How Managers Prevent Team Collaboration (Without Meaning To)

Business professionals collaborating on a jigsaw puzzle
GettyImages/Randy Faris/Corbis/VCG

This is a guest article by Jason Westland, CEO of ProjectManager.com. 

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Collaboration remains the managerial buzzword of the moment. Every leader wants their team to collaborate, because we’ve all read how collaboration leads to innovation. But if you’ve been trying a variety of collaboration strategies and tools, and you’re just not getting the innovation or return-on-investment (ROI )you banked on… well, what’s going on?

Every manager knows that leadership starts at the top. So the question has to be asked…  Could you be the problem?

In a recent study I conducted with my company’s LinkedIn group of over 300k project leaders and managers, I was surprised to learn that only 15 percent of those surveyed said they used the collaboration features of their project software.

Another study in Harvard Business Review explored reasons why senior managers are not collaborating, and yet another HBR piece explored the possibility that many people are feeling overloaded by collaboration practices promoted by their organizations.

Could it be that the very project leaders who could most benefit from collaboration are themselves preventing their teams from reaping the benefits collaboration?

Collaboration, Defined

Before we go any further, let’s discuss what I mean by collaboration, particularly in the context of innovation.

As the founder of a software company, our team is going increasingly Agile in our development methodologies.

Agile is a methodology for managing IT projects in a collaborative, iterative way. It defines a clear break from traditional top-down project management methods for larger, structured projects where the project managers dictate hourly effort and the plan is unyielding in its timeline and deliverability requirements.

Agile has been praised for its ability to promote innovation in product development, because project teams can be more adaptable to changing market conditions and potential disrupters.

And other teams began to see the benefits of the agile, collaborative process, especially when different practice areas or departments are invited to contribute to the overall product.

While some people refer to collaboration strictly in terms of tools like social apps or slack that encourage multi-party conversations, or strictly in terms of ideation practices like brainstorming or design thinking workshops, I think collaboration should be embedded as a culture within every organization, in order to reap the benefits and clear return on investment (ROI).

Speaking of ROI

According to the aforementioned HBR study exploring why managers aren’t collaborating, study author and Harvard Professor Heidi Gardner noted that there are clear financial benefits to collaboration, if measured properly.

Her study focused on professional service organizations, like law offices and consulting firms – orgs where there is traditionally a very competitive environment to drive individual client sales. Yet even in those cultures, average client revenue grew by 4x, as more groups in the firm collaborated to serve the client.

Other studies have addressed the clear ROI benefits is avoiding disruption through better collaboration practices that support cross-team engagements and interactions.

The challenge, according to Gardner and others, lies in measuring collaboration with other team members as part of annual reviews so that the benefits of collaboration are felt not just at the firm level, but on individual incentives as well.

How Managers Subvert Collaboration Unconsciously

If you’re a manager that already has teams collaborating, you may know from experience that collaboration is sometimes more of a distraction from core daily work whereas innovation seems hard to quantify.  

In fact, sometimes collaboration looks an awful lot like play, not work.

For some managers, seeing your dev team spending time lounging in the break room with the account managers, can cause them to see red.

No one appears to be working, maybe because you didn’t get the memo about this meeting.

Or maybe, you’ve got some star collaborators... The go-to people for whom everyone comes to for help and feedback and input on their projects. You might encourage people to refer to that person repeatedly, without truly thinking of the impact on your star. She might be feeling overloaded by multiple requests for meetings (at your behest), yet burdened by her own workload.

You see her staying late working on her core tasks and think, “Boy, that Linda is really dedicated.” What you don’t see is a stressed out star on the verge of burnout.

Finally, you may have promoted some new collaboration tools to help foster more transparency across your organization. This is supposed to be good for collaboration. Yet, you find yourself sipping coffee each morning and scanning the chatter for signs of cat memes or excessive conversations about sports.

This virtual water cooler was promised to be advantageous to business, but it seems more like nothing is happening but idle chitchat. You decide to hold a company meeting to convey your concerns. Meanwhile, you’ve disgruntled the team who feels you’ve been spying on them from above.

Soon, all actual collaboration is halted, and a culture of mistrust has prevailed.

So, How Do You Foster (and not Inhibit) a Culture of Collaboration?

By now you should be convinced that despite some hurdles to clear, collaboration has more pros than cons, when executed properly. But how do you begin to support a collaborative culture with your teams and in your organization so that you can get the promised benefits of increased ROI and innovation?

1. Promote transparent communication

Your team is not going to collaborate if they feel unable to communicate freely without censure. But communication is more than having access to a chat tool. Communication is a two-way street, and a true leader listens and promotes a free exchange of ideas all the time.

Collaboration is based on communication that seeks input from every member of your team, from the top to the bottom and across silos, especially. Make sure you verbally and actively encourage inter-departmental communications, and are open to receiving (and acting upon) the product of those conversations.

2. Set Up Rules (and KPIs) for Collaboration

For collaboration to work, everyone needs access to documents, people and they need to feel free to engage with people throughout the organization. However, they also need to be empowered and encouraged to find their own answers and documents for themselves, rather than asking star collaborators for advice or to give them this document or that, as a first resort.

Additionally, no one wants meeting overload. There has to be a core purpose to the collaboration, with defined goals and outcomes that can be measured.

Collaboration requires some rules of engagement. It’s not about open season across the organization. But define structured processes, KPIs that support collaboration, and the tools to efficiently engage with remote and global teams, and you’ll find dedicated collaboration sessions on targeted goals with measurable outcomes.

3. Provide Training

It’s not enough to provide tools, you have to also provide training in collaboration and the tool use that supports collaboration.

Model the kinds of productive collaboration you hope to see within your organization, and then provide a framework for how others can replicate your model.

4. Build Trust

Collaboration requires a great deal of trust among the teams and the leaders. Culturally, you might have some teams that have animosity towards other teams. And when those teams are remotely scattered across the globe, building that trust can be all the more problematic, because it’s harder to witness.

First and foremost, you must praise your teams for collaborating and reward them when they meet their goals. You can set up incentives that are based on working cross-departmentally or with global teams in innovative ways.  

But it’s essential to set clear goals, so everyone knows how they can be measuring their own collaborative performance. This might be done through a portfolio review, or through data such as defined metrics on client retention or new sales from cross-team engagements.

The goal is to promote an atmosphere where success is possible and measurable through collaborations, and that teams are rewarded for working together, versus against one antoher.

5. Have the Right Online Tools

A cottage industry of online tools has sprung up recently to help teams communicate in a more collaborative way. You need to know about these apps and decide which ones will fit your collaboration practices.

Look at the tools you have in use already, and what collaboration features are embedded in to those tools. For example, in the project management software I developed, we have collaboration built into every aspect of the project, from the task level right up to a global social feed capturing all project-related conversations.

Teams are more productive when they use the embedded tools within existing enterprise applications, because information related to that work is all in one place. So see where you have some existing tools.

But there are also apps that your team is likely using already, either in small clusters or across whole teams. Don’t inhibit these tools, embrace them by integrating them into existing tools, so they can tie in to the global organization.  

The Bottom Line:

It’s been my experience as a CEO of a global team that collaborative methods work when you apply these core principles of collaboration. Managers should put in the investment and time to let collaboration yield benefits, and make sure they’re not the ones standing in the way.

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About the Author:

Jason Westland is the CEO of ProjectManager.com. Jason founded ProjectManager.com in 2008. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Project Management Life Cycle” and writes for Computerworld and CIO Magazine.