Being Effective at Workplace – Collaboration

This post is a part of the series of posts I am doing on Being Effective at workplace.

Collaboration is the act of working with others, usually without having formal authority over them, to produce a result. Collaborating is an act of free will, which means people cannot be forced to collaborate. This also means that producing results out of a collaboration can be very hard and very dependent on how the collaborators choose to act.

As I discussed in ‘Taking Initiatives‘ post, for effective people, success depends a lot on how they work with others without having formal authority over them. Hence collaboration is an important activity and being effective at collaboration is an essential goal for them. There are 3 aspects of effective collaboration that I want to talk about in this post.

Influencing and Persuasion Skills

Since leader of the collaborating team doesn’t have formal authority, it is obvious they need to show influencing and persuasion skills in order to get results. These are well-researched topic (see couple of these: The Art of Woo and Exerting Influence Without Authority). To summarize, these are some of the key points to keep in mind when you employ these skills in a collaboration setting:

  1. Understand your collaborators: why do they care and what appeals to them?
  2. Give space: Everyone likes to feel heard and wants to contribute to the results, given them the space they need in meetings, discussions, 1-1 so that they feel engaged.
  3. Do enough homework: Persuade people before meetings, do not use meeting for negotiations, but a place for getting agreements (best wars are never fought)
  4. Work closely with decision makers and influencers: Every group of collaborators have natural leaders, who influence the group decisions and opinions a lot. Keep them engaged and make sure they are aligned to your goals and position at all times.


Facilitation and Coordination

In most organizations, collaboration happens via face-to-face meetings as well as meetings through various technologies: emails, phones, instant messaging, live meeting (with audio and video), etc. When the teams are geographically dispersed, collaboration technologies become much more prevalent. No one wants to waste time in meetings, no one wants to read long emails, and certainly no one wants to talk or do something if they know no one else cares. Given the original assumption that collaboration is an act of free will, it is critical that all meeting opportunities are well-utilized and managed, otherwise participants may lose interest, start getting disengaged, and very soon stop producing results that are needed for a successful completion of the project. Facilitation and coordination of meetings may be a mundane topic but effective people know the importance of doing it right. Here are some of the principles to follow in order to have effective meetings:

  1. Choose attendees carefully: In a large team, not everyone is needed in every meeting. Choosing the right set of people who need to participate in the meeting goes a long way towards having an engaging and results-oriented meeting. Uninterested but invited participants make the meeting (and themselves) dull and disengaging.
  2. Choose agenda carefully: Typically, meetings are good for either generating/critiquing ideas or for getting agreements (after prior negotiations), but not so good for debating controversial topics. Highly debatable topics often concentrate the discussions among a few of the participants and make the meeting dull and disengaging. Making sure that thorny topics have been discussed and/or negotiated outside the meeting with right stakeholders helps keeping the meeting focused on the agenda.
  3. Take notes well and distribute on time: Notes are one of the most important aspects of an efficient collaboration. Since everyone shouldn’t be invited to every meeting, notes become the primary means of communication to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding discussions, agreements and action items. This goes even for attendees, especially in cases where teams are remote or there were different opinions on the topics. Notes recipient list will typically be larger than attendee list.
  4. Set action items, ETA and owners: Every meeting should have an action item. Every action item should have an owner. Every owner should have an ETA for the action item. This sounds simple, but it is surprising how many meetings do not follow this discipline and then later on try to figure out why their efforts are not producing results. Notes are a great supporting data for action items, ETA and owners assignment and they usually go together. This also becomes a stick when people fail to produce results, and rewarding criteria when people deliver good results.
  5. Hold invitees and attendees accountable: Many meetings suffer from ‘consultant’ phenomenon – attendees come in without preparation, voice their off-the-cuff opinions, and then walk out without any obligations. Which some deep subject matter experts might be justified in behaving that way, most meetings will cause problems if they consistently have such attendees. Invitees and attendees need to be held accountable. If there is pre-reading to be done, attendees should be forced to do the reading (there are many ways to force it!); if there is data needed from them, they are required to produce data and should take action items and provide ETA for that. Attendees that are not accountable are the single most important reason for meetings turning into waste of time.
  6. Dealing with difficult people: Some participants will derail your agenda by bringing in their own agenda, others keep talking without coming to point and thus waste time, and still others will read their emails on laptop (or blackberry/iPhone) and occasionally butt in with wise cracks. Watching out for such people and managing them determines the success of meetings to a large extent. This becomes bigger problem when meeting is over phone and eye contact or body language is missing in conversations. Effective leaders are quick to jump on such people and either privately or publicly act to reduce their negative impact to the meeting.


Effective Problem solving

Teams will get into problems that need to be solved. When there is lack of formal authority, problems linger, and impact the results. This is another mundane task which is almost always done by people, but very few people do it well. Effective collaborators help solve problems by adopting a phased approach to problem solving:

  1. Agree on decision framework – This is analyst role. Most decisions suffer when decision making is considered to be opaque or biased by a few. Therefore, it is important to create a framework for decision-making which will be used for evaluating various options on the table and getting to final decision. This can be created once and used many times, or can be created when the situation comes. Either way, it needs to be shown that it is an objective, transparent and unbiased framework.
  2. Generate options – This is a facilitator role. It is important to get ideas from everyone who wants to contribute and make them feel part of the solution, otherwise getting eventual buy-in into the solution will be problem. Facilitation is needed to ensure everyone gets a chance to voice their ideas and everyone feels heard. At the same time, facilitator needs to ensure best use of the time at hand; brainstorming under such constraints is hard work for facilitator but must be done.
  3. Get agreement, support and commitment – This is a negotiator role, and influencing/negotiating skills are required. Even with a good decision-making framework, there is enough subjectivity in decisions that need to be agreed upon by all the influencers and natural leaders in the team. Once the decision is made, it needs to be explicitly supported by everyone, and whatever commitment is needed from people is secured. Only then the decision can considered to be complete.
  4. Communicate – Once the decision is made by the group, it needs to be communicated to the right people and using the right communication medium. This also serves as binding to the group who made decision, because now there are enough witnesses to the act! Choosing the right medium is critical, most organizations suffer from information overload and hence regular ways of communication may fail (like sending a long email to a large alias may very well mean 0 communication in many teams).

Collaboration is the buzzword these days and there are lots of resources to read and learn from. This post focuses on some of the mundane things that need to be done well to be effective. For a grander treatment of the subject, you can read Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything (read excerpt here).

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