Collaboration is one of those words that is, well, not exactly scientific. For some, collaboration just means “working together” or simply “getting along.” Some define collaboration as a process by which teams work across disciplines to share knowledge and foster innovation. For others, collaborating means you’re using team collaboration tools that help you communicate or chat virtually or socially, so you can share ideas or work anywhere.
In truth, it’s actually a combination of all three.
According to a recent study, just the perception of working together results in greater performance for teams. The Forbes article about the benefits of team collaboration, noted that companies that “promoted collaborative working were five times as likely to be high performing.” No wonder collaboration is a buzzword! Getting better performance is one idea we can all agree on.
But how do get your team to collaborate in order to reap the benefits of better team unity and performance? The problem is, team collaboration comes naturally to some teams, not so much to others, but thankfully it’s a skill that can be taught. We’ve put together these tips for implementing and promoting collaboration with your teams.
1. Build Trust
Trust is the foundation of collaboration. It’s vital that individual contributors feel free to share ideas and get meaningful, constructive feedback, and it’s equally important that on the team-level, ideas are shared, not fought over.
It can be hard to shift institutional prejudices, especially in a culture where teams are encouraged to compete with one another. That will have to change. While you can’t maybe lead an entire organizational change to foster collaboration, you can start with one team, and demonstrate its success, before rolling it out to other teams.
Begin by seeking team input on ideas for promoting collaborative ways of working, and ask for them to help define the goals and opportunities. You can’t lead this from the top down. You’ll find that their perspective is unique and different than yours, and they can offer solutions that might be beyond your keen. This is how you seed a collaborative culture in your team.
2. Create Partnerships
Collaboration is about creating team unity, and that starts with getting people together. There are many ways you can build teams within your larger team. Partner up people across disciplines. This helps people get out of their comfort zone, and helps bridge communications across departments.
For example, you could partner up a dev lead with a marketing lead and ask them to find a solution to product market fit. Or you could partner several junior devs with several junior customer support members, and ask them to engineer a solution to slow customer response times. Both teams can present their findings in bi-weekly meetings designed to bring forward ideas from every team member.
While not every idea will be implemented, some innovative ideas very well might! The goal of the exercise is to engage the whole team in core ways to solve problems and find solutions to every aspect of the business or project and potentially leverage cost-effective solutions that are more innovative. And in the process, the teams are developing core, trusting relationships with other teams which, in turn, can dramatically improve communication and efficiency across all of their work.
3. Share Knowledge
Timelines and morale both suffer, when team members are blocked from getting the info they need from other team members or departments. Requests for documents become chores for both the requester and the requestee, which can lead to interpersonal conflict and resentments.
Conversely, when knowledge is freely shared, team members have more time to work with that knowledge and are less encumbered by process. Team members can then focus on ways to work together, rather than ways to just answer requests.
One easy way to do this is through a central document repository, where all the online files can be easily retrieved anytime by anyone on the team. While many teams today do share an online dropbox or file storage with the whole team, they still might be shy from sharing works in progress or things at the idea stage. Those people still place those items on their desktop or personal folders, and don’t think of sharing those until “they’re ready.”
The question is, ready for what? Ideas are what foster collaboration and innovation. Share ideas and you can spark new programs or simple fixes from someone you least expect.
Instead of just uploading files and hoping someone comes along to read them. Try a more proactive approach. Ask for feedback! Share on a team bulletin board or wiki and share raw ideas and just invite feedback. Passing around these early ideas often leads to time-saving solutions later.
4. Use Team Collaboration Tools
There are many new collaborative tools and tricks you can explore to find new ways to encourage collaboration. But for starters, you want to make sure your team are all using the same tools so you can leverage the benefits (and reduce unnecessary costs).
There are several types of tools you can use to support team collaboration, but remember, tools alone will not get your team to reap the true, productivity benefits of collaboration. But they do help if you know how to leverage them. Here are the different collaboration software options you can choose from:
- All in one project & team collaboration tool
- Chat apps
- Wikis or team discussion boards
- Online document storage
- Shared documents
Sharing is so embedded in most tools and apps these days, it’s tempting to think of collaboration technology as the ability to simply share something. But that’s not quite it. For a tool to be collaborative, it needs to be able to foster a conversation, either on a task or a document or around a topic.
Chat apps are simple ways to have a conversation, like through text messaging or group chat apps like Twitter, Slack or Skype. And those are great tools to be able to add groups or teams to one single conversation. When you’re looking for feedback or input from an outside group, like stakeholders or end users, using social media tools like Facebook or Twitter are a great way to get buy-in and valuable insights. Internally, you might set up chat groups with teams or partners to create an ongoing dialog.
Shared documents and or wikis offer an excellent way for teams to add value to ongoing projects in the idea or execution phase. You can, in most tools, @someone or invite them to the shared document to inspire commenting or feedback on the page. If you’re an editor like me, it can be uncomfortable to share your work with the larger group when it’s not “polished,” but if you put “Draft” in large letters across the top, it’s pretty clear to collaborators that they’re seeing a doc in progress.
The benefit of an all-in-one project collaboration tool is that you usually get all those features in one tool, and it’s tied to the team’s actual work like tasks. This helps keep task-level collaboration together with the project, as opposed to opening up a new program to chat about it outside of the project space. So much information and knowledge in organizations is lost because teams either have email conversations or chats in programs not connected to the project work. Productivity is greatly improved when you try an all-in-one tool.
Management gurus will tell you that the bureaucracy around process is an area ripe to be reviewed if you want to boost productivity. Too much process can stop your team from achieving their full potential. The more time they spend filling in change requests or logging work orders, the less time they spend actually doing their job.
There is some truth in this. And you wouldn’t be the first manager to worry about whether you’ve got the level of process right in the team. However, let’s be measured about it. As innovation expert Julian Birkinshaw writes in HBR.com: “We will never banish bureaucracy, in part because there are some good reasons for it to exist. But we should always seek ways of keeping its worst tendencies in check, by homing in on the specific problems it creates.”
Indeed, in some organizations, processes are taken for granted as unchangeable, immutable forces that frankly are almost cultural. Suggest changing the way things are done, and you’re likely to encounter resistance or worse. Yet, if you are concerned about whether your processes are helping or hindering your team’s productivity, know that there are ways to change the current paradigm and influence others to do the same.
But first you need the data.
Do a Process Audit
The word audit need not send anyone running for the hills. While it does sound like yet another process to tackle, it really isn’t. You need a simple review in order to know whether your processes are, in fact, getting in the way of productivity. After all, you shouldn’t strip away processes based on assumptions.
You aren’t looking for the number of processes or tools, or even a judgement call on the level of bureaucracy in the team. You can have dozens or hundreds of processes and if they all work smoothly, they can help productivity rather than hinder it.
What you are looking for is: 1) A drop in productivity and 2) signs and symptoms of an unhappy team. Both these are indicators that bureaucracy is getting in the way of getting things done.
Before you can notice a productivity problem, however, you need understand the trends in productivity within your own project or organization. Unfortunately, unless you’ve just introduced a horrendous brand new process, you won’t find one, single thing that is slowing your team down. You’re looking for indicators of a gradual decline relative to past measures of productivity.
In order to know if productivity is declining, you need to know how to measure it. Gather all the project data that you have and look for the repeating tasks, as these are often the ones that require processes. For example:
- Managing requests for changes
- Project handovers and internal reviews
- Processing payments.
Task management systems that allow users to input the amount of actual time spent on a task will let you build up a huge repository of useful benchmark data. If you see that last year the change control process took a week for the change to be logged, assessed and either approved or rejected, you can compare that to current data. If it takes a lot longer today, you have empirical evidence that shows your process is slower and that could be part of the reason for the drop in productivity.
Do a Morale Audit
Don’t underestimate the useful information you can get from your team. Talk to them. They will be able to give you a gut feel for whether they are hampered or guided by the processes and (more importantly) which ones are difficult to work with.
Pinpoint the processes that are causing the most grief. Analyze what about them is creating problems. This could be:
- They are too time consuming
- The approval loop goes to the wrong people
- They require too much information
- Nothing is done with the information that is provided.
It can take time to recover from the drop in morale that is the byproduct of an unproductive work environment, and bringing to mind all that is frustrating your team does need to be done sensitively. Be mindful in this process, and be prepared to address immediate concerns. Deal with any quick wins first, such as explaining where the data goes and why the process works that way. Then deal with the practical issues raised by attempting to resolve the process issues they have flagged.
These are quick ways to assess whether your team is less productive as a result of process. You can carry out large scale process mapping and do a deep dive into your productivity, but it’s easier to start with identifying some quick wins before moving to that sort of time-consuming initiative.
A drop in productivity could be the cause of a morale problem, or a symptom of poor morale in the team. As you can imagine these two issues are closely linked, so it’s worth seeing what you can do to address low morale at the same time. Ultimately, information sharing, and involving the team in the assessment, can go a long way to improving morale.
How to Get Rid of Ineffective Processes
So, you’ve analyzed your productivity data and reviewed the team morale situation, and you’ve learned that the issues are definitely related to ineffective processes. Here are three steps you can take to weed out what’s not working.
1. Take a leaf out of the Lean and Six Sigma manuals by stripping everything out of the process that doesn’t add value. Your team can tell you what they are. They know and work with the processes regularly, and they will have a good idea about which ones are essential.
Try to avoid falling into the trap of removing too many processes without validating them, however. Someone else in the organization might need the piece of data that you have decided isn’t necessary. Do some sense checking before stripping the process back totally, or you’ll end up being unproductive for the opposite reasons!
2. Delegate the process-related admin tasks to team members to share the load and streamline operations. Remember, democracy is not always the best approach in delegation. Choose team members best suited to accomplish them efficiently: there’s no business benefit in having your highly paid technical architect do low-value process paperwork if your team administrator could do it just as well.
3. Advocate for your team. Many of your processes will be organization-wide, and you probably can’t remove them without some serious negotiation. Bring key leaders together and arm yourself with the data you uncovered in your audit to demonstrate the loss in productivity and its impact on the bottom line. Be sure to demonstrate your clear solution-oriented approach that would work just as well, yet is less process-heavy and more productive.
Pro Tip: If you can’t fix a process issue because it’s genuinely got to be that way, let the team know that you tried and what the outcome was. Don’t neglect to communicate roadblocks or denials because they could assume (wrongly) that you did nothing and that will further erode their confidence.
New Benchmark: The Goldilocks Zone
What you want are processes that support your team and help them to be more productive. In other words, processes that are not too big, not too small but are, as Goldilocks would exclaim: “Just right!”
It will take a bit of trial and error to whittle away the old, outmoded processes and streamline new ones. Use a continuous feedback approach with your team to maintain the Goldilocks Zone of Processes and prevent new ones from creeping in.
In fact, getting team buy-in on all processes helps improve team morale because it boosts engagement when they know they are instrumental to contributing to continuous process improvement. Collaboration will really make a difference; overall you should quickly see productivity improvements, and you can tweak your processes until they are just right for the whole team.
It’s not just executives that need to pay attention to what you are delivering with your project. Your end users need to be engaged as well, and this is often a stakeholder group that’s overlooked.
Certainly, the rise of Agile and Lean methodologies in project and product management have shed light on the value of end user engagement. Many thought leaders are discussing the role of empathy in developing products for users, born from the design thinking work out of Stanford and IDEO product labs, which represents a shift from top-down product development where project and product managers dictate best solutions to the end users.
But if these new methodologies aren’t already baked into your organization, that doesn’t mean the end user should be neglected. User feedback and engagement is vital in the adoption of the new solution to ensure that the benefits address core needs and usability factors. Oftentimes, there will be only one representative from the user population on your project team. That isn’t a guarantee that the whole user group will end up embracing the change that you are working on. You’ll want to make sure you’re talking to the right end users.
So, how do you engage users on your project, especially when you probably don’t have much time to spend with them? Here are some strategies you can try for your project – pick and choose the ones that make the most sense for what your project is trying to achieve.
If your project is going to change the way people work, then think about what training you can offer them. Early adopters of a solution often train themselves. While this group can become excellent product evangelizers, sometimes posting helpful how-tos in forums or blog posts online, you shouldn’t let them be the voice of your project or assume their use-case is the same for a broader population.
Users are often worried that they won’t have the skills or knowledge to do try something new, so reassurance through training is important. You can offer free online tutorials, video coaching, classroom courses or work on a train-the-trainer model where you train a group of people who then go on to train their peers.
Develop your own early-adopters with early engagement, and let people know what training they can expect so that they have more confidence in being able to use the products your project is delivering.
For end users engaged early on, invite them in to with transparent access to project progress. Give them client-level access to project tools so they can see visual project dashboards and participate in relevant project communications. (You can usually customize their access for security purposes.)
You can also build a full project communication plan to brief the users. Some techniques you can include are:
Blogs or Newsletters: a monthly or quarterly update on project status, what’s coming and the benefits to them
Presentations: get on the agenda of team meetings for the core groups that you wish to target and tell them about the project
Emails: blanket emails aren’t a great idea but sometimes it’s the only way to reach a large audience
Posters: depending on the nature of the project and its demographics, these can be put up internally or externally to explain the project and why it is being done.
You can probably think of other ways of communicating your message to target the widest possible, and most relevant, group of people.
Share the Vision
Unless people understand why this project is happening they will find it very difficult to buy into the overall solution. So you can never spend enough time sharing the vision and objectives, particularly when you have other opportunities to communicate along the way.
Create opportunities to actually sit down and have conversations with end users, whether going out into the field for public projects, hosting coffee talks in the community, buying breakfasts for core user groups. In addition to listening to the end user requests, it will be an opportunity for you, as well, to talk about why the project is beneficial and how the solutions will be a help. If people feel invited to the table (literally), they will be more likely to evangelize its benefits and adopt it.
Live Demos & Prototypes
Some users find it difficult to visualize concepts. Your CEO might get the “back of the napkin” sketch, but your end users will not.
Develop a prototype of the product for the most effective end user feedback and engagement. For example, you could set up webapp version of a fully-functional app to test how people interact with the new features. Or you can create a 3D model of a product you’re developing so people can have something to physically turn over in their hands. You could also create a slideshow or video walk-through of the product and display in accessible areas.
Listen (and Act On!) Feedback
There’s no point in going to the trouble to solicit end user feedback early on in your project, if you’re not going to act on the input. Not only do people just like to feel as if their ideas have been heard, they actually need to see their feedback incorporated. Because, of course, if you’ve found the right end users to interview and bring in to your project, they will be the ones to actually use what you’re developing.
Create opportunities to solicit feedback beyond the other types of engagement activities described above. This could be through comments threads on a project blog. Or set up an email account for receiving feedback. Remember to respond to every message (ideally not an auto-responder for a small group) even if it is with a simple message like: “Thank you! We’re glad you took the time to offer your input.”
Of course, you won’t be able to incorporate everyone’s ideas, and many suggestions will be impractical or downright stupid, but make sure treat everyone professionally. Go back to them saying whether their points could be built into the project now, in the future or not at all, and the reasons why. This feedback loop is one of the easiest and simplest ways to help get buy in for your solution, and it takes very little effort to set up.
You don’t have to implement complete Agile or Lean methodologies to put the end user first in your project. Jon Kolko’s recent piece in HBR provides an excellent look into how to put empathetic product design into practice. All of these suggestions are essentially change management techniques and offer a way to approach engaging users with your project and its objectives.
Helping people move towards the new solutions by engaging them early on is really important if you want your change to “stick”. Build your training, communication and other engagement activities into your online planning tool. With ProjectManager.com, you can set up unlimited client-level access account for end users to give them controlled visibility and access to collaboration tools for an easier engagement platform.