Collaboration

Wikipedia gives a long winded definition of collaboration, Google’s dictionary comes up with something simple; the action of working with someone to produce something. Its use has grown in our lifetime.

That upward blip in the use of the word at the end of the 1940s is due to the second meaning of the word; traitorous cooperation with an enemy. Some of the recent growth is due to the rise of social media and the experiments in new ways of working.

What is the benefit of collaborating in a team?

Better solutions.

In the theory of the wisdom of the crowds, the more people contributing to an answer the more likely you are to get the right answer. In effective collaboration a team of diverse experts bring their perspectives to decision-making.

In every major project I’ve worked in the contributions of experts from different fields has been critical to the solution’s success. I will never know as much as the collective knowledge across the company; here are a few examples.

  • Implementing an enterprise social media platform; its use as a service channel by a business investment team became the best use case collaboration to provide a service. I was looking for use cases, but didn’t even know the team existed.
  • Developing social media guidelines; we had legal and risk experts in the room, they had the deep expertise we needed to get it right, but it was a new hire from a non-digital team who pushed us to simplify the guidelines and the language.
  • Social Media Publication Platform; we had experts from IT, business, legal, and digital involved in evaluating possible tools. It sounds a bit like that old trope of six blind men describing an elephant, but in fact we had good discussions and agreed on the solution to be chosen, while understanding the limits and compromises we were making.
  • Translation; we translated some internal messaging via the enterprise social network, with contributors all using their native language and delivering the translated versions back within 3 days.

Collaboration can also provide additional capacity, if you work collaboratively you can share resources and even provide coverage in the absence of a colleague. Non-profits have been finding ways to collaborate under cost cutting pressure for years, but it can work within organisations as well.

How can you make collaboration effective?

Collaboration isn’t easy, and there is a lot in current workplaces that goes against collaboration. A HBR study reports that when teams get above 20 members, have high levels of expertise, are highly diverse, virtual, or are addressing complex tasks, the chances of effective collaboration drop. Collaboration requires trust across a team and a willingness to share knowledge, it’s easy to see that virtual teams might struggle, but the high expertise seems counter-intuitive.

Here are some factors to consider when building a collaborative team.

  1. Executives model collaborative behaviour
    When executives a visible and demonstrating a particular behaviour they will be copied.
  2. Relationship focus in the company’s culture
    Company cultures often emphasise a task focus, but in companies that emphasise a relationship focus teams find it easier to collaborate along the lines created in the company’s human network.
  3. Clearly defined roles
    Collaborative teams work better with defined roles and responsibilities, usually the roles can be derived from the person’s expertise, but it pays to specify the responsibilities. You can use a form of a RACI to document responsibilities.
  4. Team results rewarded and celebrated
    When teams have a strong joint purpose and are rewarded for the results of the team’s work their motivation to collaborate rises, yet most companies focus on individual performance and results. If you can’t re-organise your company’s formal reward system look for other ways to reward and celebrate teams that have genuinely collaborated.
  5. Skills to collaborate
    We’re used to working as individuals, we need to learn new ways of working for the collaborative era. Two techniques that are worth checking are Work Out Loud (WOL) and appreciative enquiry.
  6. Tools to collaborate
    Whether you use a company enterprise social network, a project tool such as basecamp, or a SharePoint team site, you will need some way for a collaborating team to share their work. If the team is dispersed across locations the tools become vital.

I’ve discussed the benefits of collaboration to the company, there are also benefits for individual contributors. For many people working collaboratively is more engaging and more rewarding. It’s also an appealing way of working for tech-savvy employees and millennials. Two groups your company should be trying to attract and retain. It’s a win for everyone.

Image: Together |  geralt via pixaay |   CC0 1.0 

Work Out Loud

We’re in the middle of “Working Out Loud” week, it’s a way of working within a network to create results around a common purpose. It encompasses a set of working skills that make a lot of sense as we work in a world where collaboration and agility are growing needs.

So what does it mean?

It means building a network around an idea or joint purpose, sharing your work, improving your ideas/programme/product within the network, being generous across your network.

Here’s how it all started.

It turns out that it’s an approach that can be used by independent people, and by those working in large organisations.

If you’re trying to build collaboration practices in your company then Work Out Loud circles are worth trying, there’s a twelve week process set out on the Working Out Loud website with pdf guides for each step.

I’m sort of in two minds about this method, in theory it sounds brilliant, but I know I find it hard to share half-baked work, I think there’s too much of the “good student” in me and I want to only show the good stuff. I know, I need to get over it.

I’ve just downloaded the kindle sample of the book, so let’s see if that helps me.

Image: Chinese Whispers  |   Ricky Thakrar  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

 

The Year without Pants

The Year Without Pants; WordPress.com and the future of work

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun is a consultant who got the rare opportunity to implement his own advice, he told WordPress they needed a team structure, and then worked for a little more than a year  as a team lead. In “The Year Without Pants” he writes about his time there, and examines how we work – and how we might work in the future.

I’m a WordPress fan, I’ve used it since 2007, so I should probably issue a disclaimer with this post. But although I know the tool I knew very little about the company that is said to power a fifth of the web and is behind 48% of Technorati-rated top blogs.

The whole philosophy of WordPress is to build an open source content management system that would be easy to use, intuitive, and give plenty of content options for users. Or as they say “WordPress was born out of a desire for an elegant, well-architectured personal publishing system built on PHP and MySQL and licensed under the GPL.”

The company operated as a loose federation of freelancers working remotely, recruitment is by a “build something” test, work is chosen by individuals who post their builds directly, communication is via online tools – and in a brutal display of transparency it’s all logged and searchable by everyone. The company culture is a meritocracy where co-operation is rewarded. It’s a place where you can make something cool and see it in use the following day.

It sounds great, so what problems needed solving – why was a consultant called in?

  1. limited scalability; as long as everything is going through one leader it’s hard to grow, WordPress was 58 employees when Scott Berkun joined. It was time to distribute some responsibility.
  2. limited attention given to bigger complex problems; as long as everyone chooses their own work problems needing 3 or 4 brains will probably get left behind.
  3. loss of consistency; with programmers creating their own solutions not everything worked the same way, sometimes two tools were developed with similar functions, sometimes the way one thing was built made it hard to re-use later.

The tough challenge that founder Matt Mullenweg entrusted to Berkun was to address these issues without disturbing the great parts of the company’s culture. Berkun’s advice was to introduce a simple and loose team structure – and he got to see this implemented by working there.

The job offer Berkun signs includes a creed for how to work at WordPress and begins “I will never stop learning….” and ends “Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable” it’s a powerful and inspiring statement. He enters the team learning, as all new starts to WordPress do, the ropes of customer service, although his service delivery is a fraction of his colleagues. It’s a great place to start in a company – you hear the challenges  your customers face first hand. He then goes on to form a team made up of people he’s never met, and prove that a team working together, and working intensively can solve bigger problems – and ship.

I work in a big company, one that would be a machine bureaucracy under Mintzberg’s model, so about as far away from WordPress as you can get. Even so I read the book looking for what would work for us, what lessons were transferable.

  1. Meetings
    Berkun is damning of meetings “most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either”. WordPress uses asynchronous online tools for a lot of communication leaving people free to work on other things and uses Skype when that makes sense. The company also sponsors week-long meetups, where teams pick a project and ship by the end of the week.
  2. Team Size
    4 people. This is the level where productivity is maximised. I recognise this, and want to avoid the temptation in future to build “representative project teams”, instead try cutting the work up and get the teams small and productive.
  3. T-shaped Skill Sets
    Look for people with a broad skill set with one area of deep specialisation, if you choose complementary “deep skills” you can build a well rounded team with high flexibility.
  4. Measurement and Gaming the System
    We are guilty of the “what gets measured gets done” mentality, which means long discussions on KPIs, lots of reports and multiple dashboards. Berkun points out that “what’s get rewarded gets done”, and gives the example of rewarding programmers based on lines of code rather than what the code does.

There was also one statement I found affirming about the power of laughter. I’m pretty sure my team laugh at me every day, so I might have cracked this one. Berkun says “Laughter… is one way to build intimacy, something every healthy team needs.” This might be the thing I agree with the most, it’s amazing how much laughing together can help build a team. The shared jokes also help in the tough times.

For me this book is a really interesting insight into the world of WordPress, I’m an even bigger fan – I almost want to work there.