• March 2011

Dr. Alice Waagen Teaches Us How to Make Collaboration Work

By Dr. Alice Waagen
Founder and President
Workforce Learning

Just as the London Symphony Orchestra works in harmony to play a beautiful concerto, any successful collaboration can be one of the most satisfying experiences we have as professionals.

That’s because when collaborative efforts click, everyone understands and values each other’s role on the project and the unique contribution each person is making. In fact, successful collaborative efforts can often be the height of a person’s professional career.

So, why is it often so hard to collaborate? That’s a great question, especially given the fact that nearly every project in today’s workforce requires an element of collaboration. First, I’ll assess the problem, then I’ll offer some suggestions for how you can be more effective in your collaborative efforts.

The problem with collaboration

In my experience, the biggest obstacle to successful collaboration is that egos are often vying for dominance. It’s natural, given the competitive environment of the workplace. The challenge, then, is to understand it and find ways to tackle the problem from the start.

Of course, other issues are at play as well. Some common complaints I hear include:

  • Not everyone is working equal amounts of time or putting in equal levels of effort
  • Meetings are dull and unproductive
  • One or more players dominates the team
  • Project goals are unclear or ever-changing

I’ve discovered certain factors that, when defined early in a collaborative relationship, can go a long way to reduce the negative experiences. I encourage all teams to establish ground rules for interaction around these three factors early on in the team formation.

Three steps to satisfying and productive collaboration

1. Communication

Questions to ask: How will we communicate as a team? What formal communication will we support? Informal?

A sample ground rule for effective communication might look like this: We will email brief project updates each Friday by 3 p.m. We will meet face-to-face to discuss progress to date and upcoming deliverables every other Monday at 10 a.m. We will handle informal, ad hoc communications by email so that we have a log of issues and decisions. The distribution list for emails and reports includes …

Here’s why this approach works: This may sound overly prescriptive, but it’s better to be more rigorous at the start. A team can always loosen up on communication requirements later if they seem unnecessary. It is much more difficult to establish more stringent agreements once things start to fall through the cracks.

2. Decisions

Questions to ask: Who will make critical decisions? Who is empowered to change project plans and agreements mid-cycle?

A sample ground rule for decision-making might look like: Changes to project scope or goals will be made by the project sponsor. All scope changes will be recorded in a decision log and communicated to key stakeholders. Every project participant is empowered to change tasks and methodology as long as the changes do not impact milestone dates. All changes must be included in weekly status updates.

Here’s why this approach works: Defining decision-making authority early on gives everyone clarity on the span of control and reduces the opportunity for conflicts about who can make changes during the project.

3. Meeting management

Questions to ask: What is the structure and protocol we will use for face-to-face meetings?

Sample agreements may include: We will start and end meetings on time, have a pre-published agenda, and use a timekeeper and facilitator to keep the meeting focused. We will circulate meeting decisions, assignments, and follow-ups within one day after the meeting.

Here’s why this approach works: Poor meeting-management is a constant source of irritation to collaborative efforts. It has little to do with a lack of skills and a lot to do with egos and the need to have power. Often, the person who is chronically late or who disrupts the meeting is seeking a lever of control or dominance in the team. If tackled early in the team’s development, such behavior can be curbed — especially when consequences are established for any violations.

The bottom line

Successful collaboration is not easy. Good team members need to check their ego at the door and focus relentlessly on the goals of the project. I find that negotiating and establishing agreements early in the process — agreements that specify how members will interact with each other — can reduce and possibly eliminate future sources of tension.

Good luck with your next collaboration. Please write to tell me your collaboration challenges and success stories: alice@workforcelearning.com


About Alice Waagen

Alice Waagen, Ph.D., is president and founder of Workforce Learning LLC, a leadership development company she founded in 1997. In the past three years alone, more than 125 leaders from 24 organizations have graduated from Waagen’s unique leadership-development workshop series. Learn more about Waagen’s work at www.workforcelearning.com.

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