Last time, we delved into the use of tools to help collaborators generate proposals and options. This time, we will conclude our review of Facilitated Collaboration with the last three stages: Decisions, Action, and Evaluation. (See all five in the post The Essential Stages of Collaboration.)
By now the collaborators in our thought experiment have explored the issue of a natural gas pipeline and formulated options and proposals. There may still be more than one proposal in play, but everyone should be familiar with these, and there should be a reasonable chance that the surviving proposals represent choices everyone can live with.
Decisions–Among the decisions are: proposals to accept, roles, authority and responsibility, and final budget.
Choosing the proposal – We are still working toward a collaboration that includes all the stakeholders, but power is not likely to be evenly distributed. All the key decisions at this point will depend on public opinion, legal authority, budget, and subtler forms of influence.
So the decisions made may result from a vote, where everyone has one ballot and their decisions are a matter of record. Or there may be a secret ballot. Or a select committee may decide behind closed doors. Or one person with legal authority may make the decisions with or without explanation.
None of these is necessarily preferred, though the process chosen needs to reflect the real power. And, the less transparent the process is, the more of a burden on communications there will be. Whatever process is used, that decision process must be communicated to stakeholders well in advance. The less people feel as if they’ve had a chance to be heard, the more dissent there will be.
Minority report – I’m in favor of having a “what might have been” and the reasons on record. When I worked with diverse, online communities, I always included an opportunity to publish an alternative viewpoint, essentially a dissenting opinion. This reduced tension and provided ideas (with names attached) when real world conditions forced a deviation from the plan.
The next three might be explicit within the main decision on which proposal to accept:
Assigning roles – Some of these may be mandated (such as legal oversight and inspections in my natural gas pipeline example). Roles need to be well-defined and the process for assignment is, ideally, transparent. Competence is an important factor. Overall, if positive relationships between rivals have been developed in the earlier stages, creating a team to execute the proposal will be easier. But, of all the decisions made, who to have in what roles on the team is the most critical. And clear definitions of roles and responsibilities need to be provided before any work begins.
Authority and responsibility – Who can say yes? Who owes what to whom? What can be done without asking permission? When are answers and authorizations due? How will people be held accountable? These should be part of referenceable documents, but they should also be included (and, ideally, triggered by words and actions) in business process software (like Microsoft Project or OmniPlan). In particular, there should be a foolproof method to get attention and even create calendar items for pending decisions.
Budget – Many projects I’ve been involved in have had provisional budgets with some ability to make changes once things get started. The details of the budget come later. But, before money is disbursed, accounting programs – including approval processes, limits, tracking, and vendor qualification – need to be in place.
Action–Ultimately, the plan within the chosen proposal needs to be executed.
Business as usual – Simple projects, especially those that have been run before, have the possibility of running according to plan and without incident. People use project management software to track their own work and see how others are doing.
The unexpected and exceptions – When things outside the plan intrude, delays and unexpected costs are encountered, or the plan’s incorrect or incomplete assumptions arise, the team will benefit from the trust dividend. The work in building relationships will keep the group from being paralyzed or fractured by disagreements. Also, this is where contingency plans and reference to the Minority Report may be of value.
Perhaps the biggest challenge a team that is already at work will face is the loss of its leader. In circumstances where there is a succession plan in place and the person who assumes authority is known and trusted by team members, the execution of the plan may proceed without interruption. But in cases where someone from outside — unfamiliar with the discussions, nuanced agreements, and vital concerns of stakeholders – is brought in, rivalries may reemerge, old agendas may be resurrected and the motives of the new leader may be questioned.
If succession and defined roles and responsibilities are part of the chosen proposal (or addenda), that can help ameliorate problems. And, since other stages should be well-documented, the new person will have the opportunity to review the project as a whole and gain invaluable perspectives. But even under ideal circumstances, the new leader will need to have a communications plan that includes trust-building, rededication to the plan, and meeting with key stakeholders.
Reports and communications – Formal reports and communications should be regular, automatically generated for collected data, and circulated appropriately.
Accountability and deadlines – Delays need to be visible right away. And it is also important, especially when work is contingent, for incomplete or unsatisfactory work to be red-flagged as early as possible. Tools as simple as calendars and checklists can help manage these.
Disbursement of funds – For most projects, best practices that include authorizations, timing of payments, restrictions to access of funds, limits to payments, verification of delivery, etc. are available (if not legally mandated). If not, they need to be discussed, presented, and agreed upon with inclusion of appropriate advice (lawyers, certified public accountant).
Alerts and whistle blowing – With the example of the natural gas pipeline, any sort of scandal can be devastating in terms of public opinion and legal consequences. While much has been done in the earlier stages to build trust and ensure integrity, big projects include fallible humans. Catching problems, especially malfeasance, early on can mitigate damage. Beyond the automated processes, this may mean individuals will need to come forward when they see something suspicious or illegal. When they wish to do so, they should have a process in place that protects them and, when important to their well-being, assures their anonymity.
Evaluation–Often, there is no post mortem on a project. That means what is learned by hard work and experience isn’t shared and may be lost entirely. Certainly, the project should be evaluated against measurable goals and objectives from the original proposal. This may be sufficient to determine the success of the project, but it will not uncover everything that is of value.
Interviews – People who devote themselves to an engaging, important project observe, expose, and deduce along the way. They reshape process, feel every bump, suffer each failure, and form passionate opinions. Usually, no one captures, shares, and acts on these, despite their value. Minimally, some automated polling should be done, but it is better to interview the participants using tested, open-ended questions. These should be asked under good circumstances, away from distractions (and, when sensitive, other people). The timing is especially critical.
Getting answers during the big push at the end of a project or in exit interview, when the person is already thinking about the next job, can limit the value of the answers. Each project’s pacing suggests the best time for questioning, but I recommend doing interviews a week before the final push, and then having the questions available for review and additions soon after the project (or the person’s role in the project) is completed. When sensitivity is minimal, posting questions in a wiki and inviting participation might be worthwhile.
Report generation – Most of the work is likely to be done by hand, but making the inputs available via a database or a wiki can promote discussion, support change management, and improve completeness. In the example case, there is likely to be a lot of information. Automated ways to sort, search, and summarize would be of real value and encourage participation. It’s possible that some of the work of reporting on the project could take advantage of advances in natural language research. Automated Insights already helps Associated Press mine through and create stories from corporate earnings reports. Natural Sciences’ Quill Engage delivers plain English reports to Website owners.
References and analytics – When appropriate, the evaluation should use clearly referenced methodologies and agreed upon analytical tools. In addition, the sources of input should be transparent.
Conclusions and recommendations – Often the leader or an executive committee looks at all that the evaluation offers and develops their/its own conclusions and recommendations. Certainly, the insight and expertise of people with a broad view of the project should be articulated, but this doesn’t need to be the final word. It is possible to share these initial conclusions and recommendations with the wider community and to solicit comments, questions, and input before the final conclusions and recommendations are accepted.
Minority report – Even the most thorough evaluation is likely to include items on which participants disagree. Once again, publishing dissenting opinions rounds out discussion, builds acceptance, and provides options for the future.
These last stages of collaboration take advantage of and depend on some of the technologies mentioned in early postings, but they rely more on best practices, relationships and the actions of individuals. This isn’t a surprise. Sensitive collaborations that include diverse stakeholders first and foremost will always require trust, understanding, and respect. But including technology can ensure that people have access, perspectives are made available, processes are followed, and misunderstandings are kept to a minimum.