Collaboration seems like one of those words that is ubiquitous lately. Lots of folks talking about it but perhaps not a lot of folks doing it or doing it effectively. It's hard to collaborate.
Anyone remember that university group project with competing personalities, and at least one boat anchor who wouldn't meet deadlines or pull their weight?
We’re going to unpack team collaboration, what it is, why it's particularly important in digital projects, who does what, the implications of being remote, and some best practices and software tools to support it.
I’m Annie MacLeod, a passionate and seasoned project manager who thrives on building collaboration experiences for remote teams and their projects. These experiences cross the spectrum of project management from creating project plans and doing deep dive retrospectives to making decisions and improving team culture.
- What Is Collaboration?
- Why Is Collaboration Important To Your Organization?
- What Is Leadership’s Role In Collaboration?
- 4 Collaboration Best Practices
- Tools Can Help Increase Remote Collaboration
What Is Collaboration?
Collaboration is all about creating something with someone else. In our digital projects, that's the lifeblood of what we do—creating digital experiences with clients, team members, technical resources, and designers (just to name a few).
Also, we’re creating along every step of our digital project—creating scope, creating deliverables, creating test plans, use cases, roll out plans, training plans, and more. Remote collaboration is doing this with the barrier of distance and technology which makes it doubly hard.
So what’s the difference between collaboration and creativity? In this article we’ll focus on the context of the rules, norms, and practices that we establish or utilize in our creative process to collaborate.
Why Is Collaboration Important To Your Organization?
It's important because it comes with opportunities to make employees more engaged, unleash the creativity of the team, attract and retain the best talent, and deliver projects at speed.
Collaboration is at the core of Agile practices, which more and more organizations are adopting. They are utilizing these practices to address VUCA (the uncontrollable aspects of the business environment) and its antidote VUCA Prime (a response to VUCA by applying Agile methods).
The ‘great resignation’ is a real thing, particularly in the digital world, so attracting and retaining resources is critical to organizational success. Employees constantly look for ways to contribute to their organization to get job satisfaction and to grow their knowledge and skills.
Doing collaboration well allows you to engage employees, leverage key skill sets, and engage expertise. Anything we create, particularly in digital workplaces, requires specialized knowledge in so many different areas that collaboration and particularly effective collaboration is a critical skill for organizations and employees.
Add on to that that so many digital projects will involve collaborating across organizational structures, either between departments (content providers versus designers, for example) or across agencies and clients.
Project teams or Agile teams talk all about velocity, and we know that high performing teams and collaborative teams can deliver faster and be more resilient and adaptive. This can therefore accelerate project throughputs.
What Is Leadership’s Role In Workplace Collaboration?
Leaders are key to identifying and prioritizing the corporate considerations that will affect the ability of the organization to collaborate effectively. Such things as:
- Corporate footprint: customer & employee locations, key vendor locations, supplier locations
- IT infrastructure: Is your office Microsoft centric? What are your tech pillars (CRM, document management, accounting, etc.)?
- Culture: Leadership styles, communication styles, management styles, tech savviness, workstyle preferences
- Key interactions: customer vs internal interactions, co-creating, decision-making, relationship building
- Attraction & retention: collaboration & team work; different generations; diversity, equanimity, & inclusion
There are no right or wrong answers here, but all these things influence how you can make your collaboration more effective and identify where the priorities are. For example, if your IT Infrastructure is heavily weighted to Microsoft centric tools (such as OneNote), start by looking for collaboration tools that leverage that investment.
Another example would be that if a key customer pain point is interactions on web page design, look for tools that allow you to remotely collaborate with clients on the design, get feedback, and mark-up the content being created.
4 Collaboration Best Practices
I’ve found some critical areas of collaboration to focus on in digital projects:
- Building and sustaining high trust teams
- Meeting effectiveness
- Collaborative decision making
Let’s quickly take a look at each one, and I’ll provide some quick wins to improve your remote collaboration.
This is the bread and butter of what we’re trying to do by collaborating, and concurrent engineering is a practice that digital project managers can leverage to improve collaboration in their teams and with their clients.
It is characterized by cross-functional teams, concurrent product realization (simultaneously building multiple streams), incremental information sharing, and integrated project management.
- Cross-functional teams: Digital projects bring together unique skills sets, and varied roles like content creators, designers, and technical skills. Make sure you think about all that cognitive diversity you’re trying to harness in your collaboration practices and tool set.
- Concurrent product realization: This is a fancy way of saying developing multiple products at the same time. In our digital projects, we want to see the big picture (such as the website or app) while simultaneously designing and building the subcomponents. For our project this means being clear about the overall vision and ensuring everyone knows where the key intersections are between the elements in terms of content and resources needed. You can’t build concurrently if everything goes through the same two people.
- Incremental information sharing: This should be easy for most digital teams to relate to. Think about your sprints, team huddles, stand-ups. These types of rituals and practices are a great support for collaboration, but that said, don’t forget to include your clients in an appropriate way.
- Integrated project management: you may be doing things concurrently which lends itself to more Agile type practices, however you will need to overlay project management practices to manage time and budget.
Building And Sustaining High Trust Teams
When doing retrospectives, one of the most common results within a project is ‘we had a great team’. This doesn’t happen by accident! Nor is it guaranteed within every project in your organization.
Truly understanding the root causes behind how this team came together and what was effective in building and sustaining the right culture will allow you to replicate that great team experience in subsequent projects.
Take the time to build your remote team, provide space for them to get to know each other, and have them build team norms and practices to be more effective. Keep doing retrospectives and pulse checks to see how they are doing.
You can read more about remote project management and remote best practices here.
One of the simplest tools to increase meeting effectiveness is to always have a meeting agenda! Don’t attend a meeting unless there is one and don’t set up a meeting without one. This ensures you have the right people in the room to get the right things done in your meeting.
Meetings are not the place to share information. Respect people’s time—use asynchronous tools and techniques whenever possible. If you want to get feedback, use tools specifically geared toward gathering comments.
Collaborative Decision making
Using collaborative decision making techniques empowers teams. They will make better informed decisions and this will build commitment in the team. Also, communicate—what did you decide, why did you decide it—to everyone that needs to know.
Some techniques to explore are:
- Nominal Group Decision making: This takes brainstorming to the next level and ensures every voice is heard.
- Step Ladder technique: This allows the team to synthesize information through breakouts and then decide.
Tools Can Help Increase Remote Collaboration
Collaboration happens organically in face-to-face settings. I’ve found that being physically together can increase camaraderie, spontaneous interactions, deeper connections, dynamic real-time problem solving, hallway conversations, the ‘hum’ or vibe of a really productive, focused, and a passionate team. All things that fuel and contribute to creativity!
That said, these are really hard to replicate in a remote environment. You’ll likely turn to a landscape of collaboration tools, which might look something like this:
- Tools for business communication, such as email, voice mail, video conferencing, and chat & messaging apps.
- Community platforms, such as Mighty Networks, Discord, or Clubhouse.
- Online Office tools, such as Office 365 or G Suite.
- Corporate collaboration tools such as cloud storage or file sharing tools.
- Project & task management software, such as Jira, Asana, Trello, and others.
Given our original premise on collaboration—that it is all about creating and how our traditional tools help or hinder this—there is something interesting about this list. It doesn’t include any tools for creating anything. It's all about communication and sharing.
We need to start the software conversation with that pillar and then decide how we support that collaborative work. That means you need to understand the creative use cases of the team and the client and then support their collaboration efforts with tools that integrate well with those.
For example: one use case that comes up frequently in digital design is collaborating on building a web page. We know that it involves content and visual representation but we often use tools for these discussions that focus on text and files. Think of Word documents, spreadsheets, Google Drive, and Dropbox.
Then we take these files, mark them up and send them back and forth, and at some point they go into a magic black box and come out as a web page. That is a black box that needs to be opened up! To truly collaborate with clients, we need to co-create the design.
I find that tools that support the visual design, content build, and mark-up are the most effective. Think of process flow charts, screen mock-ups, or even regular old PowerPoint.
Best Collaboration Tools
Here’s a list of the best collaboration tools for use in digital projects and amongst project teams.
Best for external user collaboration using guest invites to a board
Best collaboration tool for teams of all sizes
Best flexibility & customization capabilities to adapt to your unique workflows
Best online collaboration tool for teams the desire built-in recognition features
Best for its client approvals, comments, and team feedback made simple through Smartsheet proofs
Best collaboration tool with live cursor and collaboration detection to prevent overlap
Best visual collaboration software for ideation, brainstorming and sprint planning
- Zoho Projects
Best social intranet for large teams
Best dedicated threads within each workspace to discuss specific topics
- Troop Messenger
Best internal collaboration tool for remote teams
Read our full list of collaboration software here.
Collaboration is the rocket fuel for our digital projects—it harnesses creativity, enlivens our teams, and accelerates our projects and teams.
Be sure and leverage it in your co-creation journey with clients and team members. Look out for the tech that masquerades as a collaboration enhancer—is it adding value to the process or overhead?
If you want to learn more about this topic, check out Project Management GameBoard where we have information on ways to build collaboration into your projects. If you want to see some digital collaboration for projects in action, check-out our member events (sign up here!).
We’ll also be exploring more about collaboration in future DPM posts, like this one about using collaboration roles to make your meetings more effective. Let us know in the forum, Slack, or add a comment to let us know what you’d like to hear about next!
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