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Characteristics of Natural Collaborators

When we talk about cross-functional teams, we typically mean those that exist within a single department or organization. When we form cross-functional teams across different organizations, they are usually brought together around a particular challenge, like affordable housing or homelessness. People are recruited to join this team based on where they work, who they represent and/or what value they can bring to solving a particular issue. How they approach collaboration is not considered.

A few years ago, we at WTIA asked: what if we brought together cross-sector teams not to work with any particular problem, but to work on the problem of collaboration itself? Why is it so hard to collaborate, even though we all say we want to? We created the WTIA Ion Program to explore these questions.

Ion is a platform for individual, team, and community experimentation and learning. Ion collaborators are co-creators in experiment and take responsibility for their own learning. We didn’t want to create prescriptive professional development lessons or a set curriculum when there are so many other great leadership and professional development programs available.

Two years, three cohorts, and 54 Ion collaborators later, we have enough data to start sharing early lessons and best practices in cross sector collaboration. When we started recruiting for Ion, we asked for nominations of people who were curious, open-minded, and wanted to break silos.

With everyone talking about having a “growth mindset,” we hear from people all the time, “I’m a learner.”

Since then, we’ve gotten a much better understanding of what it looks like to be “open-minded” and “curious” and collaborative. And what it doesn’t look like. We realized that others might find this information very relevant.

Natural collaborators:

  • don’t care about job titles and hierarchy
  • are willing to be flexible and adaptive
  • appreciate learning from other people, including from those in more junior roles
  • want to get to know their team members as people, even if they feel uncomfortable asking or sharing
  • find ways to stretch their thinking, learn more things about people, their community, and issues
  • are rarely bored
  • will not bring their personal agenda and pet projects for Ion to complete
  • delight in being surprised about themselves
  • strive to live their best intentions toward their team members
  • take responsibility for their own learning
  • strive to hold themselves and others accountable
  • feel like they can always become better listeners
  • find ways to show up for their team, even if they can’t be there physically
  • give without any expectation of an immediate return

People who may be more interested in advancing themselves than their team:

  • want to network exclusively with “high-level people”
  • get irritated with ambiguity
  • think they can’t learn anything from their peers or those who are in more junior roles
  • think that “icebreakers” are a waste of time and are unwilling to explore how their professional and personal lives are interconnected.
  • don’t see the value of in-person meetings
  • have a strong bias for perfection and are unwilling to show or acknowledge their mistakes
  • are easily bored
  • want to meet others and/or a team who can help them fulfill their own projects/agendas
  • hate to be surprised by what they don’t know
  • do not know how to hold themselves accountable to commitments they made

Look for these signs in the people around you. Think about which items hold true for you. Let me know what think—I’d like to hear your thoughts.


  • Julie Pham

    Julie Pham is the Vice President of Community Engagement and Marketing at WTIA, where she helps fulfill Washington’s potential to become home to the world’s greatest tech industry.

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