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Book Review: Collaboration Explained: Facilitation skills for software project leaders

Book review: Collaboration Explained, by Jean Tabaka

Set in the highly collaborative environment of agile software development, Jean Tabaka's book entitled Collaboration Explained: Facilitation skills for software project leaders provides answers to tough management issues like conflict, interpersonal communications, and time constraints. If you hate meetings and/or believe they should improve, you must read this book - whether you are involved in an agile project or not!

"I hate meetings!" In fact, I can no longer sit through a meeting that has no stated purpose, agenda or reasonably neutral facilitator. It's a waste of my time, the time of most everyone gathered, and the salaries our organization paid us to attend. If you don't believe me, try calculating the total salary cost represented in your next meeting, add the value lost due to those things that were not accomplished and then tell me whether the meeting was worth those costs.

Depending on who is invited and how many actually attend, I would not be surprised to know that your meetings were worth somewhere between $20,000 and $50,000 for a one to two hour session. In fact,

"Jack Becker at Lithonia Lighting calculated that reducing inefficiencies in his organization during meetings would be equivalent to an additional 10 percent improvement in productivity without the cost of hiring new personnel." -- Making Six Sigma Last; George Eckes, 2001.

If you are at all sensitive to cost-benefit ratios, like I am, you can see why I and many others "hate meetings", specifically meetings as they are traditionally managed.

So, what's the answer? Stop having meetings, limit them to those run by a decision maker, require meetings be hosted after hours, hire an outside facilitator for every session, post restrictive ground rules? While these solutions have all been tried, the results typically devolve back into a fight for dominance, a search for safety, and a belief that real decisions will be made outside the meeting anyway. Unfortunately, this vicious cycle of frustration - leading to new rules of engagement, leading to more frustration - is all too common in our work world.

The Agile Response to Meeting Management

Enter Jean Tabaka's book Collaboration Explained, in which she provides specific techniques and templates for anyone who wants to improve the results of their meetings and their organizational processes. The context for this book is the realm of highly collaborative agile software development methodologies like Scrum, Extreme Programming (XP) and Dynamic Systems Development Methodology (DSDM), but the reader should feel comfortable that each of her solutions applies in any situation where humans are gathered together to make reasonable decisions.  This book should be required reading in all MBA and management curricula because of its ability to translate leadership principles into actual practices that work!

Jean's book is divided into 4 sections:

  • Setting the Collaborative Context - this section looks at how collaboration has guided the Agile movement, at collaborative vs. non-collaborative cultures, and provides an overview of collaborative leadership - which, of course requires discussion of collaborative teams, including a model for identifying team-member personalities or roles.

  • Applying Collaboration - covers 16 specific topics, including:
    Preparing Yourself as the Process Owner
    Dialogues, Small Groups, and Expert Input Approaches  
    Team Estimating Approaches
    Managing Conflict
    Guerilla Collaboration

  • Extending Collaboration - reviews collaborative practices for smaller teams, distributed teams and how to build a collaborative organization or culture.

  • Collaborative Facilitation Guides - Jean has gone to the trouble to provide customized guides for Scrum, Crystal Clear and XP/Industrial XP methodologies. For those working in other (or hybrid) methodologies, there is also a Generic set of guides. This section takes you through a set of sample project meeting agendas that pull together all the guidance from the Applying and Extending Sections. The Guides are detailed enough to serve first-time facilitators as a script - for more experienced practitioners, they can be used as reminders when planning a meeting.
This book, then, serves as both introduction and training for new facilitators, and as a reference book for the whole team thereafter. It is worth noting that the Bibliography of this book is a highly useful reference tool in itself.

Not Just Another Book Full Of Lists

I have known Jean since the fall of 2000 when she and I were first introduced to DSDM and the role of facilitation required in that agile methodology. During that same period, we were also introduced to Janet Danforth, who helped guide us into the world of "competent" facilitation, the International Association of Facilitators and that organization's Certified Professional Facilitator (CPF) designation. The combination of agile management practices, competent facilitation and the CPF assessment process have kept each of us and our firms busy ever since. Jean's book is both a consolidation of everything she knew about facilitation in collaborative settings and simultaneously just the beginning for all of us interested in developing more collaborative leaders, teams and the organizations they support.

So, what is so special about Jean's book that should compel you to go out and buy it? Is there some life changing secret hidden inside? Will you be different just because you've practiced the techniques and lived the basic principles found in Collaboration Explained? The answers depend on some underlying beliefs about human nature, time, and organizational dynamics, and your interest in translating those beliefs into something more productive.

If It Weren't for Humans, We Wouldn't Have Conflicts.

As a teacher of facilitation and project management, I begin every class with each person defining their objectives for taking the class. If I am teaching inside a traditional college syllabus, the students start to parrot what is said within the class goals and objectives until I say "no, what do you want out of this class, what is your purpose for being here?" Since we are going to be together for 10 weeks, and because these same students are going to have an impact on my future teaching career, I want to know what they want, what they need and how they will measure our success in the classroom. Jean helps the reader do the same, opening her book with a discussion about the objectives of agile software development, the fundamentals of stewardship, and about trusting those who gather to create something innovative.

The first belief you might want to consider when you read "Collaboration Explained", centers on what we think about human nature and the people with whom we are blessed to work: are we inherently trustworthy, intelligent, and loving; or are "they" selfish, demeaning and unskilled? Your beliefs about the people who sit around your meeting table, pass you in the hallways, and interact with you through email and phone messages do make a difference in how you set up any verbal and non-verbal responses you provide during and after those conversations. Think about it: if you believe someone is out to get your job, how likely are you to be conciliatory with that person about any subject and in any setting?

Depending on what you believe about human nature, you may or may not be inclined to follow Jean's recommendations about setting the purpose for a meeting, staying inquisitive in the face of conflict, and checking your assumptions as a facilitator when your meeting design doesn't seem to be working so well. As an example, I was asked to facilitate a two-day session in which a very powerful venture capitalist firm was going to set their two year strategic plan and develop a better communications process. After we had spent the first day and a half developing their strategy, we began to work on their communication plan. And within the first five minutes of brainstorming (where there is no bad idea), the managing partner turns to one of the other partners and says "I'm not sure why you think that's important because you won't be here next year to implement it." Everyone gasped, including me - was someone about to be fired?

I paused, reminded myself that trust in the group was my highest calling, and thankfully remembered to check my assumptions. Likewise, we had luckily begun this part of the meeting by first defining how to seek for understanding before seeking to be understood (one of Stephen Covey's principles), so I asked if anyone wanted to ask a question. After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, the managing partner's executive assistant asked "so does that mean that he is being fired?" There was a look of disbelief and a very quick answer: "no, he and I decided at break that he would move to Seattle in two months to implement our growth strategy in the northwest". We all laughed, debriefed the experience and continued with the agenda. Can you imagine what might have happened if we hadn't stopped to check that assumption? (Note: Jean's anecdotes are one of the reasons you'll find her book highly applicable.)

Tick, Tick, Tick

The second belief has to do with what we think about time, our ability to manage it, and the effects that come with "using" too much of it. Imagine, if you will, a meeting scheduled for one hour and an agenda that has exactly six-minute increments allowed for each subject and a list of subjects labeled 1 to 10. What happens to you and most everyone else in the room if item 1 takes 15 minutes to complete, especially if the most important item for you is number 10? Are you listening and involved in item 1 after the first eight minutes? Are you helpful and inquisitive about the subject at hand or are you getting more and more frustrated with the passing of time?

The best way to manage time, however, is not to worry about it, but to focus the work on that which is most important first. Not accidentally, this echoes the practices of Agile software teams in handling their development work. As Jean suggests, there are several ways to prioritize work whether it's through the MoSCoW method of identifying the Musts, Shoulds, Coulds and Will Wait pieces of functionality or by allocating certain amounts of time to items on an agenda. My father use to say "what you spend your time on proves where your priorities are in life", so consider for a moment whether that's true for the last meeting you attended. In other words, figure out what's important in your work life, move as much of that work to the front of your agenda and focus upon it. If you and your group don't get everything done, you've at least got the most important parts accomplished first.

Can the Leopard really change its spots?

The third and final belief relates to organizational dynamics and what we think can or can not change within a group of people. I for one, believe that great answers come from common people getting together to accomplish a passionate objective. In fact, I believe that if intelligent individuals can solve complex and perplexing problems, they should be left alone to do so - don't force them into a meeting where they have to prove their intelligence. For all the rest of us, we need, and we depend upon, the diversity of thought created when we come together as a collaborative unit. (Note: did you know the derivation of the word community comes from the two words: common, unity?)

So, if you are heading into your next meeting believing that you are the only one with the correct answers, please don't be surprised when a battle breaks out between you and the others who are also so inclined. On the other hand, if a sufficient number of people have been gathered with the same purpose in mind, but with varying opinions about how to accomplish it, great things not only can happen, but they very likely will happen, and often in a way that no one could have ever imagined.

I can attest to this "magic" in many different settings, but the most impressive situation was when the Utah Information Technology Association (a client of mine) decided to re-define its organizational vision. We held 3 meetings of two hours each in which 45 high tech CEO's could tell us what needed to happen within the industry and what they would be willing to invest their time and money accomplishing. Within three weeks of the final meeting a new $100 million fund-of-funds was placed onto the state's legislative docket, and within a year of that legislation passing a single source outside the state filled that fund's account. Without those focused meetings none of that would have occurred.

Shifting into high gear

Jean Tabaka, through her efforts as a teacher, consultant and as the author of "Collaboration Explained" has given the world a wonderful insight into what it takes to be collaborative, the techniques used by good facilitators to assist groups in being more productive, and some templates to assure their first efforts are well planned. Do I believe you should buy it? Yes - I did. Do I believe you can help change the world if you practice the techniques found inside it? Yes, if you also believe that ordinary people can do extraordinary things. The challenge for each of us is to believe in what we have to offer, focus on what is important in our lives and join with others who are of like mind to make something great happen.

Read the Book!

Collaboration Explained : Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders by Jean Tabaka, in the Addison-Wesley Professional "Agile Software Development" Series
published January 6, 2006

This book can also be read online, with membership in's Safari Books Online.

About the Author

David Spann is the managing partner of the Agile Adaptive Management firm located in Park City, Utah. They focus on helping leaders and their organizations translate great ideas into customer value quickly. David spent 20 years in the U.S.D.A Forest Service where he learned how to balance the public's demand for wood, recreation and wildlife with the need to preserve our natural resources. He was the MBA Director, and is co-founder of the MBA mentorship program called Master-track, at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. He and his wife Michal and their cats and dogs enjoy singing, walking the trails within the Wastach Mountains and singing whenever possible. David is available by email or by phone at 801-633-0962.

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