3 Ways to Prevent Collabotage

Collaboration can be so awesome. 

Everyone is on fire (in a good way), dropping brilliance on each other faster than a Beyonce’ album. It feels like your teammates are 30 seconds from singing Kumbaya and channeling Jerry Mcquire : “nooo, YOU complete ME.”

Sounds familiar, right?
Um, no.
How about this:

Everyone is on fire (not in a good way), dropping trust bombs on each other that plummet faster than Ferguson’s Police reputation. Teammates are 30 seconds from bcc- ing the world and channeling Peter Gibbons from Office Space: “I realized, ever since I started working, every single day of my life has been worse than the day before it. So that means that every single day that you see me, that’s on the worst day of my life”

Collaboration can so suck.

Clunky technology and erratic time zones aside, when the team dynamics go wrong, it can suck exponentially. Hard truth admitted, collaboration is our reality and the way innovative work actually gets done demands it more than ever.

Of course there are the rare exceptions; those “special teams” that are magically formed and ferociously protected – because they work beautifully. They are gold. Reality for most organizations is that progress and innovation rely on a successful series of short and long term projects executed by a continually changing roster of teams.

It sort of goes like this: High level strategy produces specific needs, project requirements are determined, skill sets are identified, talent is curated (literally from wherever it can be found), deliverables are set, deadlines are strapped to an unsuspecting team leader, board members get notified (no turning back now) and teams are thrust into action. This is how we do work.

Concurrent with the cadence of project work, today’s teams take an untold number of forms. There are 43,252,003,274,489,856,000 Rubik’s Cube combinations. Sometimes if feels like there are that many ways a team can be assembled. Internal employees, freelancers, third-party experts, multiple time zones, – and everyone’s favorite current over-complicated obsession – multiple generations.

Guess what? The ratio of on-demand talent on every single team is only going to get bigger. By 2020 50% of the workforce will be classified as freelancers[2]. (Wait for it… we’re going to stop talking ATS/TMS, and start talking FMS in 2015.) Obviously, this isn’t a big surprise – it’s just mathletics. Millennials will represent the majority of the workforce in five years, 60% already identify as an entrepreneur and 90% consider it a mindset for career growth.[3] On top of that, many boomers will retire with a continuing desire to contribute their expertise on things they are truly passionate about.

Amazing examples of highly successful teams that embrace fluidity and use it to innovate are the one assembled by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects Group (ATAP). Described by leader Regina Dugan (of DARPA fame) as “a small band of pirates trying to do epic sh#!; a small band of pirates in a very fast boat.” ATAP teams assemble and bring to fruition advancements in mobile technology that none of us can even imagine at the moment.

Projects begin by indentifying something that requires a quantum leap in both scientific understanding and engineering capability to actually pull off. After that, Dugan assembles a core team of experts from inside Google. Then she quickly expands outside of Google’s walls, tapping huge numbers of outside collaborators from across disciplines and academia. That keeps ATAP small, scrappy and nimble (they only have 75 full time employees.) So far, ATAP has worked with approximately 326 partners – universities, startups, large system integrators, government and non profit organizations – in 22 countries.

A healthy dose of impatience also means that projects have a 2 year time limit and team members know they are on the clock. The mantra at ATAP? “You don’t come to build a career. You come to do a project, to do something epic, and then you go.[5]

So what does a project based reality mean for the rest of us? It means month after month, and quarter after quarter, projects will begin and end ushering in the constant stress of changing team (and personality) dynamics.

As you have experienced, no doubt, collaboration either flourishes or dies – quickly. After that initial honeymoon period that is ‘project kick-off’, the health of team collaboration is vulnerable to 3 things (2 of which are easier to control, see if you can guess which one is the trickiest):

  • Process: How the project is managed for efficiency. Lean, agile, phased – pick your flavor – this is the framework for getting things done.
  • Technology: The way ideas and information are observed and shared across the team. This is how verbal and visual communication is enabled to fit into how and when we work.
  • People: The expertise, intelligence, inspiration and energy that will shape the finished work product.

You guessed it. The innovation of every team is contingent on the output of the people. In Walter Isaacson’s book ‘The Innovators’ he sums it up perfectly:

“Innovation comes from teams more than
lightbulb moments of lone geniuses.[6]

When the dynamics on the team are bad – the work result is bad and the act of ‘working’ is really bad. It’s just all bad. You’ve been there – everyone is pumped up and doing their part – then captain passive abrasive jockeys for position, shatters the trust and the sabotage begins. Process and technology alone can’t fix the personality clashes and communication fails that result in a metastasizing engagement tumor.

This Office Space compilation sums it up. Mmm’k?

So how do we prevent ‘collabotage’? There’s only one way: Intensify the chance of success for the one part of a team that is ubiquitous – the team leader.

3 smart ways to prevent ‘collabotage’:

Give team leaders a consistent framework: As teams of different generations, geographies and industries converge and disperse, the constant unlearning and relearning of how to lead, understand progress and monitor the engagement of each individual team creates delay. Give team leaders a framework that is generation, geography and industry agnostic and built to work with fluid teams.

Give team leaders a universal language: Not every team leader has prior leadership experience – these days, they might not even have much real work experience. They may be leading a team because of their specific technical expertise – not their natural tendency to inspire and motivate. They need a universally effective way to communicate with other people. Give them a language framework based on ideas that cross every demographic and geographic boundary. Give them a personalized way to learn something that is based on how humans tick.

Give team leaders a device agnostic tool: Chances are good that your teams, scattered across time zones and hemispheres, are BYOD. In fact Gartner predicts that by 2017, 50% of all employers will require it[7]. Make sure the tools that you give the team leader are tools that are accessible from anywhere, on any device.

If we focus on increasing the chances of success for the individual team leader – the person responsible for the motivation, energy and outcome of a particular team – we have the opportunity for more consistent wins amid a competitive landscape of ‘project cycles’ that ultimately dictates who the next great innovators will be.

Note: If you’ve ever been on a team that suffered from ‘collabotage’ – the act of sabotaging collaboration because of ego, mistrust, personality conflicts or communication failure – be the change you want to see – share this article with your peers, and take the first step towards erasing this innovation killer.

…Another Infusion of Knowledge