Collaboration is a team sport

Collaboration is a team sport

If there is one topic that stands out in my mind in the last few months, it would be the topic of collaboration. We have been asked to help others collaborate and we ourselves also desire greater collaboration in our work. Why is collaboration so needed in our workplace? Why do talent searchers look for hires who are collaborative in nature? Why are training courses offered to help staff become more collaborative? Is it the next silver bullet for workplace efficiency and employee satisfaction?

If we think of team sports as a metaphor for collaboration, it can shed some light into why we all desire it. In sports, we talk about collaboration because it is often thought of as an important ingredient for winning. In sports as in business, we all want to win.

In reading about this topic, I’ve simplistically grouped a number of widely agreed upon attributes into six distinct areas or ingredients that contribute to a team’s overall success. The six ingredients of a great sports team require the following ‘greats’:

  1. Talent: Leadership & Players
  2. Discipline, training, and work ethic
  3. A game plan and focus on a clear vision/mission
  4. Understanding the rules and living by them
  5. Communication
  6. Culture, teamwork or team spirit

The above are understandable and undeniable factors for winning. However, when it comes to the workplace and not team sports, we get asked to help organizations develop another ingredient. Often, that ingredient is some kind of a digital enterprise tool. If we go back to the team sports analogy, developing or revamping a tool (or a suite of tools) to create, generate or improve collaboration is like getting new equipment for the team. It’s admirable and good. But how does the purchase of new equipment benefit the team? The cost-benefit of the purchase should be looked at before committing to retooling on a large scale. These days, anything that is not put together by an internal team can be perceived as large, expensive, and ‘involved’. Some questions we all need to think about include the following:

  • Does the team need the new equipment? What’s broken that needs to be replaced? Can it be fixed instead?
  • Who first entertained the thought of the new equipment? Was it the Clubhouse & Equipment Manager? The players? Or was it Finance? If it was Finance, we might have a problem.
  • Will the players actually use the new equipment? How are we going to tell the players? Did they ask for the new equipment or to switch brands? Did they have a say in what they are getting? Do the players feel that the money should be baked into their bonuses instead?
  • Who is going to maintain the new equipment? Is it in the contract of operational staff to look after the new equipment? Will they go on strike if they have to maintain new stuff?
  • Will it duplicate some of what’s already there in the system? What if the team is used to using the Wilson brand of baseball gloves instead of Rawlings? What would happen if all of a sudden, a shipment of Rawlings appears in their locker room?
  • Do we have the space to keep the newly purchased equipment? Or is the clubhouse full up? How will it be inventoried?

When looking at “new equipment”, not only do we need to think about these tough questions, but more importantly, we need to look at the new equipment in the context of the first six ingredients – the ecosystem. What is the return on investment of the equipment in comparison to –

  1. Hiring the best: Hiring leaders and players who are collaborative in nature, and don’t require a whole lot of collaboration training?
  2. Training to collaborate: Have staff been through courses in collaboration? Have leadership teams been trained or disciplined to first collaborate with each other?
  3. Having a collaboration game plan: Is there a collaboration game plan that comes from the top and permeates throughout the ranks?
  4. Defining the roles to engender collaboration: Does everyone understand their roles in how they can collaborate in and between groups and teams?
  5. Enhancing communications: What does communication in and between teams look like right now?
  6. Altering culture to maximize collaboration: Is the culture conducive to collaboration right at this moment? Did Peter Drucker actually say “culture eats strategy for breakfast”? Some say yes and others say it doesn’t sound like him. The point is, many of us do believe that culture can eat strategy for breakfast. What are some of the steps already taken to develop a culture of collaboration?

When I talk about retooling or purchasing a tool, I am not talking about small, internally-initiated, agile, build-what-you-need-as-you-go approach. Many effective teams are already building small and thinking big. Airbnb is a good example. In their data science team, for example, they build their own R packages, which are fundamental units of reproducible R code. Their teams collaborate simultaneously to improve their tools and fix bugs on the fly; review each other’s code, and deploy as they need. What I am talking about is something much more pre-packaged and purchased off the shelf. Purchasing large enterprise systems in order to collaborate is rarely the choice of teams that are already agile and work in a collaborative environment.

My thought is that until we start working on the first six fundamental elements, retooling at the enterprise level is the least of our concerns.

Yvonne Shek is the VP, User Experience at Akendi, a firm dedicated to creating intentional experiences through end-to-end experience design. To learn more about Akendi or user experience design, visit www.akendi.com.

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