Photo by Stephanie Abbots


We have all experienced that group project.  The one where one person takes the reins, leading everyone else to believe that their input isn’t welcome, while a few  give no input and ride the coattails of others.  It is negative experiences such as this, which we all have had, that may give us a visceral reaction when any mention of a group project uttered. 

And yet, so many of us continue to be drawn to new projects because when teamwork happens the way that it is supposed to, something incredible happens.  Change occurs when there is equality within the team, when everyone is invested in the overall purpose and goal, and trust is given.  You will find yourself working more efficiently. Creativity and innovation will come more easily and your end product will often exceed everyone’s expectations – even your own.  You reach that magical point where you realize that each person on your team has your back and both job satisfaction and productivity launch. 

What are the secrets to making collaborative efforts work? It may very well start with understanding the Anna Karenina principle which is derived from the famous first sentence of Leo Tolstoy’s formative novel, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

This principle, popular in math and science, is explained as follows: in order for a relationship to thrive, it must succeed on many levels and in many respects.  If there is constant breakdown in communication, ideology, and philosophy, it is predestined to be unhappy, no matter how great all the other pieces are. In other words, collaborative efforts work not by just doing one big thing correctly, but by avoiding all the potential behaviors that lead to failure.  This principle works in the scientific method and holds true for many things in life, including effective teamwork. 

Setting clear goals, transparency, timelines, focusing on process, intermittent visual tracking, centralizing communication locations, and finally recognizing one’s accomplishments are all components that according to one study completed at MIT’s Center for Research on ‘The Secrets of Great Teamwork’ are essential for successful working relationships.  Simply being results driven does not and will not set the stage for fruitful collaboration. 

In the end, effective and successful teamwork can be summed up as simply as this – it is about the people, not the project.  Your organization can utilize the savviest and most technical project management tools and/or software however, may times these tools treat people as the byproduct and create subtasks so complex the devil starts hiding in the details. 

Leaning into harnessing what comes naturally to those on your team takes a human.  Only then can full potential be utilized.  Charles Darwin is quoted as saying “It is the long history of humans (and animals too) that those who have learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”.