Collaborating is great. You get to work with different people, hear new perspectives, and in some cases, build something that is truly greater than the sum of its parts. Many “advice” articles would have you believe that collaboration is as easy as sending a calendar invite, or writing a single brief. Wrong. Offensively wrong, in fact. The internet is polluted with really, really terrible collaboration advice. Here’s what to do instead.
Lead by committee
Oh my god, do not. Instead:
Choose a (good) leader
Hierarchies: we don’t like them. Bosses exist to set boring KPIs, structure restricts true creativity, with great power comes great responsibility that no one wants Shane from Marketing to have, etc. As much as the concept of leadership feels like it chafes against the idea of balanced collaboration, a great leader makes sure a project stays on track, addresses the core question or problem, and keeps all members of the team engaged. In fact, the best leader for a collaborative project is more of an empowering teacher: they make everyone’s skills feel relevant and valuable by having a strong understanding not just of the problem at hand, but of the team’s unique skillset.
The best leader for a collaborative project isn’t necessarily the most outgoing. It’s the person who most values the collaborative potential of a team, and is able to communicate that value to all the stakeholders — upper management and team, included.
Everyone is responsible for the project progressing
Not really. Everyone is responsible for progressing their own part of the project, not enforcing collective progress by committee. Abandon this idea and repeat after us:
Your project manager should ensure a project is progressing
Move over, bestie, there’s a new BFF in town. Collaborative projects demand project management. They demand it! Collaborative work has the opportunity to breed really exciting new ideas. But without someone asking practical questions about those ideas — like “how?”, “when?”, and “with what budget?” — they’re nothing more than a twinkle in the creative department’s eye.
Having a project manager on board from the very beginning sets boundaries around a project that make ideas actually feasible. Rather than waste time spinning the wheels of a concept that, due to the laws of corporate execution, will simply never fly, a PM can direct the collaborative group’s energy and available resources in such a way that your beautiful idea might actually happen this fiscal year. They have very fun responsibility of checking in on everyone involved in a project and making sure things are rolling. And if a project is held up on, let’s say, the development side of things, the project manager is the one who checks in on why — saving your marketers or salespeople the trouble.
Great ideas take time and space
Sometimes, yes, but great ideas also need structure and boundaries. That’s why you should…
Set clear limits
That PM you have onboard? Have them set an agenda of what’s to be accomplished, be strict on meeting time limits, and end every meeting with actionable next steps. Why the hard line? Because when left to their own devices, a group of people in slight opposition and on company time will debate until they keel over and die. An overstatement? Maybe, but not by much. Having an agenda, a PM to enforce it, and an empowering leader leads to meetings where everyone feels heard, but the best and most practical ideas win out.
The Team that Owns the Deliverable Owns the Decision.
Team X is in charge. If everyone puts up and shuts up, the project will get done fast.
Get to know your teammates
Efficiency and excellence aren’t the same thing. And yes, we know — group projects have a bad rap for a reason. But this isn’t college; hopefully most of the people at your work really do care about doing a great job. Working collaboratively will mean taking some time to understand everyone’s goal for the project — not just for the business. Addressing everyone’s goal doesn’t always make for the fastest completion date, but it does a lot to ensure that the project is done thoroughly. If the engineering lead keeps shooting down the most creative ideas, try asking what blockers he sees them presenting, and how the idea might be adjusted. You might find that the timeline is difficult for their team, or they lack the expertise on staff to handle the request. Rather than assume that members of the team are being difficult for the sake of being difficult… ask them how you can help. This feels very obvious, but it bears keeping in mind. Optional bonus project: organize a team lunch and get to know these difficult people personally. You might find that you kind of… like them. Or at least understand them better.
Good work is its own reward.
Like, yes… but also:
When a sports team wins a game, the whole team celebrates. This ethos of reward and celebration doesn’t always extend to the world of business. There’s a tendency within corporate entities to reward the result rather than the effort… meaning a leading salesperson or manager gets credit or a bonus for something that was the brainchild of a larger group.
Figuring out a way to reward the creative and mental energy that goes into developing ideas — especially developing ideas amongst a new or mixed group — will go a long way in demonstrating to the organization that collaborative work is truly valued by the organization.
A system for better collaboration
“Collaboration” is bandied around like press-and-play easy. It’s not easy, but it’s definitely worth it. Collaboration requires thought, empathy, and a schedule. It also requires ruthless project planning.
The squad approach to collaborative projects considers all of these important elements right from the get-go. Check out our four-part series on squads and discover how you can quickly improve how you work with other teams and colleagues.