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Suggestions to improve collaboration

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By Sandra Wiley

I once experienced the joy of listening to the Kansas City Symphony play a glorious concert at the annual Symphony in the Flint Hills event in the Flint Hills of Kansas. If I closed my eyes, I could hear each individual instrument but the lasting impression was of a singular, complex beautiful melody, not a concert of individual instrumentalists. That ability to take individual brilliance and mold it into group brilliance is the definition of collaboration.

When a leader acts successfully as a conductor, the result is often one of the most satisfying of professional experiences. That’s because when collaborative efforts click, everyone understands and values each other’s role and the unique contribution each person is making. In fact, successful collaborative efforts can also often be the height of a person’s professional career.

So why is it often so hard to collaborate, especially given the fact that nearly every project in today’s world requires an element of collaboration? I’ll share my assessment and then offer some suggestions for being more effective in your collaborative efforts.

The obstacles to collaboration

In my experience, the biggest obstacle to successful collaboration is that egos are often vying for dominance. That’s a natural byproduct of any competitive environment. The challenge then, is to understand and find ways to tackle the problem.

There are, of course, other issues at play. These include:

  • Collaborators are not working equal amounts of time or putting in equal amounts of effort.
  • Meetings are dull and unproductive.
  • One or more players dominates the team.
  • Project goals are unclear or ever-changing.

Defining three factors early in a collaborative relationship can go a long way toward reducing negative experiences and produce satisfying and productive collaborations. I encourage all teams to establish ground rules for interaction around these three factors early in the team formation.

1. Communication

Questions to ask: How will we communicate as a team? What formal and informal communication will we support?

A sample ground rule for effective communication might look like this: We will email brief project updates each Friday by 3 p.m. We will meet face to face to discuss progress to date and upcoming deliverables every other Monday at 10 a.m. We will handle informal, ad hoc communications in email so that we have a log of issues and decisions.

Why this approach works: This may sound overly prescriptive, but it’s better to be more rigorous at the start. A team can always loosen communication requirements later if they seem unnecessary. It is much more difficult to establish stringent agreements once things start to fall through the cracks.

2. Decisions

Questions to ask: Who will make critical decisions? Who is empowered to change project plans and agreements mid-cycle?

A sample ground rule for decision-making might look like this: Changes to project scope or goals will be made by the project sponsor. All scope changes will be recorded in a decision log and communicated to key stakeholders. Every project participant is empowered to change tasks and methodology as long as the changes do not impact milestone dates. All changes must be included in weekly status updates.

Why this approach works: Defining decision-making authority early on gives everyone clarity on the span of control and reduces the opportunity for conflicts about who can make changes during the project.

3. Meeting management

Questions to ask: What is the structure and protocol we will use for face-to-face meetings?

Sample agreements may include: We will start and end meetings on time, have a prepublished agenda and use a timekeeper and facilitator to keep the meeting focused. We will circulate meeting decisions, assignments and followups within one day after the meeting.

Why this approach works: Poor meeting management is a constant source of irritation to collaborative efforts. It has little to do with a lack of skills and a lot to do with egos and the need to have power. Often, the person who is chronically late or who disrupts the meeting is seeking a level of control or dominance in the team. If tackled early in the team’s development, such behavior can be curbed — especially when consequences are established for violations.

The bottom line

Successful collaboration is not easy. Good team members need to check their egos at the door and focus relentlessly on the goals of the project. Negotiating and establishing agreements early in the process — agreements that specify how members will interact with each other — can reduce and possibly eliminate future sources of tension.

2015.07 Sandra Wiley Headshot - Grey Background_NEWSandra Wiley is COO and shareholder at Boomer Consulting Inc. Reach her at +1 (888) 266-6375, ext. 121, or Sandra.wiley@boomer.com.