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Apollo mission control from NASA archives

Eight Principles of Effective Collaboration

Frank Font
Mar 29 · 10 min read

Too often professional teams jumping into a challenging project immediately choose a divide and conquer approach instead of a collaborate and crush power move. Why?

Collaboration is an energizing solution creator when adopted effectively. Collaboration is a multiplier that creates more than what one person could create themselves. Collaboration is a mentoring machine that spreads knowledge and insight throughout a team while delivering quality product on time and under budget.

Yet, in my 30+ years as an active software development professional in various roles the “collaboration first” mindset is rare to find in the wild. It’s only in the last few years that I’ve adopted it myself.

Let’s discuss eight important principles that align talents sustainably to generate creative flow-state energy while lowering costs and increasing productivity.

Eight principles: act together, act now, fluid roles, shared clarity, experimentation, full attn, interruption contrl, finish
Eight principles: act together, act now, fluid roles, shared clarity, experimentation, full attn, interruption contrl, finish

None of these principles put anyone’s professional livelihood at risk. The risk is in not adopting these principles and falling behind those that do.

Principle of Action Together

There is a common refrain that says if you want to go fast, go alone, and if you want to go far, go together. This is oversimplifying and misleading. In truth there are many complex activities where going together is both faster and goes further.

Designing and building a non-trivial system goes most smoothly and effectively when skilled people smartly collaborate.

What is smart collaboration? In a nutshell, it is anything that builds trust, builds shared insights across the team, and produces quality results. Smart collaboration is recognizable by everyone engaged in it when it is happening. Smart collaboration builds on the principles discussed here and some that are even more fundamental; particularly interpersonal trust building in all ways that are effective.

Smart collaboration takes the investment of everyone choosing to do together what could instead have been done alone. The investment will generate dividends in quality and speed over the course of a project if the team is ready to deliver to each other and depend on each other.

What does choosing to collaborate on a software project look like? The following table illustrates a few examples.

Examples of collaboration in Planning, Designing, Building, and Assessing stages of software development.
Examples of collaboration in Planning, Designing, Building, and Assessing stages of software development.

This principle creates a mindset that builds peers and lifts everyone’s skills. If it feels hard, you and your team may be climbing a steep part of the learning curve. Or perhaps you still hear the siren song that you can do better yourself?

Principle of Action Now

What should you do right now? The answer is easy. Do the right thing. What is the right thing to do? That’s easy too, you should do right now the most important thing to do right now. This is so simple it seems absurd; but what is upside-down is that this seems foreign and odd to many instead of natural.

This is a natural principle for success in every endeavor and particularly in the development of complex software solutions. Deciding what to do is a common stumbling point when collaborating with others. It does not have to be.

Always ask yourself and those you are collaborating with what is the most important thing for us to address right now. The answer to that question is the right thing to do. Don’t assume that a plan created before you and your collaborators learned what you know now is more right than your insights in the current moment; trust yourselves more.

How can a team pick the right thing to do at any given moment? That depends on many factors. However all good choices share the following characteristics.

  • The activity is something you and your collaborators can clearly define as a task right now.
  • The activity is something you and your collaborators can imagine completing to a logical end or pause point between now and when you end your working session.
  • You and your collaborators feel there is nothing more beneficial to work on right now instead.

Why action now? Because not taking action now on the right thing for this moment in time would be a mistake.

Does this mean always focus on your work projects seven days a week and twenty four hours a day? No. Let’s put this into a holistic context: always do right now what is most important right now. Sometimes the most important thing is to work on your project, other times it is to relax or spend time with friends and family or sleep. The point is always do what is most important right now. This is an important principle that builds sustainability.

Stephen Covey’s classic Seven Habits of Highly Effective People provides a good guide for structuring our environments and lifestyles to sustainably do what matters most. An adaptation of that matrix is shown here.

Adaptation of Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix with summary notes
Adaptation of Stephen Covey’s Time Management Matrix with summary notes

Principle of Fluid Roles

Imagine a software development team is building a system where only one person is trusted to make design decisions, no matter how obscure or small. How agile is that team in contrast to a team where everyone is qualified and empowered to make design decisions as their insights become relevant? One team has to wait on one person to be available while the other team does not have this limitation slowing their progress. The slow team has one designer. The fast team has as many designers as it has people.

Notice the words describing the two teams of this imagined scenario. In the first there is only one person “trusted” with the role of designer. And in the second “everyone is qualified and empowered” to be a designer. Does this mean we are describing two teams composed of different people? Not necessarily. The difference is simply who is trusted: one person in the first team and everyone in the second.

How could it be practical to trust everyone on a team with a designer role? Answer that by asking yourself how is it possible to trust a team where everyone is not trusted? Ask yourself is one person the best designer for anything and everything at all times, or could there be moments where the insights of someone else might bring advantage?

We can and should trust everyone on a team with any role when the conditions and limits of their contribution in that role are clear to them. The principle of fluid roles tells us to prioritize trust building within our teams so that everyone grows in their ability to recognize opportunities as they reveal themselves and to contribute in whatever way fits that moment. That means serve in whatever role is most appropriate for the team and that moment.

Symbolic trading of task roles by two team members
Symbolic trading of task roles by two team members

Does this principle imply that everyone is equally skilled in all things? No. Does this principle imply that everyone is equally trusted in all things? No. This principle does imply that teams benefit when everyone is trusted to find the right role for the moment. Needs change as challenges evolve. Group members that can collaboratively pivot roles for the benefit of a project or task create resilient adaptive teams that are hard to keep up with.

Note about regulated environments: In some industries and situations specific roles require licensing or other credentials to practice. Of course the principle of fluidity does not imply ignoring those formal constraints. The principle works within them to the maximum extent possible.

Principle of Shared Clarity

Is it enough that each member in a team of collaborators have a clear task-comprehensive understanding of what is most important to do now and how they should contribute to a task’s success? It is enough only if that same useful understanding is shared clearly with everyone that is collaborating.

Clear understanding is not the same as shared understanding. And clear shared understanding should always be the standard. Accept nothing less.

Each collaborator having a clear understanding in some way materially different or materially less complete than the clear understanding of other team members is a common phenomenon. This happens organically and it is fuel for disappointment.

Imagine a team of two where Bob and Beth both understand clearly they are going to build a widget. Is that clear understanding enough? Have they worked though all the relevant details to establish a deep-enough shared insight? It’s up to them to work out how much detail is enough to finish the task and the principle of shared clarity demands that all the material details be identically understood by them both. Otherwise the foundation is weak for the work they will do together.

The prioritization of shared clarity encourages collaboration practices that are patient and insight seeking. With shared clarity a team moves constructively toward common goals. Without it, there is avoidable disappointment.

An emergent insight from adopting the shared clarity principle in an action now environment is that a team should stop clarifying detail beyond what makes sense to clarify at the moment. It is better to leave some questions open that everyone understands are not yet answered than invest time synchronizing on details that are premature. Stop clarifying when the answer depends on experiments not yet run.

Prioritizing shared clarity requires patience and objective authenticity. A team that is comfortable asking and answering difficult questions of itself and each other is a team more likely to arrive at shared clarity.

Principle of Experimentation

Experiments will fail. Even so, sometimes experimentation offers the fastest way forward. In particular, when a situation is complex, experimentation is the only way that finds high-quality paths forward.

Since some experiments are going to fail, it’s wise to make their investment small. A one year experiment is much more costly than a one day experiment. A series of small experiments can reveal many insights that build on each other.

What is an experiment when creating a new system? Any test where a team member can articulate a hypothesis in an uncertain area and also explain a way to confidently learn from the experience is an experiment. Experiments designed to move a task forward are the ones we seek.

Two examples of experimentation in the software domain.
Two examples of experimentation in the software domain.

Principle of Full Attention

This principle is a close kin of the action now and interruption control principles. How much attention should you and your collaborators give to doing the right thing at the right time? All of it.

Attention and engagement are tied together. When a collaborator is distracted and not immersing themselves entirely into a shared activity others will know. The human animal is tuned into subtle cues and this disengagement can lower the energy and creativity of the moment for the entire group.

Build a culture of focusing together on what is collectively agreed is the most important thing to do. Practicing this principle turns it into a habit.

Sometimes this means asking a person to leave a work session if they are unable to fully engage and rescheduling is not practical. It always means picking collaborators with careful attention to their engagement potential.

A team of collaborators will grow more together and start receiving dividends of the collaboration investment faster when everyone comes into a work session focused and invested completely in the shared activity.

Principle of Interruption Control

An important contributor to successfully finishing what you start is having some measure of predictable distraction free time to think clearly through what you and your collaborators are puzzling to resolve. Interruptions disrupt thought flow. Expecting interruptions can inhibit the relaxation of mind that creates flow states.

Interruptions violate the principle of finishing. If you are not in control of when you shift your focus then you are at high risk of not finishing what you have started. This is a treadmill of decay where quality and quantity of product are sacrificed on an alter of uncontrolled distraction.

The principle of interruption control requires that you develop environments where non-trivial-problem solvers can run from start to finish, predictably, for reasonable stretches of time distraction free.

Anything else guarantees fewer opportunities for those elusive flow states where magic happens.

Principle of Finishing

The principle of finishing tells us to finish what we start before we move on. Always finish before you move on.

What is finishing? Sometimes it is not what you thought it would be when you started. It is always at a place were you have generated constructive progress and feel confident you can step away and not lose the progress made. This builds on your time and resource investment. Anything else wastes it.

Applying this principle gets simpler with practice. Eventually you and your collaborators develop a subconscious awareness that your time is coming to an end and you need to start wrapping up your unfinished work. And wrapping up is never about rushing to a shoddy conclusion; if the right final product can’t be completed before you need to step away, then you take action to save your work in a manner that enables you and your collaborators to later easily pick up where you left off. Finishing is always relative to the task at hand and how you define it.

Big things rarely finish in one sitting. However, each task of a work session can and should always cleanly conclude.

Always finish, whatever that means in your moment.

Summary

Intentionally weaving each of these eight principles into your collaboration culture builds habits that produce better results at lower cost and higher speed than what teams lacking them will create.

All the symbols woven together
All the symbols woven together

These principles establish a foundation for sustainable performance where team resilience and flexibility emerge as organic qualities on their own. No task is too big for such a team. And no project is too ambitious.

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