Apr 15, 2019

The Mark of True Collaboration


hat is meant by true collaboration in an age of hyper connectedness? Simply sharing information has become a toxic endeavor, similar to what yelling at someone capriciously -and without aim- was seen like in offices during the 90s.

Collaborating with someone, in these times often remotely, is a fine-tuned process of acclimatization. It is about facilitating contribution and determination for a number of people, at different speeds, and with different scopes and privileges.

It cannot be made cheaply. It takes time, attention and dedication. Otherwise we fall into practices that give the illusion of collaborative work and progress, but yield only disappointing quarterly reviews. Simply dumping a task on someone is not doing your job.

You need to advance with caution, but steadily, and you must switch speeds only when you can see that you have begun to meaningfully include people, to find great ways to spark comfortable yet challenging opportunities for them.

About Pace & Flow

Tuning into the individual preferences of your team helps protect the overall pace of development, which in turn affects your ability to hit a deadline with quality.

The trick here is that those individual preferences should only be satisfied when they are compatible with the collective values. That is, as long as it helps them summon their best, and it does not go against the team's definition of success, do allow your team members the autonomy and freedom to contribute however they see fit.

Sometimes this is small and quirky: Sarah needs to do her first draft design prototypes at the Starbucks on 92nd & 3rd Ave, it reminds her of her College deadlines -simpler times-, the Barista nails her favorite beverages, and the staff on Wednesday mornings all call her "Homeslice".

Sometimes, however, it can be the product of a legacy culture that the team does not want: John always prefers to ask for the input of his male colleagues. He is not as open to discussing project specifications with female members of the team, and he often makes negative assumptions in regards to their ability to contribute value.

This second example is clearly toxic behavior and it should not be tolerated in lieu of productivity, no matter how good, instrumental, experienced- you name it, John could be.

But as long as we enable people with good values to contribute how they see fit, and we are backed with good data when the task is done, we should encourage these personalities to flourish. They contribute to a steady flow, and they can sometimes guarantee a solid, strong pace for everyone.

The curious thing about having both pace and flow, is that for them to be useful, they need to hit a level of competitiveness to the objective and its deadline. If you have that, you attain what I like to call collective plasticity, or the ability to effect change as a group.

In other words, to a certain degree, everyone has a chance to mold or shape the outcome of what we are doing. Of course, it is wise to let roles dictate the starting approach for individual's action space. You would not, just capriciously, let your accountant jump in and lead the coding of your new website. Not unless you want it optimized for cost at least.

But it is healthy for these team members to achieve some kind of task mastery while overcoming hurdles together, of course following some logic of role-task compatibility.

After all, great work is challenging. We should all help one another to contribute greatly while improving ourselves. Start with little victories, increase the difficulty, and go for ambitious returns.

It is difficult to attain this, and we do not always make it happen with every team, but when we do it is evident this is the way to go.

You never forget a team, boss, coworker, or project that made you significantly better at something. This is called "stickiness", meaning that it stays in your mind, and it makes you want to feel that great again, it gives you drive. This is when you love what you do.

Spotting & Making it Happen

Ok, so, how do we know when we are in the presence or absence of stickiness? Moreover, how do you take this and make it work with a random group of people?

I get asked this question a lot, when I describe some of this to a colleague at a different company. It is often asked with a lot of well-meant cynicism.

I get it, it's hard out there. We are all swimming in a sea of notifications, emails, messages and calls that all hang by the threads of our deadlines.

If you ask any manager in most modern companies, they would tell you that "yes, of course, people come first". But in this sea of busy workflows, it is the people who are actually first in line to become an afterthought.

In other words, you notice the absence of stickiness when you feel under-appreciated, overworked and isolated. When asking someone for help seems like a daunting, inconvenient task.

And how do you know when you are getting flow and pace, and everything is going great? how can you identify this?

It turns out that it's a matter of threshold. Having enough flow and pace in your team should make you feel a bit uneasy, and worried about why this feels so new and different to you.

It should make you excited that you see reactions or task-based abilities in you that you have not seen before, but also make you question whether this is something you can and want to sustain. Where does it go?

That is the issue with significant growth. That is why it is puzzling, daring, exciting. It is new, unexplored, like switching from a legacy Operating System to a modern one.

What would the consumer gain by using your product or service? This could be tangible, like a free gift; prestige, power or fame. But remember: you must be able to make good on that promise, so don’t offer anything unreasonable.

Even when we all process and deal with change differently, the feeling that "this is unexplored territory" should be there, in some degree.

It is what keeps us tuned to our work, along with the fact that the tasks are not repetitive or meaningless. But rather, that they are conducive to challenging our notions, and inviting us to upgrade our skills.

Ok, but seriously, how do you make it happen?

Down to the execution: I always tell people who are curious about this that it all begins with trust.

You have to assume and expect the best of people, even when you are in doubt. Give them a chance.

The difference is that despite what your previously-known facts or assumptions are, this time you will be providing tools for them to grow, to identify new feelings and question their reactions to them.

The only problem with this approach? It requires to build and maintain intellectual honesty, which is a method to solve problems that encompasses certain traits and behaviors:

  1. Factual Clarity: You and your team must know what the unbiased facts are. No sugar added.
  2. Source Transparency: Anything discussed must link back to something, whenever possible. Don't just provide the takeaway, give access to the full material. No fakes, no phonies. I have a phrase for when I receive unmerited credit: "it's not me, it's the Software". In other words, the bar is higher, we can all do this thing that seems great, let's move on and achieve something awesome.
  3. Agnostic Drive: We can all be sure of something. We make assumptions all the time. Yet nobody on the team gets to place their own personal belief or faith in something, ahead of the quest to find out what the truth really is. The phrase here is: "Show me the data".
  4. Caring Feedback: The quality and depth of feedback is vital. Anyone can say "nice job" or "does not meet the criteria". But we deal with caring for one another, and that means you have to say something nice first, say something difficult to say in second place, an end with something positive to finish off. The meat of the sandwich is the difficult thing to say. If we cannot be kindly critical, we have nothing.

So what does all of this lead to? The final hurdle. Not merely a hurdle but a tool to master: The Socratic Method.

When we speak about the Socratic Method in modern, workplace environments, we do not obviously refer to the way Socrates worked with other philosophers in Ancient Greece, but rather, how we can take the key insights of that process to serve us in our mission.

Universities worldwide would charge you a lot of money and take about 6-9 months to fully teach you the takeaways of the Socratic Method. And rightly so, it is vast and it touches a lot of aspects that are not really relevant to team collaboration.

But there is one way to sum it up, which definitely helps securing intellectual honesty, pace, flow and even stickiness:

  1. Ask great questions.
  2. Arrive at great answers.
  3. Challenge those answers.
Now, run away from people in work environments who take this to mean that you should have café talks or debates for hours. But do use it with an executive mind, think about what those brief steps mean to you. Are you really asking great questions? Are you positively pursuing those answers enough for them to have depth of analysis?

Furthermore, are you going deep enough into questioning the established logic of the team you are in?

My guess is, if you use this to question, test and validate assumptions and possibilities, you will make or break your journey into true collaboration. And the best thing is: either way, at least you will know how to proceed.