5 Expert Collaborative Problem-Solving Strategies

Collaborative Problem-Solving

You don’t need to be an executive to initiate powerful change within your organization. According to collaboration expert Jane Ripley, collaboration begins with you.

Expecting superiors, employees, coworkers, or other departments to take responsibility will get you nowhere, fast. Instead, adopt collaboration as a personal responsibility and be unafraid to take initiative — it doesn’t matter if you’re an entry-level employee or a seasoned executive.

Jane Ripley is a collaboration expert and co-author of the book Collaboration Begins With You: Be a Silo Buster along with Ken Blanchard and Eunice Parisi-Carew (you can follow Jane on Twitter: @WiredLeadership). Jane draws on her research working with companies ranging from small businesses and entrepreneurs to large, multi-national enterprises to talk about collaborative problem-solving strategies professionals can use no matter what organizational level they’re at.

Initiating collaborative problem-solving within an organization is a complex task, with many moving parts. Jane describes it well: “Imagine you’re in the aircraft and there’s this dashboard. You’ve got to try and get all the buttons and levers in the right places.” Collaboration within an organization is also a complex process.

The approach Jane and her co-authors adopt in their books aims to simplify a complex subject with actionable models, including the UNITE model for collaborative problem-solving:

U = Utilize difference
N = Nurture safety and trust
I = Involve others in creating a clear purpose, values, and goals
T = Talk openly
E = Empower yourself and others

Executives can use these strategies to transform the culture and impact of their organizations from the company culture from the top down. Alternatively,entry-level employees can adopt the same strategies to accelerate professional growth while offering enormous value to their organizations from the bottom up.

In this post, we’ll look at each of the elements of the UNITE model — and what you need to know to put them into action.

1. Utilize differences in collaborative problem-solving

Collaborative Problem-Solving Strategies
Collaboration expert Jane Ripley

Collaborative problem-solving relies on the presence of multiple perspectives.

Jane advises to remember that different perspectives are not personal. In fact, conflict is important.

Fear of contrasting opinions often indicates a competitive mindset, not a collaborative one. This only creates more problems rather than solving them.

“The power,” Jane says, “is in the combination of perspectives.”

2. Nurture safety and trust within your organization

Effective collaboration is impossible when trust isn’t a part of the culture.

Jane elaborates: “My co-author, Eunice Parisi-Carew, always says, ‘Fear is the number one inhibitor to collaboration, because if you’re inhibited, you won’t contribute, and if you don’t contribute nobody will know that you have a different perspective.’”

In fact, trust is one of the most crucial elements in being a silo-buster; it plays enormous role in preventing bottlenecks and accelerating growth.

“Some people come to the workplace trusting everybody, and they get let down. Other people come to the workplace believing nobody will do the work as well as they can. Those people try to do it all and become a bottleneck,” Jane explains.

Low trust within an organization rarely goes unnoticed. Even if executives are unaware of the problem, employees always are — it negatively impacts their ability to be effective.

A tell-tale sign of a low-trust culture for leaders is when people don’t contribute ideas. Jane shares a classic example: “When the leader sits at the meeting and says, ‘I’ve got this new thing that’s been handed to us from headquarters, now we’ve got to implement XYZ initiative. Any ideas?’ And…there’s no response.”

Silence follows because, as Jane explains, “not usually because [the employees] don’t have any ideas, it’s just that they just don’t want to voice them” — for fear of criticism, negative feedback, no feedback, or backlash.

3. Involve others for effective collaborative problem-solving

According to Jane, “Not all the best ideas come from the top, and not all the best ideas come from a specific group. Marketing can have a very valuable perspective on the use of collaborative software, and so can IT.”

Not all the best ideas come from the top or from a specific group. — @WiredLeadership Click To Tweet

It may be uncomfortable to involve people and departments with whom you don’t currently have a relationship, but it’s essential for effective collaborative problem-solving. Even as an entry-level employee, you can take the initiative to open the lines of communication to other people within your organization.

Invite someone to lunch — or suggest involving someone from another department in a final review on a project that could use their feedback. It’s a simple way to begin, but it’s powerful.

4. Don’t be afraid to talk openly

How important is speed to your organization? On a scale of one to ten it’s probably an eight, nine, or ten.

According to Jane, speed is the number-one benefit of talking openly, or transparency: “If you’ve all got the same information, you can all make decisions and bring those pieces of information together to solve the problem more quickly.” Alternatively, a lack of transparency creates confusion, more meetings, and more discussion.

“So now you’ve got a [unproductive] discussion instead of having everybody on the same level playing field all coming at it from the same approach, able to look at the data or the information and critically evaluate that,” she adds.

And speed isn’t the only benefit of talking openly. As counterintuitive as it may seem, so is security.

Jane often talks about information theft when discussing transparency. “When information is kept in silos you open up an opportunity for other people to prosper from it,” she says. “So an unscrupulous individual can take that information and do what they like with it, whereas if it’s common knowledge, it’s in the public domain, [and] they have no more power.”

5. Don’t wait to empower yourself and others

As a leader, empowering your organization starts with you. As an employee, it’s no different! You can’t wait for someone at the top to make the shift before you allow yourself to as well.

Jane shares insights into how both leaders and employees can take take steps to empower themselves, and in doing so empower others:


Firstly, leaders must discard a competitive mindset in favor of a collaborative one.

“Empowering yourself and others is the big part for the leader. [Leaders] are coaching for competence, creating clarity around goals, and setting boundaries. They’re removing roadblocks, sharing their networks, and giving opportunities to build knowledge… it’s how they help an individual become collaborative and make a greater contribution [to the organization].”

Instead of keeping your knowledge, network, and expertise close to the vest as a leader, share it openly with your employees. Not only will your experiences add enormous value to their professional growth, it will also empower them to be more effective in their jobs. They’ll also trust and appreciate you more.


Employees can also take initiative within their organization, regardless of the current company culture. They can start by offering their ideas, insights — even their networks.

Jane says, “It always amazes me how, particularly with the millennial generation, that they’re networked electronically they have some phenomenal people in their networks and can bring those equally to leaders who are sitting in a position maybe four, five, six, seven years older than them, it’s tremendous.”

People are innately collaborative

Jane ties together the concepts and action steps surrounding collaborative problem with a familiar example:

“People are innately collaborative. We do it innately and we do it socially. If somebody wants to throw a party everybody says,‘What should I bring?’‘What shall I do?’ ‘I’ll do the decorating!’

And yet, when they come to work, ‘Oh, wait a minute, the decorating belongs to that department, refreshments belongs to that department, so now we need a meeting.’”

“We’re wired,” Jane explains, “for collaboration, and it’s our workplace habits, systems, and beliefs that get in the way. For better collaborative problem-solving where you work, you don’t need more meetings.”

Instead, work on building a culture of collaboration by utilizing difference, nurturing safety and trust, involving others in creating a clear purpose, values, and goals, talking openly, and empowering yourself and others. And that’s something we all can do.

We're wired for collaboration, and it's our workplace habits that get in the way. — @WiredLeadership Click To Tweet