Thursday, July 23, 2009

What type of collaboration are we working on today, Brain?

I'm going to ramble a bit today, I think, so I'm going to front-load the pot with my conclusion, and try to work backwards - kind of like journos - especially modern ones, where facts and opinions occupy the same space (uh, oh - rambling already).

So, to me there are 3 "domains" - bigger than types, smaller than dimensions - of collaboration.

Firstly, there's business-focused/ project-based collaboration, which is all about collaborating to achieve a business objective or objectives. This kind of collaboration is small, lean, and targeted - it exists for a defined period, it works to a definite outcome, and is command driven - whoever is responsible for the objective, runs the show. Its a collaboration community in that everyone has to work together to succeed, whether they want to or not. At a basic level, schools are this - the school is the uniting factor, and there's collaboration because there's no choice - you can't just cherry pick the elements from several schools to suit yourself. Families, too, especially those events where you have to put up with relatives who - were they complete strangers - you'd run 5kms to avoid. A large organisation is similar, though there is more choice involved, since there is a uniting interest, presumably, since people actually choose to work there.

In domain B, there's a community of common interest. These are centred on a topic, field, discipline, or whatever, and are essentially a meeting of like minds. School classes, business units, community groups, and even small to medium organisations tend to operate like this. You may not like everyone in the community - in fact, you may actively dislike any or all members of it - but it is a community of people with the same interest, so there is a common factor that isn't imposed - you choose your interests.

And III, you've got a community of one. This is the community you build yourself, where you're the uniting factor. The community may only exist for you - there's no commonality but the one you provide, and in fact members may not even know that the "community" exists. These are your friends, family members you actively seek to spend time with, the colleagues at work you actually seek out to talk to.

I've been giving these domains a lot of thought lately. In particular because I'm working in building these communities in the workplace. And I'm struggling, mostly because people don't always recognise that these domains are distinct. A community built on a common interest grown organically - there's a few key members who kick things off, and initially just talk amongst themselves. The community can grow or disperse, depending on how much external interest and value it generates. But you can't apply this approach to a project-based community - it has a purpose, and a deadline, and someone is accountable for it - that person has to provide the drive to build that community, and can't abrogate that responsibility. If you delegate the role of leadership, you send a clear message that you don't really care or believe in the collaboration, and allow people to opt out. Its very difficult to deliver on a project objective within a specific time frame if participation is optional - there's no incentive to prioritise the collaboration effort over anything else within that time frame.

Similarly, you can't dictate participation in a community of interest, even in the most extreme circumstances. An invaded country can't count on its citizens to all join the resistance against the invaders - people respond differently depending on circumstance, situation, fellow members, and many, MANY other variables. A community of interest grows organically over time, and may live or die. You can provide the right environment to grow one, but sometimes no matter what you do, it may not take. And that's OK - a garden requires things to die to support new life.

(I'm showing my preference for the organic metaphor here, because I really, REALLY hate mechanical, technical approaches to collaboration - its condescending, stupid, and dangerous to talk and/or think of people like machines. Let the machines collaborate however they like - I for one, welcome our new metal overlords, and would like to remind them of how useful techno-friendly humans can be).

And those communities of one? Try and dictate to people who they can be friends with, see how far it gets you. I had a manager actually try that with me, and it will forever remain a BIG black mark against them, despite any other virtues they have - and they had a few. You can constrain friendships - a little - but its very risky territory, for reasons far greater than the obvious ones of creating alienated, hostile staff. Innovation comes from those friendships, more than anyplace else, and basically you need staff more than they need you. The insular, crackpot people hiding in the corner not talking to anyone are not the staff you want to keep.

These communities all interact, of course, so you need to treat each appropriately. If you're building a project-based community, YOU need to BUILD it. You can't pass the responsibility on. This is unenviable, since it will definitely mean extra work, with no extra time. But you're the boss, so dictate and exemplify the behaviour - lead by example and enforce your team following you. If you're building a community of common interest, however, absolutely DO NOT do this. Look for help, delegate responsibility, pass the buck often. Be a participant, but don't go nuts - it looks bad when you're name is the only appearing in any discussion (though this can sometimes work if you're willing to come across as earnest and desperate - I'm never to proud to beg for participation, and it usually works!). You can also build it using you're community one - get your friends and trusted colleagues to help.

I'm still trying to figure some of this out - in particular, does a community follow a project, or is the project a component of the community? Its probably a bit of both, but its a judgement call. It'd be nice if more projects were allowed to shine some light on why and how they failed.

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