The way to better collaboration: define the problem, craft a solution

For some companies, or even some specific workers, collaboration tools may be a solution in search of a problem.

Developers work together to review lines of code in an office workspace.
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I am increasingly troubled by the focus on collaboration tools without a comparable focus on understanding how employees work together successfully — or why they aren’t collaborating at all.  Most collaboration recommendations, like this one, start with the assumption that people want or need to collaborate and don’t know how.  I’m also concerned that we have, over time, made it increasingly difficult for people to work with each other while also believing that some new tool will fix this manufactured problem.

The typical best practice for any hardware and software purchase is to define and rank the elements of the problem that needs fixing, then come up with the solution. Instead, people often jump to the solution before even trying to understand the problem. Not everybody needs to collaborate with colleagues, and not everyone even wants to. And now, some companies have begun measuring collaboration without first assessing whether collaboration is necessary for a specific purpose, job, or task. 

Let us talk about how to improve the collaboration process.

First task: assess the issue

Before improving something, you must first understand it.  First,  get a sense of how employees are collaborating now. Specific jobs are collaborative by nature, like creating a complex product or anything where people need to work together. While it might seem reasonable to start with a survey, all that does is highlight the distribution of different collaborative practices. It’s better to start with employees who consistently outperform their peers and are recognized as leaders. Capture the causes of their outstanding performance and rank what’s working for them. Then, look at underperforming employees to assess why they are falling short. 

When you contrast the high performers and low performers, rank the reasons for each and look for a correlation. It could be how the employees are equipped, their level of education, how they are incentivized, the strength of their network, or whether they collaborate effectively (or at all).  Then you can determine whether the problem is the employee, their manager, or a lack of some tool or capability that the top performers have. Also look for other elements that may be at play, like discrimination or unfair treatment. 

If you do the assessment thoroughly, you should end up with an understanding of what needs to be fixed. You might even find that you do not need a collaboration tool. Instead, you might simply need collaboration training and incentives that reward working together.  (Forced Ranking systems tend to discourage collaboration because they pit employees against each other.)

Plan accordingly

Your next step is to plan for corrective action that applies what you’ve learned to the affected employees. In some cases, they may have to meet in person to collaborate effectively. In others, in-person meetings could be counterproductive because of distance and geography. Be sure to put in place objective measurements that tell you whether these effort are successful so you don’t end up recommending something that does more harm than good. 

The plan should also consider training and incentives for any part of the process that results in behavioral changes.  Without a significant effort, employees will tend to drift back to what they were already doing; that has historically been the death of remote conferencing efforts when a pandemic is not driving the behavioral change. 

Time to act

Finally, once you are secure about the changes needed, act. I would implement any new policies in phased waves so that the effect of each phase can be assessed before any unanticipated problems scale to a point where they harm productivity. 

Part of any implementation plan should be to change hiring selection guidelines to favor employees who have demonstrated the level of collaboration your company needs. Few companies assess a person’s willingness to collaborate as a significant element of employee selection for a job where working with colleagues is important. 

Too often, decision-makers feel they need to do something to improve a process — then they act before defining the problem or even thoroughly assessing the best solution. Suppose you turn your existing office building into a collaboration site, but find out employees aren’t willing to drive in to use it. Then what?  The result of actin grashly and arbitrarily is that many of the resulting deployments fail

You may not need a new collaboration tool at all. Instead, you might need to understand why people remain siloed in their tasks. You could discover they are inadvertently rewarded for not collaborating, or that their job doesn’t require it, they don’t know how to collaborate effectively, or don’t want to at all.  If you take the time to assess the problem, use what you learn to craft the solution, and then develop a  plan of action to assess effectiveness and make improvements as you go, you should be well positioned for success. 

I’ll end on one final thought: If your incentives discourage employees from helping each other, your collaboration effort will fail unless you fix that first.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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