Is a root canal collaboration?

We ended Part 1 of our evaluation of activities confused with collaboration with a reminder of logic: all dogs are mammals, but not all mammals are dogs.  All collaborative processes include communication and have a workflow, but, if we flip the equation, not all communication and workflows are collaboration.  Management and meetings are the last two areas of activities in all software development and maintenance organizations (and I do mean ALL) that we will discuss. Collaboration a critical part of delivering quality, in order not to dilute the power at the core of collaboration it is important to clearly understand which behaviors are easy to conflate with collaboration.

Meetings: There are more types of meetings than there are grains of sand in the sea.  A bit of hyperbole, however, modern office life is made up of meetings. Some meetings are designed to pass information or share statuses, and some meetings are working sessions. I recently sat in on a department’s quarterly meeting.  The meeting was a full-day affair (with lunch and mixer following). The majority of the time was taken up by each team sharing what they had been doing for the past quarter. It was hard to continually stay engaged, therefore lots of emails got done during the day and I saw many people streaming videos from YouTube. Applying the collaboration filter:

  1. Is there a common goal – Yes, to provide status and share experiences.  
  2. Is there interaction to create an outcome – Not at a whole department level. However, I am sure each team collaborated to gather their accomplishments and generate slides.
  3. Is there shared ownership of the outcome – No. I heard many people remark that the department had done many things in the past quarter but that did not mean there was any share ownership of the accomplishments. 
  4. Bi-directional communication – No. 

Many meetings, even important communication vehicles, are not collaboration.  Contrast the quarterly department meeting with a planning meeting for a Scrum team where the whole team works together to develop a sprint backlog.  They are two very different vehicles where the planning session represents collaborative meetings. 

Management Style:  How a team is managed will affect whether collaboration is a goto practice or a rarity.  Micromanagement, command and control, autocratic, and laissez-faire management styles will suppress collaboration. Late last year I was observing a planning session in which the team leader assigned work to each team member and told them how it was to be accomplished. At the end of the session, the leader asked for comments and feedback (5 minutes of conversation ensued).  While debriefing after the meeting, the manager indicated he thought it was a very collaborative session. Applying the filter. 

  1. Is there a common goal – Yes, to know what the team will be doing for the next interval.  
  2. Is there interaction to create an outcome – No, even though everyone was in the same event and could ask questions they were not working together to create an outcome.
  3. Is there shared ownership of the outcome – Yes (ish).  The manager used the classic “fist to 5” voting to test for alignment however it was unclear whether participants were really committed and owned the plan. 
  4. Bi-directional communication – No.  The majority of communication was one way.

Posthumously, the filter as its currently constituted can help sort out whether an activity was collaborative. I use the filter in coaching scenarios to help people understand that everything they think is collaborative isn’t. The filter helps unlock a bit of self-awareness.  

Next, leveraging the comments of Jonas Bull, we will reframe the question set to evaluate whether an activity is collaborative before it occurs so that there is less confusion and more valuable outcomes.