Collaboration


You can’t make a consensus decision by yourself.

Consensus decision-making is occasionally viewed as a panacea; however, there are several potential shortcomings. Like most situations, knowing an issue is a major step to resolving the issue. (more…)

Hand Drawn Checklist

Hand Drawn Checklist

Hand Drawn Chart Saturday

The simplest definition of a community of practice (COP) is people connecting, encouraging each other and sharing ideas and experiences. There are a few basic logistics that will affect the efficiency of a community of practice.  On the surface, logistics impact ease and comfort of a meeting but in a deeper sense, impact the ability for members to connect and share information. A basic logistics checklist would include meeting announcements, facilities, and agenda.

Community of practice meeting agenda: (more…)

A hockey rink reflects an external boundary.

A hockey rink reflects an external boundary.

Motivational Sunday

Boundaries are an integral part of everyday life.  Boundaries shape how we behave and how we interact with others. Boundaries provide context to help us determine who belongs on our teams, they help us understand the range of acceptable behavior and the constraints that the organization or market places on our projects. I was recently involved in helping an organization implement Agile.  The initial boundary of the transformation program focused on just the IT organization however the Agile techniques did not become effective until the business agreed to participate as product owners.  They had to agree to step across the IT team boundary and interact.  Boundaries can be external and more fixed, fluid or internally defined and each type impacts how we behave in different ways.

Boundaries can be external, generated by those around us.  For example, the physical boundaries of the department you work for or your desk in in a corporate office are assigned to you. Behavioral guidelines, outlined in an employee handbook, may have been provided to you the day you began your job. In order to avoid conflict with the group or groups you belong to, of you need to live within the boundaries that the group believes are important. These boundaries are part of the group’s culture.  Violating boundaries can be viewed as eccentric when the boundary being violated is not core to the definition of the group (the guy that wears a bow tie rather than a straight tie), or grounds for punishment when the boundary being violated is considered core (betting against your own team if you are a baseball player). If you disagree with the boundaries you should leave the group because unless you have significant power you can’t

Boundaries can be fluid – the meaning can differ depending on the circumstances.  For example, the consequences of violating a caution tape boundary around a newly seeded lawn would have different consequences than that of caution tape around a patch of poison ivy.  Similar contextual boundaries exist organizations as team form and reform, alliances between managers form and reform and even as strategic alliances between organizations change. (Remember when Apple and Google cooperated closely?)  We are obligated to continually be aware of our environment as formal and informal boundaries ebb and flow so that we can be effective and efficient.

Finally boundaries can be internal, generated by our perception of the environment and our place in that environment.  Boundaries shape how we behave and how we interact with others but perhaps more true for those that we frame for ourselves. For many years, I believed that I was a poor public speaker, I erected a boundary between myself and public speaking.  That boundary shaped how I interacted with the world for many years.   We are accountable for our behavior and the boundaries that we construct around ourselves.  The only thing we can truly control is our own behavior and therefore we need to accept that we can change the boundaries we construct for ourselves if we want to change how we interact with our environment.

Boundaries are a fact of life.  Whether a boundary is externally generated, contextual in nature or inside our own head, if your boundaries are in the way of our own self-actualization – change those boundaries.  Change may involve changing jobs, creating new friends and alliances or changing how you behave. In the long run, you have control over the boundaries that constrain you.

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When a tree falls in the woods and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? Physics tells us the answer is yes. Likewise, does the question about project progress not asked have a consequence? Project managers might not have as tidy an answer as physics professors. But not knowing could leave a hole in our knowledge or in the knowledge of the team, increasing the potential for a mistake. For example, as a product owner it is important to understand the acceptance criteria for a story to know if it is ready to be fully accepted. In both the short and the long term, what we don’t know can hurt us.

 

Books

I love books. In a recent interview on the Harvard Business Review podcast discussing, “Talk, Inc.: How Trusted Leaders Use Conversation to Power Their Organizations” the authors discussed the four I’s of communication. The first I was intimacy. Intimacy suggests that “personal conversation flourishes to the degree that the participants stay close to each other, figuratively as well as literally.”  Talking at someone does not build intimacy.

In order to build intimacy and real trust, communication has to flow in both directions and built on a shared reality. Books and other one way communications can help shape a shared reality but until we experience it in the real world it can only be ethereal. Personal conversations and interaction are experiences to shift shared realities into the real world.  Books are monologues, intimacy can only occur if you don’t just relay on monologues.

Five attributes determine whether collaboration will work and deliver the value you expect. 

Ability is the first of the five to understand.  Ability describes the group of attributes that are required to actually describe and/or resolve the problem. In the category of ability I would include attributes like knowledge, expertise, and ability to learn, listen and analyze to name a few. A group without the capacity to tackle a problem or without the skills to be able to learn to tackle a problem will fail more times than not.

 Authority describes the power or right to give orders or make decisions.  Collaborative teams must have the appropriate level of authority to make the choices required to deliver, to meet their commitments. I would suggest the authority delegated to the team provides the tools to leverage the resources needed to deliver.  The team must have clear directions on the level of authority they have been granted and what processes must be used to gain approval for decisions that are beyond their levels of authority.  As Mike Burrows (@asplake on Twitter) pointed out when discussing the difference between control and authority, “When you delegate authority you demonstrate to all that you trust someone (or some team) to get the work done.”

 Trust is a term that has many layers.  Teams must trust each other’s motives.  Solving the problem, meeting the goal must be the paramount goal of all of the members of the collaborative team.  When members believe someone has an ulterior motive, they will tend to ostracize that member or at the very least de-value their contribution.   In many instances groups use team-building exercises to build this trust; however trust isn’t about exercises is about understanding motives.  Macavelian politics and collaborative groups are not good bed fellows.

 Commitment is a sense among two or more individuals that they will do what it takes to deliver the project and that level of effort will be matched by the others. Commitment is a multilayered concept; commitment can be assessed against the goal or the success of the team.  Interestingly I would suggest that even though commitment to goal and commitment to team are different concepts they have the same end effect.  All of the members of the collaborative team must embrace one or the other.  Commitment is the fuel that keeps the group moving forward. 

 Another type of commitment is the commitment of the organization to support the collaborative team; in essence, the commitment is to having the problem solved.  This is more than management support. The whole organization will need to change.  Many collaborative teams fail because they do get the support they need from the organization.

How important is commitment?  As note in “User Commitment and Collaboration:   Motivational Antecedents and Project Performance,” commitment is so important that the level of commitment to the goal is predictive of the success of collaborative efforts.  The research strongly suggests that commitment is critical for both making collaboration happen and the ultimate success of the collaborative effort.   When commitment falters, trust will also, therefore leaving a group of competing humans rather than a team.

The final attribute of successful collaborative teams is recognition – at the very least anticipation that they will be recognized before they deliver and the realization of that recognition when they do.  Without the anticipation of recognition, commitment will falter.  Recognition is the motivator that pushes a team toward a goal.  It is the brass ring off in the distance.  Without recognition you have to rely on the pure altruism of the team or individual political motivation.  Organizations as diverse as NASA and CISCO have gone as far as incorporating recognition of collaboration into their bonus programs.

Summary

Collaboration is a nearly ubiquitous problem-solving technique used in today’s business environment.  As a tool it is not perfect; it can be slower than individual strokes of genius; at times it can deliver watered down solutions; and collaborative teams can lose their ability to think outside the box.  On the other hand, collaborative efforts can marshal many points of view to create solutions no individual stroke of genius would be able to deliver.  Given the power of this technique, it is important to have the knowledge of what it takes to actually make a collaborative effort work.  Synthesizing a group of individuals into a collaborative team requires a combination of ability, authority, commitment, trust and recognition.

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