Learning to Master Collaboration

Recently on Twitter I shared that I have undertaken the project of writing a book. Many people responded with encouragement and support that was much appreciated. Writing comes with many ups and downs, I’m learning. Jason Mesut in particular suggested that I “write it in public” in blog format to gather feedback as I go and stay motivated. Since the topic I’m writing about is collaboration, his idea, however terrifying, made sense. I’m a little wary of actually doing the whole thing in public, but I thought I’d test the waters. So here’s an encapsulation of the book and what I’ve learned. I’d love to hear from others what you think about the topic and what your experience has been.

via @hwguth on Flickr

Better Together

Working closely with different types of people is one of my favorite things about doing product design and development. I love the feeling when a group of people wrestles with ideas, and each others’ egos, and in the end create something for people to make life a little simpler, or safer, or rewarding.

We place a great deal of value on collaboration in business today. It is said to be “the way work is done now,” and will be done in the future. Because many of the challenges we face are complex and getting more so; we need to be able to bring diverse talents and perspectives together to understand them and address them. From climate change to robots to fighting ‘fake news’, increasingly we need to include those in the solving of problems and making good decisions. We need teams to be able to make use of deep specialization in specific areas, while retaining a sense of the big picture of avoid unintended consequences. We need collaborative teams to ruthlessly test ideas for failures of all kinds.

  • First, we benefit from bringing diversity to a problem, whether it’s diverse skill sets, cultural perspectives, or customers and employees. The ability to channel the experiences and skills of many people when solving a problem means you generate more potential solutions, and tests of those solutions quickly.
  • Collaboration is also incredibly useful when the challenge being faced has unknown unknowns, and there isn’t a clear, structure path forward to find a solution. In these situations, collaborations given the right space can help a small group of trusted colleagues feel out the unknowns from different angles.
  • Getting buy-in from large groups of stakeholders can also be improved by collaboration. When done right, stakeholders given a chance to participate in creating the solution will be more invested in its success.
  • Another big benefit of collaboration is increased engagement among employees who are more intrinsically motivated. These employees are the profile of 21st century workers who can think nimbly and adapt to changes because they have resilience in partnerships among colleagues.

My inspiration for writing this book was watching well intentioned, capable leaders express the need to get wider perspectives on initiatives, to improve cross-functional collaboration, but not know quite how to pull it off. Some express fatigue at trying to get people to “play nice,” and some admit that they don’t know how to get the outcomes of the teamwork to gain a foothold among other leaders.

The reality is, most people aren’t taught how to work in a collaborative environment with all of the power plays and interpersonal dynamics. As someone who has been taught collaboration techniques and approaches in several different settings, I know that it doesn’t happen automatically. In fact, much of what we see as success in collaborations, is generally either luck, or the result of someone spending a great deal of political capital to backstop an effort they feel strongly about. Time and time again, I and others I spoke with have seen well-intentioned product managers get mired in politics and personal relationships to pull off a new feature. And, good for them! They did it! But they also have just condemned themselves to months of rebuilding those relationships and shoring up their political capital for the next new idea campaign. It’s exhausting!

The collaborations that go off the rails share some common elements, just as the success do. In developing this book, I’ve spoken with others in many different fields to understand how it works, because I wanted to make something that would help those with all the right intentions be better able to pull of working cross-functionally on super-complex stuff. The insights I’ve gleaned from speaking with different types of collaborators, from educators, to product developers, to aeronautics experts, to ER nurses, and civil servants can be applied widely to get rid of some obstacles, and minimize others.

Many of the people I interviewed work in intense settings, dealing with critical and complex problems, where many types of people and skills and expertise are needed with few resources. Others work in less-hectic, more supportive environments where teams have experience collaborating, but who face outside, and above the teams can experience a communication breakdown. Those I spoke with who are consultants or studios shared insights they seen across many of their clients. This book is a collection of the wisdom and insights I found in the field, organized into a framework and tools to help people of all times tap into the talents of their teams.

This book is intended for those who lead or support efforts to bring people together to solve a problem. From Product Managers looking to get buy-in for product roadmaps to engineering leaders looking to support Agile teams, to students learning to work in groups, this book offers practical advice, guiding principles, and simple tactics that you can use. Whether you are looking to support a large-scale initiative, or just want some tips to reduce team friction, there are simple steps you can take to master collaboration.

What’s Collaboration? And What Isn’t?

As I’ve researched this book, many people have pointed out that collaboration is a big topic, and have asked what aspects of collaboration I’m interested in. Kate Rutter, Principal at Intelleto, has made a career out of working closely with others, and coaching teams to be better together. I have adopted her way of thinking about different ways in which we work together. At the most general level, Rutter says, is co-operation. Much of business requires people doing things in concert, in an order, according to shared standards. She and I agree that while this is important, co-operation is very different from collaboration in that it describes work that is well understood and can be structured and sequenced and monitored in a more straightforward way.

Rutter describes the level below co-operation in close quarters is collaboration. This is where a diverse group of people are responsible for an outcome, but may not all be those working hands-on building the solution. This is where this book will mostly focus: how to get alignment of purpose, how to guide smart decisions, and how to broker politics that large diverse groups will inevitably face. Collaboration at this level often involves “fuzzy front-end” thinking where the solution and the path to the solution is neither obvious nor planned.

At its most intimate level you have co-creation, where two or three people are actually making something together. They’ve got their hands in the dirt, as it were, and apply skills to something in concert. I will address this type of collaboration briefly, because there are techniques and methods you can employ for co-creation that will help you when you take their output to a wider group. For those looking to go deeper in how to work with creative partners, there’s a great deal written about pairing of all kinds, including Pair Design, which I wrote with Chris Noessel for O’Reilly.

This book will focus on helping you master collaboration so that you can guide teams to great solutions, without relying on political capital and personal relationships to make them happen. I’m not especially concerned with *what* groups of collaborators are creating together. Whether you are making a product, creating strategic plans, merging organizations, creating public policy, you need some amount of getting people to work together.

Challenges with Collaboration

So, collaboration is something we value, and something we are willing to invest in where it makes sense. So why is it so hard to pull off?

To become Masters of collaboration, it’s worth taking a moment to look at *why* it’s hard to pull off and what specifically gets in the way. There are forces inherent in the business context that challenge teams working closely together:

  • Success is measured incorrectly . “You manage what you measure” and many of our measures are poor proxies or leading indicators that can actually help teams solve problems. Short term indicators like dollars or “engagement metrics” aren’t useful to people who are facing an open ended problem.
  • Business is oriented toward individualism and independence. We value and reward individuals over teams, and we think that teamwork can be a distraction from just “getting it done” even if what “it” is, is the wrong thing.
  • Experts and experience dominates. We defer to people with specific skills or lots of experience, assuming that they will unlock the problem for us. Like Pellerin, it can be tempting to assume shoving a bunch of brilliance together will cover all the angles. Until it doesn’t.
  • Not everyone is a natural collaborator. We’ve all been in the brainstorm with the “yeahbuts” who can’t move off of the default position. While we might dislike these types the reality is they aren’t going anywhere. So if we can’t join them, how do we beat them?

These challenges are systemic, and not easily remedied. We don’t know what good collaboration looks like, but we know what bad collaboration feels like. I don’t propose a book that subverts corporate america and completes the “digital transformation” of business from a hierarchical autocracy to some utopian dream. Instead I want to arm those who wish to master collaborating well with a mixture of “straight dope” about what works and some tools that will help them carve out zones where people can work differently together to get somewhere new. It will improve the quality of what we create together, and improve the morale of our teams who might dread being together otherwise.

Mastering Collaboration, the Pillars

Collaboration isn’t a thing, it’s the stuff between the things, and people, and as such it responds to several factors that you can master. I’ve broken them down into a few key pieces that the book will explore:

  • Core Principles of Collaboration: the behaviors and values needed in a group to work well together.
  • Lifecycle of Ideas and Decisions: as many of those I spoke with noted, time and the use of it is key to collaborative success. Working together follows a cycle, and you can use that cycle in better and worse ways. It starts with setting clear objectives, working through many ideas quickly, and making decisions about what to test and learn from.
  • Roles: Power dynamics are a fact of life in any setting but especially in corporate and civic settings. Understanding how to channel different people effectively is key. A free-for-all approach just turns into a scrum, and not the kind your management consultant wants you to have.
  • Storytelling: the fact is, not everyone can be involved at every turn. The ability to communicate not just *what* the team came up with, but what their journey was to get there can make a huge difference in how your collaboration is accepted or not in an org.
  • Frequently Encountered Challenges/Case Studies: there are certain archetypal situations that challenge cross-functional teams. Understanding them, and what strategies others have used to deal with them will help you keep collaborative efforts from going off the rails.

The second half of the book is a collection of techniques, tools, experiments to try as a type of recipe book. I am amassing a catalog of approaches, with tips about how to adapt and modify them for different situations and teams, much like yoga poses can be modified for different practitioners . (Shout out to Kim Goodwin for the yoga metaphor!)

So, I’m curious. What do you think? I’d love to hear the perspectives of others.

  • What’s your experience with collaboration? What’s worked? What hasn’t?
  • What’s the value (if any) of collaboration to you?
  • What blindspots am I not seeing?

Get in touch at masteringcollaboration@gmail.com.

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Gretchen Anderson

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Product design and development for stuff that matters: education, healthcare, surgical robots, energy. Also I love music.