A longtime friend and I have an annual holiday tradition to exchange pearls of wisdom from lessons learned, and this year mine revolve around collaboration. It’s a tremendously enriching exercise to reflect on the past year, and a bonus to learn from others. Today, I’ll share my tips so that you too can collaborate better than before in 2024!
Enter new collaborations with an open mind and curiosity
Have you ever had someone warn you, before you start working with another person or team, that the other party is difficult to work with? Or, have you ever been tempted to do the same after you’ve had a challenging collaboration? While it’s good to be prepared, beware of developing a bias that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I prefer to go into a new collaboration with a clean slate and make my own assessment. Many times, friction arises from misalignment, misunderstandings, miscommunications, and/or incorrect assumptions. Being curious to learn the other party’s care-abouts, pain points, and responsibilities can provide a lot of context that informs my approach. Providing them with context about where I’m coming from is also important. When the other party feels that their constraints are somewhat understood, and they have a better idea of your aims and constraints, you have a good foundation for productive teamwork.
It’s better to go in expecting success, because you will see more opportunities for success. It’s like riding a bicycle - if you focus on obstacles, you are more likely to hit the obstacles, but if you focus on where you need to go you are more likely to avoid the obstacles. Of course, not every project is rainbows and unicorns, so when I do encounter challenges I go to a trusted person with experience and I ask them how they overcame challenges with the difficult party. And when you’re in the position to give advice, to avoid biasing the person entering the collaboration, you could say something more neutral like “I’ve worked with that team before - you’re welcome to reach out to me for insights.” Dealing with problems is the back-up, not the initial plan.
Effective teams understand WHY
Especially with large and fast-moving teams, processes and the next set of tasks are done because “we’re supposed to” or “it’s on the checklist”. When someone is executing and this is the only “why” that they’re aware of, you can bet that this won’t produce the best quality work, especially if what “we’re supposed to” do is a bit tedious. When leading projects or teams, make sure you, as the leader, understand why your team is tasked with what they’re doing, and make sure they understand why as well. For example, documenting and tracking minute details “because boss says so” is not an effective “why”, but “because this is going into a safety critical product and lives are at stake” makes the importance clear.
Not having a clear understanding of “why” also produces friction from misalignment between teams, who may have competing priorities. Remember that team someone said was difficult to work with? Did you understand their “why” and did they understand yours? If you have that conversation with them, you can uncover areas of misalignment and work towards resolution, and perhaps discover you have more in common than you thought.
Earn influence by delivering value
Once you know your “why” and the “why” of the folks you need to collaborate with, how do you influence the direction of a project? In Open Source Software, where many different companies (including competitors) collaborate on code that satisfies their common needs, developers earn influence by delivering value. They explain what they want to do, why it is valuable to others, offer to resource the work, and often ask for help from others who agree there is value. Because resources on any project are scarce, putting resources towards delivering value to more parties than just yourself has a better chance of gaining the support of others. And the result is that you influenced the direction of the project to meet your needs.
This can also be applied outside the world of Open Source Software. If you really need something done, but you need the engagement of another team (who might even have a reputation for being difficult to work with), offering to deliver common value helps to get them on your side. You are helping them by addressing their needs with your resources.
Caution: This is different from just doing all the work yourself to get your way. You are likely to face resistance if the other parties feel like they are being steamrolled and told what you want is good for them too. Make a proposal, confirm that what you think is valuable to them is actually valuable, welcome their feedback so that they are part of the solution, and then proceed to deliver the value (hopefully with some of their help).
To recap, my 3 pearls of wisdom for effective collaboration are:
Enter new collaborations with an open mind and curiosity.
Make sure you, your team, and your collaborating teams understand “why”.
Earn influence by delivering value.
Wishing you much success in 2024! Please leave a comment if you have pearls of wisdom from the past year that you’d like to share.