Communication and collaboration are highly desirable but often badly defined concepts. In programme and project management, the whole team will generally be aiming to collaborate effectively, but not everyone in the team will define collaboration the same way. For some, collaboration is all about meetings, brainstorming and sharing ideas. For others, it may be about everyone staying firmly in their own zone of genius, but having a solid central system in place to facilitate communication and collaboration when necessary. Many team members do not want to attend constant brainstorming sessions or share every detail, but still want to quickly and easily inform other team members of progress and log any thoughts about issues that could affect the project.
When communication breaks down: the real cost
A breakdown in communication can be a major source of stress within any team. Research indicates that poor communication is often reported as the top stressor in many workplaces, closely followed by a belief that other team members are not contributing. It seems likely that the two are linked, as good communication is what lets team members keep up to date on what other team members are achieving
When working in a team, communication often needs to be not one-way or two-way, but multi-way. In a project management situation, there may be many team members working on different tasks, some of which are poorly understood by other team members. It may appear that a team member is not contributing when the truth is that they are contributing in a way that is not obvious, or they are waiting on other team members to complete a task so that they can move forward.
Why collaboration fails
It is easy to assume that all collaboration is good, but sometimes many heads are not better than one. Sometimes too many cooks really do spoil the broth. Sometimes too much input, especially irrelevant or unnecessary input, slows progress down rather than optimising it.
On paper, collaboration pools the resources and brainpower of different team members to create a whole that is better than the sum of the parts. By bringing together many perspectives and ideas, we are more likely to consider all the options, find more creative solutions, and anticipate undesirable outcomes.
In practice, however, not all collaborations work this way. Many people collaborating on a project can lead to a certain amount of “groupthink”, whereby creativity is undermined, and group members can all start to have the same blind spots regarding their project.
Collaboration can lead to collective thinking and breed false confidence. Team members may assume that because a number of people have reached agreement, they must have reached the best decision. This can encourage them to stop considering options, while there are still viable options to be considered. Personality often plays a bigger part in reaching agreement than we realise. The more vocal or charismatic members of the group are often seen as having the best ideas. Pressure to agree with those group members, or simply with the majority view, is strong.
Collaboration can also dilute efforts by leading to something called social loafing. This is the tendency to sit back and allow others to do the majority of the work, when you are working in a group. This may be one of the main reasons why so many face-to-face meetings are so unproductive. Only a few people are actually contributing. Often, a system where you ask everyone to reflect on a problem or issue, and then submit their ideas to a central system, will result in much more input from all the individuals involved.
How to facilitate successful collaboration
Successful collaboration can be as simple as putting the right system in place. In order to collaborate on a project, it is vital to have a few elements in place from the start. Firstly, successful collaboration requires clear goals, effectively communicated, so that everyone is working towards the same results. Secondly, while many ideas may shape the decisions reached by the team, there still needs to be a process in place to guide that final decision-making. Thirdly, that decision-making process needs to be a transparent one that suits the whole team.
Identifying a decision-making process that works for your team can keep the whole project from stalling due to indecision. It can also prevent collaborations from breaking down, with the boss or project manager deciding that the collaboration is not working and reverting to an attitude of telling everyone what to do. A process that can be followed each and every time a decision needs to be made brings a feeling of transparency and accountability to your projects, which is vitally important.
Why accountability matters
Ultimately, when it looks like collaboration is failing, a team may just be experiencing a lack of accountability. The collaboration itself may have been successful, but the process seemed to end there. Without an easily accessible system in place for everyone to track how the collaborative decisions made are being implemented, teams may be left feeling that the collaboration was a waste of time, and that the decisions reached are not actually being executed.
Often, the necessary level of accountability is as simple as using the right software to enable constant communication. Project management software can let all team members track where the project is, which ideas are on the table, what the final decision reached was, and even exactly how it was reached. Software can allow for transparency, accountability and ongoing communication. It can provide information, at a glance, of who is working on what, and who is eagerly awaiting a response or completion date, so that a new task can be started or the next step can be taken. Software can even log which ideas have been considered, and why a different idea has been chosen, giving everyone on the team a sense of having been heard and had their input considered.