughout the day without disruption.