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.

Collaboration: The New Duct Tape Part 2
Thomas M Cagley Jr.

For all of the good points of collaboration there can be drawbacks. I would like to highlight four of the most prevalent in an attempt to immunize your collaborative efforts from failure.

The first potential issue is speed. Collaboration can deliver slower than other problem resolution techniques. Why? In any type of team effort, you need to balance multiple points of view which means collaboration can be slower than a single stroke of genius or insight. The need to balance multiple points of view will require spending the time and effort needed to hear and understand all parties. When using collaboration techniques I strongly suggest monitoring against analysis paralysis to ensure decisions and interactions are focused on being efficient. A sweat test (e.g. set a specific amount of time for considering options) can be used to decide on a cutoff when a team can’t coalesce.

A second potential issue stemming from the same root is the potential for a watered down solution being delivered. The process of coalescing on a solution based on multiple points of view might mean that the solution is more than the sum of the parts or watered down due to compromise. One rule to remember is that all parties don’t have to agree with the solution you deliver but rather be able to live with the solution. It has been said that the camel is a horse designed by committee (or vice versa). One important mechanism to use to keep the team focused is to make sure the goal is crystal clear. Ensure the expectations for results have been defined to ensure the team hits the mark and has a yardstick to judge the solution the put forward. Developing an under optimized solution is a failure.

Teams can become stale. One indication of a staleness is a team exhibiting the “all problems are a nail if you have a hammer syndrome”. In other words a team that constantly reuses the same set of solutions rather than innovating. Constant investment in bringing new ideas, concepts and experiences to the team is required to ensure the possibility of delivering new and innovative solutions. The word investment does not necessarily mean spending money; rather many times it means the investment of time for learning or exposure. Building an environment of continuous exploration and learning is critical for long-term health of the collaborative team. Stagnation is the single largest reason for collaborations to fail over time. Stale is bad whether you are dealing with potato chips or teams.

Strong personalities are a requirement for leaders of all types. Collaborative teams must embrace strong personalities but not at the expense of allowing the strong personalities to drown out or overwhelm all other inputs. I suggest that all teams be trained in moderation and that the team set expectations for collaboration. Teams with a single voice are not collaborative.

Most of the drawbacks are not inherent in collaborative techniques rather the drawbacks tend to surface when collaboration is done poorly or incorrectly.

Part 3: “What makes collaboration work?”

The economic crisis of the past few years has caused organizations great and small to actively chase innovation.  Just what exactly innovation is and how it can be measured is are hotly debated topics.  Even though everyone wants to be an innovator, we will ignore the definition of innovation for the time being and focus on one of the primary tools being leverage in the pursuit of innovation, collaboration.  We will focus on collaboration because done correctly; collaboration is the duct tape of the business world.

Collaboration is typically defined as two or more people working together to solve a common problem or in pursuit of a common goal.  Two components of the definition get to the crux of what makes collaboration work.  The first is the phrase “two or more people” because you can’t collaborate by yourself.  Without different points of view much of the power of the technique is lost.  Second is the phrase, “common problem” or “common goal”.  The common goal acts as the focusing mechanism for the overall process.  Combining these two concepts means that collaboration works through social interactions focused on a common mission.  Done correctly collaborative efforts deliver synergy, addresses complexity and fosters involvement.

The makeup of the team is a major component of the success of any collaboration.  Rogers and Hammerstein combined scores and lyrics into fantastic songs, creating something greater than the simple sum of the parts.  Great sports teams attain championships when they combine complementary skills which allow them to tackle problems that they are not capable of addressing individually.  In brainstorming we are taught to build on the ideas of others; to dovetail ideas.  Combining and building on the ideas and thoughts of the team is synergy.

Businesses don’t create collaborative teams to tackle the simple problems.  When was the last time you formed a collaborative team to decide when you were going for lunch?  Never?  But there probably was a group created (hopefully collaborative) to decide where the entire office would go for the last holiday lunch.  Collaboration is a reflection of the maxim that two heads are better than one (on different people).  Many times multiple points of view are required to solve problems that can’t be easily described or solved individually.  Collaborative groups allow problems to be viewed from multiple points of view which allows the team to describe problems and solutions in a more robust manner which is one technique for dealing with complexity.

Collaboration can used to build buy in for the solutions that are generated.  Naomi Karten in her book, Changing How You Manage and Communicate Change, said “that even a minimal sense of control can go a long way towards easing the stress that people feel.”  Collaboration is one means of providing a means for participation yielding a sense of control.  Each voice on the team is a representative of a constituency that is being voiced as the solution is crafted.  As part of implementing the solution it must be expected that the individual representatives support and sell the solution to their constituencies.

Part 2 –Attributes of Collaborative Teams