Collaboration in Project Management

Collaboration is an essential ingredient in healthy Agile project communities, yet in my experience truly effective collaboration is perhaps the hardest thing to do well. We have become so adept at using e-mail, instant messaging, voice mail, and telephones to communicate that we have lost our preference for face-to-face communications.

I once met a developer who said, “I prefer sending e-mail or leaving voice mail so that I don’t get sucked into a conversation.” I’ve heard other project team members say things like “All those face-to-face meetings—they keep us from getting work done.” These are sad statements but somewhat understandable. Most organizations today have a meeting culture, and we’ve all been victims of time-wasting meetings at one time or another. However, the avoidance of healthy collaboration is the wrong response to this prior conditioning.

What we need are some principles for ensuring that our collaboration has high signal and low noise, that is, high-value collaboration that makes a difference. Jim Highsmith differentiates collaboration and coordination this way: “. . . collaboration can be defined as working together to jointly produce a deliverable (think pair programming as an example) or make a decision, whereas coordination is sharing information”.

Here are some effective principles and mechanics for achieving this goal:
* Don’t call them “meetings.” Healthy collaboration is not the same thing as useless meetings. If you’re like me, the invitation to “meeting” raises those little hairs on your neck. Certainly not all meetings are useless, but often a request to attend a scheduled meeting is met with resistance or negativity. Our goal is for collaborative sessions to be perceived as enhancing project effectiveness. If you need to have a collaborative session with other developers, customers, or stakeholders, it’s helpful to give the session a descriptor that conveys its purpose, such as “object modeling session” or “requirements clarification roundtable.” While this seems like a minor thing, it helps the participants get in the right frame of mind to make the session worthwhile.
* Collaborate with a purpose. Avoid scheduling collaborative sessions for ambiguous reasons. The best collaborative sessions are those with one or two well-defined purposes, such as “To develop a use-case model for customer profitability analysis” or “To modify the star schema to handle the invoice facts and dimensions.” This practice serves two valuable goals. It ensures that everyone has a shared understanding of why they are at the gathering, and it clearly defines how everyone can know when the session is finished (when the purpose is achieved).
* Get done quickly. How often have you agreed to attend a one-hour meeting and left at the end of the hour thinking, “We could have done that in 15 minutes”? One hour is the default length of most scheduled meetings. However, the most rewarding collaborative sessions are the ones in which the issue gets addressed quickly and with minimal wasted time. An hour-long (or longer) session is fine if the issue really deserves that much time. But many issues can be resolved much faster than that. When you are collaborating with consumers or planners, they will greatly appreciate earlier than expected finishes.
* Get the right people. How many times have you been in a meeting wondering, “Why am I here? I have little or nothing to add”? The purpose of the collaborative session should dictate who needs to be involved. Every session participant should be involved because he or she can either add to the conversation or must be kept informed. Keep in mind Figure 3.2, and make sure that you include the appropriate critical and essential participants. Then decide if there are ancillary participants who can either add value to the session or who need to be kept informed. Additionally, participants should
be invited to opt out of the session if they do not feel that they can contribute.
* Limit the membership. What is the minimally sufficient set of participants needed to achieve the purpose of the session? Avoid including participants who are superfluous to the purpose. But focus on the “sufficiency” aspect of minimal sufficiency. It can be very frustrating to make a collective design decision only to discover later that it violates database optimization protocols that you overlooked because your DBA wasn’t involved.
* Live in a glass house. Sometimes people are hurt, offended, or bothered when they are excluded from collaborative sessions. This problem can be mitigated by holding collaborative sessions in an open space such as the team room. If others are interested in the conversation or the decisions, they can become silent observers of the process. If you aren’t careful, this practice can conflict with the “limit the membership” practice. It is helpful to establish explicit working agreements for the entire project community about how people may observe without disrupting collaborative sessions. “Glass-house” collaboration extends beyond meetings and gatherings. Agile teams make project progress and issues easily visible to everyone. Alistair Cockburn coined the term information radiators to describe displays of useful information that people can easily see as they work or walk by. These are often simple posters and flip charts with useful information. Good information radiators are easily understood at a glance, are easy to update, are posted in a high-traffic area, and are current. Agile team rooms are loaded with radiators that show current iteration progress, current work assignments, number of stories delivered, architecture decisions, and other information. Although they are used by the Agile team, they generally serve to inform people outside the team. More high-tech information radiators are the various Agile project dashboards that have emerged in recent years. Many open source and commercial project management tools now support at-a-glance project metrics such as burn-down and burn-up charts as well as automated product and team performance metrics.
* Eliminate distractions. Laptops closed . . . cell phones off or on vibrate . . . and focus! The people in front of you are more important than the people who might be trying to call you, text you, or e-mail you. In my opinion this should be etiquette rule number one in today’s corporate culture, but that’s a topic for a different book. However, collaborative sessions are quickly derailed when participants are distracted by unrelated activities. The fact is that we stink at multitasking. Intensive corporate meeting cultures condition people to multitask as a compensation for low-value meetings, which reduces their focus at the meeting, which further reduces the value of the meeting, thereby creating a negative feedback cycle. Participants in a collaborative session must be singly focused on the purpose of that session for the agreed-upon duration of the session. If key participants are distracted, it’s often better to cancel the session and find a time when everyone can focus.
* Decide quickly. When the purpose of a collaborative session is to make a decision, avoid getting stalled in the process. Group decisions that get made today can be changed tomorrow in light of new information. If the group doesn’t have enough information to decide, then quickly identify the research that needs to be done to get enough information. If the group is split after everyone’s input has been gathered, it may be the case that more information is needed.
* Minimize ceremony. The best collaborative sessions are not formalized meetings with agendas and meeting minutes distributed. Instead, they are the ones with the right people talking to each other until the goal is achieved. Often the best documentation is a digital photograph of the whiteboard or flip chart posted on the project wiki. The picture triggers memories of the conversations that took place, the decisions that were made, and the knowledge that was shared.
* Synchronous is better than asynchronous. Most of us have participated in e-mail threads that took a day or longer to reach a conclusion when a simple conversation would have allowed us to get there much faster. How many times have you waited several hours or more for a response to an e-mail request? How many times have you taken several hours to reply to someone else’s e-mail request? Lost time caused by asynchronous communication can be very costly on a project. Real-time conversations are the most effective collaborative methods.
* Face-to-face is better than voice-to-voice is better than. . . . By far the most effective collaboration is face-to-face and in-person with a shared medium like a whiteboard. This form of communication offers multimodal expressiveness that includes words, facial expressions, gestures, sketches, and other additions to meaning. Today’s project teams are often geographically separated, thus making in-person collaboration challenging. Your goal should be to get as close to face-to-face/person-to-person communication as possible using whatever tools are required to facilitate that goal. This practice will greatly increase the likelihood that participants will have a truly shared understanding of the outcome of the session.
* Avoid repetition. If you can’t get all of the right people involved in a collaborative session, postpone it until you can. This is preferable to having multiple repeats of the session with the same purpose and different participants, which can cause inconsistencies and conflicting outcomes. Similarly, once a session has resulted in a decision or outcome, avoid rehashing it unnecessarily unless there is new information that gives cause for reconsideration.

Source: “Agile Analytics : a value-driven approach to business intelligence and
data warehousing “, Ken Collier, Addison-Wesley,