Team Collaboration Guide

Fostering a Culture of Collaboration

Now that we've covered the theoretical, it's time to get practical. In
this section, we'll delve into the practical strategies you can use to foster
a culture of collaboration in your team.

Cultivate collaboration

Shift perspective by rallying around a shared mission

“Collaboration may be a practice—a way of working in harmony
with others—but it begins with a point of view,” writes Tony
Award-winning choreographer Twyla Tharp in
The Collaborative Habit. Effective collaboration begins
as an internal state: Thinking in terms of “we,” not
“I.”

A prime example of the power of this kind of collaborative thinking is
Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign. Though
surveys from the time show that Republicans were more
likely to be active internet users, Obama's online campaign generated
significantly more traffic than his opponent John McCain's. The reason?
Rallying around the campaign slogan “Yes, we can,” Obama's
supporters took matters into their own hands—sharing, promoting, and
engaging with the campaign online.

Political Activism
Source: Pew
Research

Obama's campaign shows the power of a perspective shift—yes, we can.
But such collaborative thinking can only occur when team members have a
shared purpose. This is where a shared mission comes in. A larger goal,
outside of a team's individual members, provides an external
focus—something to orient their attention and unify their focus. If
your team struggles to function collaboratively, think about your purpose. Do
you have a shared mission that everyone understands and supports? If not,
work to define it into something that everyone is enthusiastic about.

Give team members autonomy

Teams function best when their members can act as experts of their own
domains rather than the recipients of orders. Take the example of Hurricane
Katrina. FEMA's response to the crisis has been widely studied and
criticized by experts—tangled in a bureaucratic,
command-and-control system, government officials were prevented from
responding quickly and supplying resources effectively. This exacerbated the
disaster and caused needless suffering.

But an unlikely hero emerged in the wake of the hurricane:
Walmart. Instead of pushing decisions
up the hierarchy, Walmart empowered its staff to act
independently. “A lot of you are going to have to make decisions above
your level,” CEO Lee Scott told his employees. “Make the best
decision that you can with the information that's available to you at the
time, and, above all, do the right thing.” Walmart staff set up
temporary distribution centers, supplying much-needed essentials to displaced
residents. They raided their pharmacies to supply hospitals with necessary
drugs. They gave hatchets, ropes, and boots to rescue workers. While the
government was still fumbling its response, Walmart employees were taking
action.

“The philosophy is that you push the power of decision-making out to
the periphery and away from the center,” writes Atul Gawande, in
The Checklist Manifesto. “You give people
the room to adapt, based on their experience and expertise. All you ask is
that they talk to one another and take responsibility.” When you push
power away from the center, you empower team members to use their expertise
most effectively—resulting in a high-functioning team.

Lead by example

By this point, “lead by example” is the stuff of managerial
cliché—but it's become cliché because it's true. It's not just
anecdotally compelling, there's science to back it up: “For a social
norm to be enforced it must be shared by most people in a community. In
particular, in a firm, it must be shared and followed by who is at the
top,” write the authors of a Northwestern University
study on corporate culture. If you want strong
collaboration to become a core part of your organization, you have to model
that behavior. As the research demonstrates, culture comes from the top.

Establish healthy boundaries

Boundaries create social norms: This is okay, this isn't okay—here's
where we draw the line. In
interpersonal relationships, they allow people to feel
respected and safe. In the workplace, they also perform the important
function of allowing team members to do their best work. Teams should
especially consider implementing boundaries that protect employees' time and
space. For instance, maybe a team boundary is that no one interrupts their
colleagues while they're working with headphones on—allowing them to
focus completely on the task at hand. Or in order to set up a meeting, you
need to send a brief meeting agenda to all invitees, to ensure the meeting is
really necessary.

If your team hasn't clearly defined these boundaries, you can still carve
them out gently for yourself. For instance, if someone books a meeting on
your calendar without asking you first, follow up and ask what the goals for
the meeting are. This ensures you're spending your time effectively and sets
a precedent that meetings with you should have a defined goal.

Encourage vulnerability

Teams learn from their failures, not their successes. Understanding what
went badly—and how you can do better—is typically more
illuminating than what went well. In order to encourage your team to be open
and honest about their shortcomings, it's key to create a culture that
celebrates failure. Failure means that you're trying new things and
learning—it's the only pathway to growth. One way to do this is to
create an “oops” wall (a
chat channel will do
as well). Whenever something doesn't go according to plan, make it a practice
to record it on your “oops” wall. This helps normalize
vulnerability and encourage team members to grow from their
mistakes—not hide them or cover them up.

Common teamwork challenges (and how to fix them)

The problem: Communication
difficulties

The fix: Implement check-ins and
check-outs

This is a strategy used by surgery teams in the operating room. Because
the same teams don't always work together, researchers found that the members
of an operating team sometimes didn't even know each other's names. To
rectify this, they implemented the check-in: Before an operating team begins
a procedure, the team goes around in a circle, introducing themselves and
their roles. In addition to ensuring that everyone feels comfortable
communicating with one another, these check-ins also seemed to help engage
members' participation and encourage less senior members of the group to
speak up when they had something important to say—for instance, a nurse
contradicting or challenging a senior doctor when they noticed something
wrong. Researchers call this the “activation phenomenon.”
“Giving people a chance to say something at the start seemed to
activate their sense of participation and willingness to speak up,”
writes Dr. Atul Gawade, a surgeon, in
The Checklist Manifesto.

Try it yourself: While you might not need to have your
team members introduce themselves at every meeting—especially if they
always work together, unlike frequently-changing operating room
teams—it's still useful to go around and give everyone the chance to
give their input. Try starting every meeting by having everyone share a quick
progress report or telling the team something that went well in the last
week.

The problem: Vague or unclear
expectations

The fix: Create a shared
definition of done

“Done” can
mean many things to many people. For instance, to a
developer, a piece of code might be ‘done' when it's written; to a QA person,
when it's tested; and to a
DevOps
person, when it's shipped. Vagueness associated with a team's
responsibilities can result in these kinds of competing interpretations.
That's why many teams create a “definition of done”—a
technique borrowed from Agile methodology. Your definition should include all
the steps a task needs to pass before it can be considered done. For
instance, a development team might adopt the following definition.

Code Done Diagram

Try it yourself: Create a “done” checklist
that your team members can refer to. If your team is responsible for
different kinds of tasks, you may need to create separate checklists for
each. That way when someone says, “I'm done,” you'll know exactly
what they mean.

The problem: Hierarchical
structures

The solution: Empower your
team

Big organizations typically have large and complex hierarchies. There can
be a lot of bureaucracy that's beyond the team's control—such as
unnecessary meetings or
excessive emails—that eat up time and prevent team
members from doing their best work. Team members may struggle to voice these
concerns as they don't want to upset the hierarchy. Therefore, it's up to
managers to empower employees to be able to carve out the time and space they
need to thrive in their positions.

Try it yourself: Implement the “law of two
feet”—if you aren't contributing or learning something of value
to you in a meeting, you are free to go. This gives team members the freedom
to absorb value where they need it and prioritize other tasks if they are
more important.

Advice for remote teams

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, remote working was on the
rise—and research suggests the trend will
continue after we find ways of managing the virus. But
dispersed teams, whether working partially or entirely remotely, face unique
challenges when it comes to team collaboration. Here's our advice for
instilling a sense of team cohesion and maximizing productivity, even when
you're apart.

Create a sense of belonging

As noted in the first section of this guide,
research has found that professionals find their
relationships with colleagues to be some of the most rewarding aspects of
their work. Bringing together diverse team members to work with and learn
from each other also frequently plays a role in innovation.

In order for remote team members to
share in these benefits, it's important to create a sense
of community and facilitate spontaneous connections. Remote teams need to be
more intentional than in-person teams about facilitating social activities,
but these don't have to require a ton of effort or planning. Casual, daily
opt-in activities over video chat, such as a team stretch or afternoon coffee
break give team members the chance to take a well-deserved pause and get to
know their colleagues in a casual setting.

Choose the right tools—and ensure team members use them
correctly

Every team needs a project management framework to understand their tasks
and keep them on track—and for remote teams, this is even more
essential. Digital project management tools like
Backlog provide remote
teams with a single source of truth for their work, allowing them to view
their progress, collaborate with coworkers, and stay on track. Project
managers have the benefit of being able to see everyone's progress on one
dashboard, giving them a high-level overview of project status.

But in order to be effective, it's crucial team members are on the same
page with how they use these tools. For instance, you can use your shared
“definition of done” to ensure team members only check off tasks
once they are well and truly complete. You may also need to set expectations
around how tasks are added to your task backlog. As a team, set some ground
rules about how you will use the tool so you can be most effective.

Make use of both synchronous and asynchronous communication

Video call fatigue is
real—and calls can be particularly troublesome to
coordinate if your team is spread across multiple time zones. To protect your
team's time and energy, save the video calls for important discussions and
decision-making. If you simply need to communicate information, try sending
an email, leaving a comment in your team's
project management tool,
sending a message over your teams chat app, or creating an asynchronous video
(browser extensions like Vidyard and Soapbox allow you to record your face, screen, or both
simultaneously and embed your video message in a link or email).

Be human

It can be a challenge to
work remotely for the first time—especially if
you're doing so with the added stressors of a global pandemic. Have patience
with yourself and with your colleagues. Normalizing failure and encouraging
vulnerability is even more essential during their time, as we all
grapple with the changes to our lives.

Conclusion

As our work grows ever more complicated and specialized, teamwork and the
ability to collaborate emerge as
critical skills. In today's workplace, we don't need
master builders—we need teams of experts who can join forces to reach
audacious goals. By learning to implement the teamwork tools, practices, and
strategies discussed above, you'll be well on your way to fostering
high-functioning, collaborative teams—whether in-person or remote.

Looking for a tool to help support your team collaboration?
Backlog provides project
management, version control, and bug tracking all in one easy-to-use
platform. Try it for free.