Blog Culture

Building a Collaborative Foundation for a Successful Work Culture

Josh Miller

VP of Engineering

  • Reading Time  Min Read
  • Publish Date May 21, 2020

All Aboard the Bandwagon?

No, this isn’t another article on COVID-19 work tactics and how you can better weather the current viral threat. There are thousands of people claiming they can tell you how to expertly navigate through these troubled times, despite this being an unprecedented event that no one has experience managing.

The tactics in this post may seem timely given the global pandemic but are simply good approaches to remote work. You’ll want to keep them once the workplace returns to “normal” (whatever that means going forward). Pandemics notwithstanding, it’s important that your team can function and collaborate regardless of the situation. Teamwork and collaboration can transcend physical distance, work environments, and project management methodologies.

Introduction

In today’s business world, almost no one works alone and even fewer create products end-to-end without the help of others. It’s more important than ever that our primary skillset isn’t our specialized craft, but rather the ability to effectively collaborate with others. Given that today many of us find ourselves at home, physically quarantined from our team members, working alone hunched over a keyboard, it’s more important than ever that we find ways to overcome isolation and collaborate with one another on our work.

My team members who read this may cringe with the following paragraph because they’ve heard me say these words countless times. I’m saying them again here for those of you fortunate enough to work on other teams:

When we create as individuals, our creations are a reflection of ourselves. When we create as a team, our output is a reflection of our team’s relationships and dynamics.

Our ability to listen, communicate and collaborate heavily influences the work we produce. Just as it’s easy to see when a product was created without listening to users, it’s easy to see when a product was created by disjointed and uncommunicative teams.

I even have a catchy little quote about this: “When you work in a vacuum, your work will suck like a vacuum.“ – Me, to the chagrin of everyone I say it to.

Bridging Divides

Collaboration is at the core of our various practices at Skookum. Whether you work in Design, Product Strategy, Software Engineering, Sales, Marketing, Leadership, or any other functional area, you work in a collaborative way. For us, collaboration begins with breaking down physical barriers. It’s rare that any team has all members in the same physical location two days in a row. With offices in Charlotte and Denver, and remote team members across the US, and a parent company operating across the globe, spanning distance is a baseline requirement of work. We use a collection of tools that make remote work often more collaborative and interactive than on-site work.

Whether we’re videoconferencing, drawing on a whiteboard, reviewing a Kanban board, running a workshop, building diagrams and flowcharts, reviewing source code, or designing a user-interface, work begins with tools that allow us to share.

Transparency is critical to spanning the cognitive distance that can accompany physical separation. From our leadership goals and company performance metrics to our contracts and statements of work to our financial systems and sales forecasting tools, our business operates using open, transparent, and shared systems that allow anyone to make/suggest changes, ask questions, and give feedback in real-time.

Building Blocks of Collaboration

Implicit Trust

Of course, for collaboration to work, your team has to start on a foundation of trust. When working together we need to assume that our team members want to do good work, that they want to contribute, and that they want the best outcomes. Trust shouldn’t have to be earned, it should be implicit. Trust can be lost or broken, but no one should ever have to start from a place of “proving themselves” when taking on any project. Without trust, we have no basis on which to operate; it’s the bedrock of our collaborative creation.

Working Agreements

While we begin from a basis of trust, we also need to set some ground rules on which to build. We all have different personalities and many of us approach work in different ways from one another. We don’t want to stifle creativity and make everyone work the same, but we do need to have a common set of expectations for one another. We need a plan to follow so that we know how to approach our work. We need to develop a “Working Agreement” that defines the expectations and standards to which each team member will be held.

Working Agreements help set the basic rules by which we’ll work together. Some common definitions that Working Agreements seek to define are below, though there are many others you and your team could add:

  • What is our capacity to work in each sprint or cycle?
  •  In what state will we accept work?
  • What ceremonies and practices will we employ?
  • What are the hours in which we’ll work?
  • What are the ways we’ll communicate?
  • How do we resolve or mitigate conflict?
  • Are we prepared to both give and accept feedback and criticism?
  • What are our rules around devices in meetings?
  • When do we get together?

Common Definitions

Once we have a set of Working Agreements, we also need to have a common set of definitions for the things that are important to our work. Making sure all team members have the same understanding of what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, the role they play, and how to measure their success is critical to any collaborative effort.

  •  What is our Definition of Ready?
  • What is our Definition of Done?
  • What is our Definition of Success?
  • What, if any, are our Objectives and Key Results (OKRs)?
  • What, if any, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are we going to measure?
  • Where is our common dictionary of insider terms or domain-specific knowledge?

It’s amazing how many projects in the business world are conceived, funded, and begun without any shared or communicated definition of what success looks like for the project. We frequently get a deadline that team members can rattle off on-demand, but rarely do we have a definition of success that is as easily and consistently recalled.

Lean in and Listen

Once we’ve established that we trust one another, we have to open ourselves up and prepare to be receptive. We all have ideas and solutions in our heads, and we should all have the opportunity to share them. When you’re not sharing, give others what you expect from them: your full attention, the time to speak uninterrupted, and an open mind. Recently, I’ve been keeping a shortlist of “continuation questions” or “reversals” on my desk to help myself be more mindful about listening and staying engaged in conversation.

  • Really? Tell me more.
  • How so? I didn’t see that coming.
  • Why is that? If you don’t mind me asking.
  • And? Don’t stop there, I want to hear the rest!
  • Curious, how did that make you feel?

The list isn’t very long (though this is a subset), and it’s not of my own invention, but it’s been good to spend more time listening and less time talking. It’s led to a more interesting conversation and, hopefully, more information, a better variety of ideas, and more engaged team members.

Prepare to Share

When it’s your turn to speak or to share ideas, take the opportunity. Come prepared for your meeting, workshop, or whatever name your collaboration session goes by. Have some notes taken to speak from, and if the concept or ideas are complex or abstract, try to have some kind of visual or illustration to share with everyone.  Having concrete examples of abstract ideas helps people better understand the concepts you’re presenting.

It’s also a good idea to have your idea separated into coarse-grained concepts, medium-grained concerns, and fine-grained details. Start with the larger topics, and be prepared to dive-in to detail as needed. Try to avoid starting in-the-weeds or talking about solutions or implementation before you clearly define the high-level concepts.

Provide Support

Sometimes collaboration is hard to kick-start. Not everyone is comfortable putting themselves out there, having the first idea, starting the conversation, or providing constructive criticism. As a way to get people comfortable, I’ll often bring a couple of lousy ideas (or maybe I just have lousy ideas and I’m trying to play it off as being on purpose) to a problem to start the conversation. If presented a ludicrous enough solution, even the most introverted team member will have to speak up and say something. If you can trigger a response like, “Hell, I can do better than that,” in your quietest team member, then you know you’ve got the perfect terrible solution. You want to make people comfortable, and few things unite people more than laughing in unison at the stupidity of a co-worker.

When we talk about “support” in the context of collaboration, what we mean is support for your team members, for a variety of ideas, for a healthy discussion, and for the collaboration process itself. We want to bring a “facilitator’s mindset” to the process. We want to ensure we give everyone an equal chance to share. We want to encourage conversation. We want to encourage feedback. We want to challenge popular ideas and opinions. We want to keep the process moving. We want to keep everyone aligned to working in the same supportive way.

Be Accountable

It’s critically important that every team member holds themselves and every other team member accountable to the tenants of collaboration. When team members begin to give and take on the rules of the Working Agreement, then it creates factions and unhealthy alliances within teams.

For example, if our rule is to have well-defined user-stories that are reviewed and estimated by the assignee, prioritized by the stakeholder, and assigned by the Scrum Master, then we should follow that rule every time. If one team member agrees through a back-channel to accept incomplete documentation, work without designs, or add a Story into the Sprint on the final day, then the system is compromised. From that point forward, that person will be expected to compromise at the asking. Then the ask will get more frequent, and then the team members who don’t compromise will be looked at as not being team players.

Likewise, if team members don’t focus, don’t participate, and don’t communicate, then they need to be held accountable by their team members. If the rule is no mobile devices during stand-up, then call people out. If you’re the one with the device, prepare to be called out. If there’s a legitimate need to have that device, then step away from the session.

Allowing team members to break the rules creates division and animosity in your team. It’s also lazy, and laziness is the enemy of teamwork and collaboration. Stay strong in your adherence to the agreements and definitions your team creates. If things need to change that’s fine, there’s a time and space for that to happen.

Create Space

Healthy ecosystems need space for cohabitants to thrive. As many of us are currently sequestered in our homes dealing with the dynamics of having partners, dependents, pets, and/or roommates in our space, this topic is timely. It’s important that we create space in which our team members and their ideas can roam.

While we might be confined to or separated by physical space, we can create virtually unrestricted amounts of mental and emotional space in which to operate. We create space for our team members when we ask for their opinions after they’ve been silent for some time. We create space by suggesting a break when we see our team members disengaging. We create space by asking questions and refraining from absolutes like “you always” or “we never.” We create space by respecting one another’s differences. We create space by being willing to revisit our Working Agreements, our Definitions, and our Processes when we see things aren’t working.

Refactor Often

No matter how efficient, virtually every system can be improved by observing, measuring, and tweaking a process, approach, or setting. Our collaboration systems are no different. Part of our Working Agreement should include a regular, scheduled time to review our work and our process and discuss ways in which it could be improved. In Agile this is the purpose of a Retrospective, which can be run after every Sprint, at the end of a project, or at any time where it’s deemed important. The purpose of the Retrospective is to pause for a few moments, discuss what worked, what didn’t work, what could be improved, and set clear goals and action items to address problems or limitations. This constant process of refactoring helps us to refine and improve our work and it helps to ensure that we’re creating the right spaces in which collaboration can happen.

Conclusion

The components of effective collaboration aren’t bound by location or constrained by distance. They’re behaviors that we each carry with us. They’re assets that can exist in virtual space. They’re rules that we collectively agree to adhere to. Regardless of where we physically exist, the building blocks of collaboration can be assembled in the collective space we create for our team whether that’s a video conference, a teleconference, an in-person meeting, or some combination of all three.

Though they’re no guarantee of success, each of the aforementioned steps leads us progressively toward more successful outcomes. Collaborative efforts do not always result in better outcomes, but if properly executed, collaboration can make success more likely. If you properly set the stage, then the actors are free to perform, to interact, and to riff and play off of one another to create a cohesive and collective performance that can transcend any individual contribution.

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