Collaborate (verb) – to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor
Collaboration (noun) – the action of working with someone to produce something.
I was recently giving some training where I asked people if their work environment was open and collaborative. They answered yes. I then asked if they knew what the CEO, CTO, CFO, Marketing, Sales were doing that week. Most didn’t know the answer. I asked how much say and influence the development team had over the type or scope of product work. The answer was little to none.
We often work in environments that are considered ‘open’ and ‘collaborative’ yet we have small groups making all the decisions and passing them around like dinner invitations. We get a meal but little input into the meal itself. For better or worse, the development team is often told what to do through some hierarchy and given requirements with the expectation that these requirements will be implemented as is and on time.
Collaboration and culture
How familiar does this sound: You’re in a meeting trying to solve some problem. The manager asks for suggestions and you boldly give your opinion on how best to solve the problem. The manager is looking at you without expression, perhaps even staring. You finish your comment and the manager continues to look directly at you for a couple beats after you’ve finished. The manager then states the solution which has no relationship to what you just said or for that matter, what anyone else has said. The manager closes the meeting saying something like, “Great ideas and a great collaborative effort. Thank-you all for helping.”
Now some would say the manager took on-board all the ideas and arrived at a solution but more likely, the manager had already made a decision. The manager held a meeting to check if he or she overlooked something and gave the illusion of collaboration. This kind of behavior is not uncommon and in at least one place I’ve been, managers were expected to make all the decisions.
How your culture is set up can determine how collaboration will work. Think about how your office works today. In Steve Coats’ article, “The Conundrum of Collaboration“, he describes it like this:
Think of it this way. You are one of two candidates being considered for a promotion into a higher position. You have always looked for opportunities to collaborate and have been part of many successful achievements. The other contender’s profile doesn’t focus much on collaboration. Instead it highlights a string of great accomplishments that this person has been directly responsible for throughout his or her career. From what you know about how promotions have been determined in your organization, would you feel like you are in the strongest position?
Although the company culture can deter collaboration, Steve Coats goes on to state that people’s own sense of self is a larger barrier to collaboration.
Clearly there are things about an organization itself that impact collaboration efforts, but none of those are the number one reason that collaboration stalls. That reason is much more personal. It is self-interest. People frequently refuse to collaborate because they do not believe it is in their best interests to do so. And those organizational confines just discussed strengthen that argument.
Sure businesses want people to collaborate but the reward goes to the individual who achieved something. At one place I worked, the performance review rated how independent I was. The top score was “works independently”. Asking for help can be seen as weakness; always working with others can be seen as a crutch. You can’t expect collaboration if there’s no reward for doing so.
The hero and the collaborator
The Agile Manifesto and Principles don’t tell us how to do software, it’s up to the facilitator and implementer to figure out how best to be agile. While agile doesn’t directly say that collaboration is required, the expanded responsibilities needed for a successful agile team means that collaboration is a necessity.
In most organizations there are identifiable heroes; those people the company can “count on” to make projects successful. While this sounds familiar to most it is also an illusion. The hero does it all except grow the team. If the hero is away or leaves then there’s likely a vacuum that takes time to fill because the development team haven’t been trained or encouraged to step up.
In traditional projects, the heroes are in constant motion, making decisions, telling people what they need to do, and genuinely doing their best to make the project a success. If the project were less than successful, either schedule or budget weren’t met, fingers are often pointed, usually at development. The heroes are Teflon coated and any negative feeling usually won’t stick to them. One reason heroes can flourish is they have knowledge that others do not have. To maintain their status as hero, it’s incumbent for them to withhold certain knowledge. To be clear, they are not withholding knowledge that could be catastrophic if not shared; they are not about to allow the ship to hit an iceberg. However, they might withhold details of why the work is being done. Development teams are expected to write “IF … THEN … ELSE” and not participate in the broader question of ‘why’. But here’s the problem: the development team collectively has a vast amount of knowledge and experience that is left untapped and businesses should tap into this to grow. Agile would sacrifice the hero to get to this untapped resource.
The hero acts like a tourniquet; too tight and the limb withers and dies, too loose and the patient dies. If the hero holds too tightly to knowledge, the development team will feel less engaged. If the hero let’s go without priming the team, the inexperienced team will likely falter. The tourniquet is not the long-term solution but a stop-gap. The danger to the business isn’t the hero themselves but the over reliance on the hero to the detriment of others learning and growing. I’ve been in meetings where one person says they’ll do everything and everyone else steps back to allow them to proceed. A hero can help make the company successful but we’re not here to rest on our current successes, we want to be more successful. Having heroes can limit imagination and growth because you’re stuck with what the hero knows.
Collaboration and success
The need for collaboration can come down to how you measure success. If you’re being agile, success is measured by customer satisfaction and achieving business goals due to that satisfaction. In traditional software development, success is measured by completing the project plan on time and on budget.
To be successful in agile, everyone working on solving the customer problem needs to be aware of how the customer perceives their problem and what they feel is a solution. This is the fundamental shift from traditional project management. Everyone involved in the solution needs to have a near-identical understanding of the customers’ problem. This necessitates collaboration with the customers, development, product, marketing, sales, support, and management.
Steps to improve collaboration
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win” – JFK Rice University 1962
“win just one for the Gipper” – attributed to Knute Rockne
“I have a dream!” – Martin Luther King 1963
If you’re looking to improve collaboration, one could say simply change the company’s culture to reward collaboration but this is insanely hard. Besides, when was the last time something big happened because you ‘said so’?
Improving collaboration within a business and between teams requires finding the answers to these two questions:
- how does collaboration benefit the individual
- how do I collaborate more
Neither question has an easy answer and the details of the answer are wholly dependent on the environment. However we can look at some general strategies to answer both.
Benefit the individual
One thing that most people will agree on is an engaged employee is a happy employee. The first step toward engagement will be to trust the them and their team to collectively find solutions. This begins with the business establishing boundaries where the team can operate and make decisions freely. For a development team this probably starts with the product backlog and grooming the requirements/user stories. To be clear, it becomes the team’s responsibility to work side-by-side with the customers, users, and product people to appropriately understand and refine the work. The reward is the team gets more input to the product. As the team becomes more involved with the business of solving customer problems, the more skin they have in the game. The teams will spot pitfalls and opportunities much sooner, increasing the likelihood of success. Taken together, this empowerment to make decisions and the added responsibilities will:
- create strong team bonding
- increase the team’s sense of ownership of customer and business problems
This will also allow a team to fail earlier and make corrections much sooner.
It’s very easy to tell people to collaborate, very hard to have valuable collaboration. When I worked with teams that were located in different cities, I arranged for two scrum-of-scrum meetings each week. I also set down an agenda that balanced high-level knowledge sharing (e.g. business/customer problems being worked & architecturally where the last and next changes would occur) with low-level implementation work so developers weren’t stepping on each other. These collaboration sessions were facilitated by scrum masters and one team in each city documented decisions and actions. We did the double documenting to make sure we all heard and understood correctly. As we progressed we adjusted these sessions to maximize the value and reduce the duration. We generally did them in less than 20 minutes.
To get the executives, senior managers, customers/users, and agile teams on a first name basis so to speak, we did inception workshops. A key activity for internal collaboration was a ‘who/do‘ table. This is based on the book “Gamestorming” by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, and James Macanufo.
Through this table of actions, all stakeholders team up and commit themselves to achieving a successful result. While there are several activities that can be done throughout a project to strengthen collaboration, retrospectives for example, having this at the start sets strong expectations for all stakeholders. The ‘who’ on the list are actual names of people when needed or roles otherwise.
If the team has trouble identifying who they need to collaborate with, they can do a variation of the circle & soup game during retrospectives. This is a game usually used to identify improvements and problems that either slows down or blocks something the team feels is important.
- Inner circle: “Team Controls” – what your team can directly manage
- Middle circle: “Team Influences” –persuasive actions that your team can take to move ahead
- Outer circle: “Soup” – Can’t control or influence: elements that cannot be changed. This refers to the environment we work in and must adapt to. Ideas from the other 2 circles can identify ways to respond to the barriers floating in our “soup.”
As well as identifying problems and how to approach finding a solution, the circle & soup game makes clear the avenues of collaboration. For those improvement items they ‘control’, these are the areas that collaboration is needed within the team and between teams. The items in the ‘influence’ and in the ‘can’t control or influence’ circles means collaboration with those people who own the area of interest. The different circles suggest that different tactics and collaboration skills will be needed.
What happens with the developer who only wants to write code and doesn’t see talking to users or writing user stories as enjoyable or desirable? Moving these people is hard and could be likened to moving the sofa across a floor. At first you’ll need to exert lots of force to overcome static friction but once moving, you only need enough force to overcome kinetic friction. However, there is a point when it’s cheaper to hire right thinking people for the team rather than attempting to change behavior. This may sound harsh but it needs to be done on occasion. When I’ve seen this it often benefits both the company and the individual. I’ve also seen where someone once removed from an agile team returns sometime later.
Collaboration isn’t natural behavior for people and is therefore something that must be practiced and learned. There are tools that can help, ‘who/do’ lists and ‘circle & soup’ games, but in the end management and teams must recognize collaboration adds a dimension of efficiency and speed to any endeavor. The business needs to setup the conditions where collaborating becomes natural. Managers and management have long been collecting information, filtering it, and making key decisions. Pushing decision making down to the people who have the knowledge will be a challenge for some managers. However, only management can begin the process of removing hierarchies from peoples’ minds and teach teams how to collaborate and how to behave to maximize collaborative results.