Collaboration has taken on more complexity and intensity in recent years thanks to advances in technology and globalization. Instead of having face-to-face, short-sleeved teams surrounding a worktable talking through plan, the collaborators may come together virtually from several different countries and need to deal with a variety of languages, cultures, and time zones. They may have never met face-to-face, might be employed by different organizations, and may drop in and out of projects, depending upon the demands for their skills. It’s more likely nowadays that they will deal with complexity, in terms of data available, skills required, conflicting needs of stakeholders, and the regulations.
I’ll write about key problems collaborators face and some of the tools available to ameliorate these in the next post. This time, I’ll explore key stages in an effective collaboration process.
Starting point—A collaboration team may be formed based on needs, questions, problems, opportunities, or ideas. Eventually the outcome of the group must be defined in a way that serves those who need solutions, but, even at the beginning, there needs to be some straw man language, a premise that will help to frame the endeavor and attract the right people. In addition, a basic process for work, including lines of authority and roles must be put in place. There need to be specifics on funding and available resources. Our preliminary list of skills and potential participants needs to be developed. Finally, basic information —data sources, background information, and history– needs to be organized in a way that will quickly allow orientation, perhaps even training, of team members as they are recruited and put on board.
Fact-Finding–One of the first jobs of the team has to be to understand the current situation. This goes beyond simply compiling the data to exploring it. They need to do analysis. They need to find connections. They need to put what is known or suspected into context with clear indications of which questions, ideas, and facts matter most.
Proposals and Options–It may be that the duty of the team is to formulate actionable recommendations. To do this, the perspectives and insights of team members need to be brought together, recombined, and judged. For each recommendation the language will need to be tuned, both for team members and, critically, for those who will need to decide and possibly act on recommendations. In addition, any reasonable proposals need to communicate clearly what their implications are –the risks, the benefits, the costs, and the consequences.
Decisions—Collaboration, when it only leads to a list of recommended actions handed off to stakeholders or decision-makers, is unlikely to be successful. Committees, study groups, and other well-meaning teams deliver cogent and thoughtful advice every day without results. An effective collaboration team builds trust even as the work is underway, understands the people who will receive the recommendations, is available to explain and rework recommendations, and puts whatever they have to offer to a larger context that includes social systems, available resources, values, and culture. In a sense, the collaboration team finds ways to collaborate with people for whom their output is intended.
Action—The work of putting recommendations that are accepted to work in the real world to create products or develop services or change perspectives or redistribute power or resources within the community only matters if there is implementation. The best strategies and the finest decisions have no value if they never come alive in the real world beyond plain documents and authorizations. Execution is critical, and that requires assignments, roles, accountability, resources, ongoing tweaking and revision, and review.
Evaluation–Ultimately, once the goals of the collaboration team are realized in the world, what has been accomplished needs to be understood. Lessons need to be learned. People need to be credited for their work. Success needs to be determined. Future action needs to be planned. And there needs to be a level of analysis and documentation that prompts other successes moving forward. No project is completely integrated into society without evaluation and accountability.
These stages of collaboration, which, admittedly, could be gone into more deeply, provide scaffolding for understanding collaboration practices and tools. It’s interesting to note that they are as essential to the short-sleeved team around the table as they are to the virtual team around the world. But, working face-to-face allows for less conscious effort on each of these and fewer tools as talented people naturally fill in the gaps for elements that are not made explicit. The more complex, dispersed, and diverse the team, the more deliberate those people who wish to take advantage of collaboration must be in examining each stage and rectifying deficiencies.