Is “collaboration” enough to make teams productive?

No. For years, the prevailing practices for productivity were project and process management. Now we’ve begun to recognize the critical role of collaboration, and collaborative software for improving productivity, but we need to maintain a complete picture of team enablement to be successful.

Why do we need to collaborate? We need to collaborate in order to achieve what we couldn’t on our own – solve harder problems, cover more ground, aggregate more labor, effort and intellect.

(Good) Collaboration software helps connect geographically dispersed teams, dramatically improves communication, and creates a shared workspace where team members can contribute, aggregate and iterate information and work. Shared workspaces help the team create and maintain a shared view and understanding of their problem space – the military calls this a “common operating picture”.

The logical (and critical) next step is to enable this team to plan, track and execute with the same level of ease and convenience as they can now communicate and aggregate work.

Most people when they think of project management think of Microsoft Project, or something similar. Microsoft Project has its uses, but it does not help teams get work done. Teams get work done when they can agree on what needs to be done, and remain focused on getting it done – when problems and challenges that arise are quickly recognized and dealt with. Traditional project management software may be successful as planning software, but does little to help with focus, problem identification, new issues, etc.

The Agile Development method recognizes this and accounts for it, by insisting on creating a backlog of tasks, and revisiting and reprioritizing it in each sprint. They have a very clear process, they collaborate, and they manage the project. Given that product development is one of the most common, as well as difficult and complex business problems, it is not surprising that they have recognized these truths. Agile development has been shown to improve productivity by around 300%.

There’s another factor that’s more difficult to measure directly. Agile teams are passionate. They are much happier, more committed, and more deeply engaged. I believe that this is because collaborative teams enbody what Daniel Pink describes as the three key components of motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose. (I would argue that part of mastery is the ability to recognize and acknowledge problems – fear of showing one’s vulnerabilities is a huge barrier to learning, and being effective).

They are told to figure it out as best they can – they own the problem. They are not micromanaged, but they are accountable. They can grow and display mastery, and they have a shared goal – they are part of something larger than themselves because they are focused on the customer impact of their work. This is not insignificant.

So – we have teams collaborating. As part of their collaboration, they articulate some goals and form a plan – your social software solution needs to support the easy transition of an idea to a task – and the refinement and redefinition of that task as the future unfolds.

Next – process. Good processes automate repetitive tasks and ensure that policies and best practices are strictly followed in others. But even processes are rarely strictly formulaic in any kind of knowledge or adaptive work (for more thoughts on adaptive work and the role of knowledge, Nancy Dixon’s work is unusually good). Sometimes collaboration is a step in a process, sometimes process is a step in collaboration. For example. The marketing team has pulled together its messaging and strategy for the product launch. A member of the team must then submit an approval workflow, and perhaps workflows to get some collateral created. As part of the collateral creation process, there’s some collaboration to review the materials….

In the absence of process, the team must work harder to figure out the right steps and manage their execution. Well designed processes ensure that best practices are followed with minimal effort.

So – Collaboration – its technical, cultural and social components can have a transformative effect on productivity – but in the absence of project and process, it is hamstrung – an incomplete picture of how to get work done.

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