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Q&A on the Book Mastering Collaboration

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Key Takeaways

  • Collaboration is critical to tackling challenging, large problems, but the typical business environment isn’t a supportive environment for breaking out of silos and getting lots of perspectives and skill sets to work together.
  • Setting clear objectives and structuring teamwork helps focus energy, and helps teams know what’s at stake if they can’t pull together.
  • Teams need help exploring ideas more widely than they might typically, in order to take advantage of diverse skills and perspectives.
  • Find ways to find out what others think about potential solutions early and often.
  • Communicating even when things are unclear or unfolding over time is critical to keeping momentum and getting alignment.

The book Mastering Collaboration by Gretchen Anderson provides techniques and exercises that can be used to improve collaboration in teams and between teams and their environment. It explores topics like enlisting people, teamworking, trust, and respect, generating ideas collectively, decision making, and transparent communication.

InfoQ readers can download an extract of the book Mastering Collaboration.

InfoQ interviewed Anderson about the importance of collaboration, engaging a critical stakeholder, increasing the trust level in teams, supporting groups in coming up with innovative ideas, the challenges of delivering products in small steps and sharing information about the products, getting more and better feedback, and how transparency support collaboration at scale.

InfoQ: What made you decide to write this book?

Gretchen Anderson: I’ve been fortunate to have been a part of really productive, and at the same time tumultuous, collaborations in my career, and the work that results from collaboration is always better for it. And the deep relationships that come along with this work have been one of the best parts of my professional life.

At the same time, I know so many people for whom collaboration is almost a dirty word; people who haven’t had a good experience and would really rather not do it again. One fifth-grader I spoke to during a class project said, “I’m collaborating with myself. It’s easier.” And I think we all have been there.

I’ve also seen some really well-intentioned executives say all the right things about working together and collaborating, only to unveil their solution in the last five minutes of a meeting and ask if there are any questions. Collaboration isn’t straightforward and most of us don’t understand how it works.

InfoQ: For whom is this book intended?

Anderson: This is a book for anyone who leads groups of people to achieve an objective, whether it’s product managers, engineering leaders, executives, or senior contributors who want things to go smoothly. Whether you’re shipping a gadget, creating a service, doing organizational management, or managing roadmaps, you need to get lots of people to understand, weigh in, and support the outcome. This book should help you get there.

InfoQ: How do you define collaboration and how important is it?

Anderson: Collaboration at its heart means getting a diverse set of perspectives and voices on a problem. Whether it’s trying to launch a rocket to Mars, or develop products, increasingly you need to be able to bring ideas to users, get scientific perspectives, and understand regulatory constraints.

Getting better at working together is critical, and we need to get better at it. Some of the challenges we face come straight from the business world, which rewards individualism over teamwork, by default. People work in and are managed in silos that are meant to keep people focused and efficient. Which is great, until it isn’t.

Kate Rutter, founder of Intelleto, runs a lot of collaboration efforts, and she helped me understand that there is a spectrum of work, from highly-structured to very loosely structured, that needs different types of collaboration. One the one end, you have co-operation; we’re going to build a fence, and we need some people to dig holes and some people to place posts. We need to be coordinated, but we understand the work and our roles very clearly. On the other end, is the very intense co-creation that goes on between two to five people, where people are working through a problem in close quarters. Collaboration is in-between these two ends, where you have some core group chartered with a problem, but you also have a lot of stakeholders and subject-matter experts who are part of the effort in a different way. I focus mostly on collaboration in the book.

InfoQ: What can be done to engage a critical stakeholder?

Anderson: Several of the people and teams I spoke to mentioned the challenge of a stakeholder who just won’t engage. Whether it’s because they don’t see the value or problem to be solved, or they want to “own” the effort, there are times when stakeholders just don’t seem to have a stake in things at all. Teams seek their advice and input, but don’t get much back. Until the fateful day when you finally “finish” something, and all of a sudden opinions abound!

Keep working, assuming you can. But, I suggest working in small increments toward something you can share as a starting point, rather than the ending. Once you start showing results, or some evidence of success, you might find senior leaders suddenly much more interested in giving input and support. 

Another suggestion is to find someone who your stakeholder respects and see if you can get them to understand the value and help sell it. Or find others in the organization who will benefit from your efforts, and see if they will endorse you.

InfoQ: How can we increase the trust level in teams?

Anderson: The catch-22 of trust is that you need some to get some. Certainly, gifting some trust upfront is an ideal answer. If you have a new team, you should decide, and openly commit to having trust in each other as you start out. That said, you should also use the first few days/weeks of an effort together to better understand strengths and weaknesse, not to take one another down, but to have a realistic view of what you can do easily, and what’s a stretch, as well as where you may need more team members.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Jimmy Chin, an award-winning director of Free Solo and Meru, two films about mountain climbing and meeting real risks face-to-face. He also makes films with his wife, Chai Vasarhelyi, who doesn’t climb, but whose touch with narrative and emotional storytelling makes extreme climbing relatable. While he hand picks his team from an elite crew, a luxury most of us don’t have, he did say that just as important is to understand who can do what, and value and trust that.

InfoQ: What can be done to support groups in coming up with innovative ideas?

Anderson: Too many times teams either get given a specific solution to work on by execs who aren’t comfortable with ambiguity. The trick is to get them thinking and exploring ideas widely anyway so that the value of collaboration isn’t lost to what I call “collaboration theatre,” where order taking is dressed up as something more participatory.

It’s also true that executives don’t understand that they shouldn’t be overly-directive, so they think they are being helpful, by being specific. Make sure to still give your team the permission to explore the territory for novel solutions, even if you were handed a very specific directive. Many executives hear their ideas parroted back to them and wonder why no one tried anything else.

And, finding a wide-range of ideas isn’t enough. You need clear objectives to measure the possibilities and judge what might be winners, and what might be stinkers. I have a whole chapter on this topic, given how critical it is to long-term success.

InfoQ: Teams using an agile way of working prefer to deliver products in small steps and share information about the products. What are the challenges that can come with this, and how can they deal with them?

Anderson: Bringing people along in an effort that is constantly evolving, and is intentionally experimental (or trying to be) is tough. Put yourself in the shoes of a busy stakeholder who only hears about your efforts periodically. You likely don’t remember much context, or where the group last left off. I tell people to always have a consistent “Previously on Lost…” opener where you quickly bring everyone back up to the present.

Transparency and persistence about your objectives, assumptions, and proof as you go from sprint to sprint is also useful. Demos of “the work” can and should always be framed by the direction and evaluation criteria the team is using. As your objectives evolve and you learn new things, make sure that information gets shared along side the solutions you develop.

InfoQ: What can agile teams do to get more and better feedback when showing their products to users, customers, stakeholders, or anyone else who is interested?

Anderson: Do it early and often, says Matt LeMay, author of Agile for Everybody. I find that what makes this hard for many people is that sharing work is often thought of as a “test,” rather than a source of information. Our typical work environment usually favors showing “finished” work and arguments and hoping to be found “right.” 

But if you can shift this mindset to one that is always curious to find out what others think about your work, you might find that your ideas and work get stronger. Even if you aren’t talking directly with customers, different perspectives can often be helpful in finding your own blind spots and assumptions.

InfoQ: How does transparency support collaboration at scale?

Anderson: Nilofer Merchant once described that most business environments are like a group of five-year olds playing soccer; everyone stays close to the ball to follow the action, and no one can make a play. If you want to use some of the leftover “white space” away from the ball (and you do), you need to find low-overhead ways to let people learn what you are up to, and where you are at with it.

One way to do this is to perform some amount of work out in the open. This means making it easy for people to “demo” what you create, even if it isn’t something they can actually use themselves, you can take videos or see screenshots of the current state of the product or service. 

About the Book Author

Gretchen Anderson consults with clients to inform their product strategy and improve team collaboration skills, and her book, Mastering Collaboration, is available from O'Reilly. She spent the first part of her career in design consulting for firms like frog design, Cooper, and LUNAR. Recently, she was head of design at PG&E, California’s largest energy company. She has led the design of the hardware and software of a next-generation surgical system, and served as VP of product at GreatSchools.org.

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