The World Economic Forum says the world is moving from competition to collaboration in order to innovate and grow. They also say that:
“At the current churn rate, almost half of the companies on the S&P’s stock exchange will be gone in the next 10 years. These seismic shifts in the marketplace have left organizations with a clear choice: transform at speed or risk total disruption.”
The pace of change is accelerating, and collaboration is the key for digital project teams who want to keep up, innovate, and add value to the customer experience. Being able to effectively collaborate will be critical for digital organizations, as it's literally do or die!
So whether you’re setting out to build better collaboration or want to refresh some of your practices, I’ve got a few collaboration best practices you need to know!
I’m Annie MacLeod, a seasoned project manager and coach. I believe that collaboration is a key skill set that is severely misunderstood and takes real work to be effective. That said I’m passionate about powering project teams with collaboration best practices to make them not only effective but resilient and fun!
- What Is Collaboration?
- Why Is Collaboration Important?
- 9 Collaboration Best Practices
- 3 Common Barriers To Collaboration
What Is Collaboration?
I have discussed collaboration before, but let’s refresh that conversation with a practical example—collaboration versus competition.
For many decades throughout the post industrial revolution business world, competition reigned—not just between organizations but within organizations.
I remember a key experience in the 90s working in a telco where the president took great pleasure in setting up competition between departments, and particularly between VPs.
Each of them was constantly looking for ways to one-up the next person and the competition was fierce, particularly as it affected their annual compensation and bonuses. It was an absolute nightmare to manage all those egos when running an interdepartmental project!
The good news is that while that was going on above our heads, the interdepartmental project we were running—a large system implementation that crossed two thirds of the organization—was very collaborative! It truly exhibited the best practices we’re here to discuss: teamwork, communication, and time management.
Lastly, let’s compare and contrast competition versus collaboration: what do these two types of organizations look like?
Why Is Collaboration Important?
The WEF cites the following key reasons to collaborate:
- No single company could possibly deliver the complex, ever-changing solutions consumers and society demands year-after-year.
- Be competitive by being collaborative: business alliances give companies rapid access to the technology, skills, and data that lead to innovation, as well as increased agility and resilience.
- Collaborative ecosystems allow companies to:
- Increase efficiency or reduce costs
- Extend into new geographies
- Create new and joint products
Now if we bring that down to our digital projects, we can see the urgency and pressure to be collaborative that exists in the marketplace. This is compounded by the number of organizations that are undertaking digital transformation! When we bring this into our digital projects it means:
- We can’t get all the resources we need, let alone get them up to speed up rapidly enough—we need to have access to resources through strategic partnerships to fill gaps.
- Teams of specialized skills and knowledge are required to deliver our projects: these are most likely to consist of combinations of customer, vendor, and supplier resources.
- While we have our core business expertise and core resources, customers may need and want specific adaptations that mean we need to build an ecosystem of non core providers and suppliers.
Now, has anyone been asked to take their time and deliver a project when the team has time, when resources are available, when time permits, when scope is completely understood, and use as much budget and resources as required to do great work? Yeah, I thought so 🤣
I would suggest that 100% of projects are time driven—everyone wants everything yesterday. I would also suggest that if you aren’t using team building, communication, and time management, your failure is almost guaranteed.
By building effective collaboration and utilizing appropriate collaboration tools and communication tools, we can improve our work environment, make it more engaging, and share knowledge from team members, in turn making the team more resilient, effective, and able to achieve results!
The added benefit of utilizing collaboration is that we can break down silos in organizations to access a wealth of knowledge to solve problems, improve the culture of collaboration, and achieve common goals or corporate objectives.
9 Effective Team Collaboration Best Practices
When I asked Miro’s AI about collaboration best practices, here’s what I got. Let's explore these in some more practical ways.
While teamwork may be self-evident when it comes to collaboration or even work in general - so many of the practices or rituals that helped build healthy and successful teams fell by the wayside when people moved to distributed or remote work and remote teams.
In particular, creating a positive environment and encouraging collaboration became even more difficult. To have effective collaboration you need to pay special attention, invest time and use specific techniques.
Particular techniques I’ve found to be successful are utilizing icebreakers, setting up team charters or norms and utilizing techniques like silent brainstorming.
These have the benefit of setting up teams for success and keeping things fresh. Also, these small investments of time go a long way to building a more collaborative team and reinforcing those collaboration and communication skills.
Setting Up Team Norms
Building a team charter or norms doesn’t have to be a complicated undertaking. For example, I worked with an IT team on strategic planning recently. They were a relatively new team with a new leader. Some resources had been there for 10 years, and some for less than one year.
Many of these team leaders hadn’t worked in an electrical utility environment, so they were not only struggling to learn the business, but getting their heads around strategic planning was a stretch with the demands from their day-to-day responsibilities.
We found a template for a team norms exercise that had both personal and professional aspects to it. We focused for 15 minutes in each workshop on just completing this team space.
We were able to use this activity as an icebreaker for each of our sessions and at the end of our strategic planning had a team charter to show for it as well—what a great way to build rapport and teamwork!
Here’s the template from the MiroVerse that we customized for these workshops.
A Note On Remote Teams
As mentioned earlier, teamwork was dramatically impacted by the move to remote teams and remote or hybrid work. Every organization that has remote teams or a hybrid workplace is struggling with how to optimize interactions and the technology that best fits those interactions.
We need to consider the technology and apps we’re using—everything from Slack, messaging, MS Teams, Asana, and Confluence through to synchronous and asynchronous considerations around timezones, video calls or video conferencing, and in person meetings.
The reality is, there is not one perfect technology that will work for all teams or all interactions. Teams need to try different tools and techniques and then iterate.
The team charter we mentioned above can help your team zero in on the critical interactions and key requirements needed to support the team's success and be the best fit for the type of collaboration activities they use and depend on.
For example; in a digital agency that is creating web pages for clients, they will need a variety of tools to present content, get feedback and perhaps mark-up samples, and share documents or text based content as well as visuals of screens.
This can be a complex set of requirements to facilitate effectively. If the team and/or client does this across time zones it may mean they need to be able to operate asynchronously which will require another layer of complexity not required for concurrent co-creation.
Read more about remote project management here.
Many of the key communication best practices: be respectful, listen and ask questions, be open to different perspectives, and provide constructive feedback, are worth revisiting. In this new age of more remote work, these may fall to the wayside.
For example, if we are constantly in Zoom meetings, how are we applying these practices? To ensure these team meetings are truly collaborative, we need to give some thought to structuring the meeting as well as the technology to incorporate effective communication. Let's explore each of them.
I find the biggest way to demonstrate this is to have meetings that are respectful of people’s time. Start on time, plan an agenda, and end on time! While this may sound simple, I can’t count the number of meetings that don’t apply these principles.
I once had a meditation teacher that pronounced that being late or running late is stealing! After all, what do any of us really have, and our most precious resource is time.
Listen and ask questions
How many times do we have one or two personalities dominate meetings, either by their title or by their personality? We need to incorporate techniques that ensure that everyone is heard, if they are in the meeting then we have invited them for their knowledge and/or expertise, after all!
This can be as simple as team norms with one conversation at a time, or techniques such as silent brainstorming, which I mentioned earlier.
Open to different perspectives
This can mean everything from having different departments and teams represented to having different thinking styles deployed. This is critically important when collaborating if you want to get feedback or engage the group to ensure that solutions are viable and actions are achievable.
For example, a meeting being held to develop solutions for a new project or to fix an issue needs to have different perspectives to ensure the solutions are actually going to address the problem and be workable.
Key approaches to this can be to ensure you invite a person from each area impacted or to have small sub groups of the meeting work together to solve the issue and then present back to the group.
Provide constructive feedback
When collaborating—whether it's brainstorming, co-creating, decision making, or other activities—people’s passion can help or hinder communication! Best practices here range from meeting norms (ex. in brainstorming there are no bad ideas) to team norms such as responding to people with ‘yes but’ instead of ‘no’.
3. Time Management
We covered one aspect of this briefly in the previous section about communication, but it's critical to also look at this from the aspects of establishing deadlines, prioritizing tasks, scheduling regular meetings, and delegating responsibilities.
These are all critical to have the team be more collaborative, not just in one meeting but when working together on a project or initiative. By setting these practices up for and with the entire team, your collaborations will get better over time.
The key to having productive outcomes from meetings is to establish an action plan (delegate responsibility) that clearly articulates next steps and, importantly, sets a deadline for it to be completed.
It's important to not fall into the trap of setting a grand vision with an ambiguous date (ie. develop a strategy by Q4). Make it specific and actionable within the next two weeks (ie. the outline of the strategy will be available for review by the team at our next project meeting in 2 weeks).
In our fast paced organizations, things are always changing—both within and around our projects. To make the project team effective, you want to not only prioritize tasks but continue to revisit current priorities and ensure they are still delivering the most value. It's just as important to drop activities as it is to add them. Remember: when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.
Scheduling regular meetings
This can really help a project team get into a rhythm and has the added benefit of streamlining the meetings as the team gets into a regular cadence. I recommend that all my project teams set-up a standard agenda for a weekly check-in. Here’s my recommended agenda:
Weekly Team Check-In Agenda Template
- Are there any issues with our key dates?
- Are there any issues with our inputs—delays or quality received?
- Are there any issues with our outputs—delays or quality?
- How do we fix those problems?
- Root cause
- Solution evaluation
- Action plan
- Communication plan
- What has been delivered this week—celebrate success!
Having a standard agenda will get your team into a cadence and they will come prepared.
Also, as you get into that rhythm you’ll be able to either streamline the meeting to shorten it or change the focus on to problem solving—both of which respect people’s time!
Don’t spend valuable meeting time developing solutions for a particular problem that the entire group doesn’t need to be involved in.
For example, if you're collaborating on a rollout plan to deploy some software or a website, ensure that you have the groups responsible for different aspects prepare their part of the plan and bring it back to the group.
They are the experts in their area—utilize that expertise and then have the team collaborate to integrate the multiple aspects of the plan.
3 Common Barriers To Collaboration
So now that we understand what to do to boost your team’s collaboration, what are the things to watch out for that will sabotage your collaboration! My top three would be:
- Egos: remember our conversation about competition earlier? If people’s egos or competitive streaks are getting in the way, try setting up meeting norms and team charters.
- Meeting overload: it’s really hard to be creative and collaborate when people are going from meeting to meeting to meeting! Try setting up your meetings for 45 minutes or set the start at the quarter hour. This gives people a chance for a bio break between meetings. Set-up some icebreakers to get the creative juices flowing prior to the key collaboration activity.
- Lack of trust: Some company cultures still have a competitive environment and there can be a rigid hierarchy and authority levels. This can be debilitating to workplace collaboration and creativity. In this case start small with activities that aren’t threatening and build on them within your project team. Project teams have a unique availability to create and foster a different culture. Have some great and fun brainstorming activities and retrospectives and build on that!
If you’re experiencing meeting overload, meetings where egos are fighting for attention, or a general lack of trust within your project try using one of these techniques to get more successful collaboration started.
If it doesn’t help, try another one! I’d love to hear your comments or feedback below! What did you try and what worked best in your team?
Collaboration software and project management tools can help with organizing project tasks and other collaborative work.
If you’d like to try out some of these techniques I host a free monthly virtual workshop that gives you a chance to practice some great collaboration techniques with Miro. You can register at Project Management GameBoard.
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