Collaboration secrets and pitfalls - learning from the best team building guides

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed November 20, 2016
Collaboration tools are changing quickly. But are the team building approaches keeping pace? My weekend project - comb through the best resources for the cultural side of collaboration. I culled some tips - and pitfalls to avoid.

For years, the collaboration space bored me. Not because it didn't matter, but because the software seemed so freaking clunky. But thanks to the UX pressure from a new breed of tools, from Workplace by Facebook to Slack to the latest entrant, Microsoft Teams, we are getting closer.

Enterprise collaboration tools are ruled by two principles: adoption on a massive scale (UX) and integration with enterprise software, preferably embedded into process flows. That should keep collaboration vendors - old and new - up at night. But then there is the culture problem.

Phil Wainewright's Did Atlassian just crack the code on digital teamwork? got me thinking. What about the cultural aspects of collaboration? Have we progressed on tactics that get teams unstuck? Have we pulled enough insight from the hype of agile, lean, and design thinking? Can team building approaches withstand the distance as more companies extend into virtual teams?

This weekend, I turned to Google to check out the best (free) collaboration guides I could dig up. Here's the high points from that scouring.

Atlassian - open sourcing their team health monitors

As Phil noted, collaboration vendor Atlassian issued an update to their Atlassian Team Playbook. But Atlassian went further: as of October 3, their team health monitors are open-sourced. Atlassian isn't pushing teamwork happy talk on us. The blog post announcing the release is entitled Teamwork is really f*cking hard - here's how to make it better.

Atlassian's Dominic Price points to a Deloitte global HCM study which concludes "Effective organizations today are built around highly empowered teams." Price wants to know why businesses are so obsessed with individual performance management:

What about team performance? The question becomes: how do we set teams up for success? How do we overcome the bigger systemic issues underlying the complexity of teamwork and help people work with each other towards a common goal?

That's what the Atlassian team playbook sets out to do. Since different teams grapple with different issues, Atlassian now has three "Team Health Monitors" with "more to follow":

  • Leadership teams - influencers and decision-makers.
  • Project teams -delivery new products and services to customers.
  • Service teams - technical or non-technical. These teams must achieve both a high-volume and quality response level. Their work is likely to be queue-based, and could be tied to daily or weekly quotas.

Atlassian combines the Health Monitors with a collection of "plays" that teams can try to improve team health. The plays include everything from the DACI Decision-making Framework to Empathy Mapping to Contextual Inquiry, which you can use to "Understand your customers' needs and the context in which they're using your product." These hands-on "plays" are tied to specific issues teams might identify in their Health Monitor.

Price says they have "trialed" the Health Monitors across hundreds of teams and industries:

It’s a framework for having candid conversations about where teams are and are not, aligned around these key attributes.

Like most of Atlassian's playbook, the health monitors are exercise-driven:

Any teammate can initiate it and each session takes one hour: a bit of prep and set-up, 20 minutes to talk through the assessment, and 20 minutes to reflect on what came out and agree on remedies.

Each health monitor has a ratings scale for attributes, which gives you a composite score of team health. Reviewing the Leadership Health Monitor, this one stood out to me:

Each member stands behind the groups vision and value, and this is documented in plain English for other teams to understand.

I've been on plenty of teams that never articulated this clearly, or in writing (that one's called the "One pager").

On the Project Team Health Monitor, "Value and metrics" jumped out:

It’s clear what success means from a business and user’s perspective, and there is a unique value proposition in place for the target users and to the business. Success is defined, with a goal, and how it will be measured.

Another way to use the Atlassian playbook is to start with a known pain point. Here's a screen shot:


Redbooth's collaboration e-book - 4 collaboration traps

Redbooth, which bills itself as "easy-to-use online project management software for high-performing teams," published a collaboration e-book, Collaboration By the Numbers: The Ultimate Team Collaboration Guide (free with registration).

On the sign up page, Redbooth disputes the adage that great teams are born, not made:

Often, we assume teams naturally collaborate well — or they don’t. In fact, productive collaboration is made up of variety of processes and elements, each of which can be improved incrementally.

The 21 page e-book compiles resources, including "Five online personality tests to improve team collaboration." As an aspiring curmudgeon, I was drawn to the "4 common business collaboration traps (and how to avoid them)" section. Here's the rundown:

1. Do we have too many experts in the mix? - counter-intuitive perhaps, but Redbooth sees the danger in a proliferation of experts. This stems from a Harvard Business Review piece about a 1,500 person study of collaborative teams by authors Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson:

We found that the greater the proportion of experts a team had, the more likely it was to disintegrate into nonproductive conflict or stalemate.

Gratton and Erickson recommend eight practices that help to alleviate this and other team building issues.

2. Are my team members too quick to agree with each other? - A team that marches in lockstep is a team in danger of a mediocre result:

Without some “creative abrasion,” you’re limiting how productive and innovative your collaboration will be.

To illustrate, Redbooth draws on lessons from the book Collective Genius, by authors Linda Hill, Greg Brandeau, Emily Truelove and Kent Lineback. I like the distinction between "brainstorming" - a phase where judgments are put aside, versus creative abrasion, where conflict is the spark that pushes the team forward:

Brainstorming is all about support and only support. Creative abrasion, on the other hand, is about support and confrontation. That’s why it only works with a community built on purpose, values, and rules They emphasize that the must-have components in creative abrasion are “diversity and conflict.”

3. Are we going to try to build robust collaboration on top of outdated technology?

Given that Redbooth is a project management tool, I was expecting them to come down hard on email-as-collaboration. They quote David Carr, author of Social Collaboration for Dummies. In his Social Collaboration. Carr's argument is that we have asked email to do more that it's capable of, particularly in terms of large scale teams. Carr:

Email was never designed as a medium for long-running discussions with lots of participants and quoted text from each other’s messages.

Redbooth adds that cultural pressures impact email openness:

Carr also points out that email can thrust people into the spotlight if they contribute, so many just remain silent. He shares the example of shy employees who wouldn’t feel comfortable hitting reply-all to respond to an email from the CEO.

I'll add that email is a crummy medium for emotionally/politically volatile issues on teams. Email is by default a "cold" medium. Most either don't take the effort, or aren't good at "warming up" their emails. Interpersonal issues that could be eased/resolved in person are exacerbated instead. Email is still a potent collaboration tool for some teams and tasks, but it requires recognition of its limitations.

4. Have we been treating business collaboration technology as an end in itself? - This one was not as well articulated as the other three points. It has to do with moving beyond tools into results. Redbooth quotes Alan Lepofsky, VP and Principal Analyst for Collaboration Software at Constellation Research. Lepofsky urges teams to identify a purpose, as they move through three stages using collaboration tools: Sharing, Getting Work Done, and Purposeful

Quick list - resources for virtual teams

I didn't have much luck finding comprehensive guides for virtual teams, but here's a few articles for starters:

I'll have to return to virtual teams in depth later - if you know of any good online guides, let me know.

My take

Atlassian's guide is the most comprehensive I've seen for targeted, interactive exercises. However, virtual teams with remote members could struggle with this format. An interactive version of these exercises that virtual teams could take together online would be nifty. Redbooth organized savvy info but the e-book lacked hands-on exercises.

It's good to see collaboration methodologies maturing along with the tools. It's still a long road ahead. Like most of us, I taste that firsthand. Our team at diginomica tries and discards collaboration tools at an incredible rate. Only a few have stuck, but that's not the hard part. The hard part is where these resources come in.


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