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Chief Collaboration Officer

When you search for the word “collaboration” on the Internet, the top hits are mostly software packages you can buy.  Software can facilitate collaboration, but it doesn’t make people collaborate on its own.

One of the key functions of a technical leader is to bring a team together, help people share ideas, and facilitate team members helping each other.  When a software leader overlooks this key function, you end up with a group of individual contributing engineers instead of a cohesive team.

Before we get into tactics, we should ask “Why is collaboration important for an engineering team?” 

It’s critical to examine your assumptions, so here are my reasons for why a group of engineers working on their own are worse than a team working together:
  • Smart people learn from each other.
  • Getting your plans and designs reviewed by other people allows you to leverage their experience and check your assumptions.
  • Collaboration produces artifacts that stay after collaboration has taken place (such as Wiki pages, design documents, research findings, feature requests)
  • Collaboration breaks knowledge silos within the organization.
  • Collaboration gives people an excuse to get to know each other on a person level.
  • Collaboration reduces the dependence on any one person, and should someone leave the team at least some of the knowledge would be retained.
Of course there are down sides to collaboration:
  • Individual engineers might feel like they are slowed down by having to explain what they are about to do.
  • Formal or informal meetings interrupt the flow of the day.
  • Disrespectful feedback  creates conflictExpanding scope, feature creep, and trying to please everyone can get in the way of delivering a product.
For most of the team leaders I talked to, the pros outweigh the cons and they do want to encourage sharing, learning and providing some failover in case you lose an engineer. 

Having the right tools to collaborate is important, but tools alone will never create a collaborative environment. In order to get people to collaborate you need to lead by example, encourage your team members to share information, and provide incentives for your team to do so.

The most basic tool of collaboration is a document. Where a document resides, or what technology your team uses to access it, doesn’t matter as much provided it’s in a place where people can find it, edit and comment. Some of the basic tools for that are Wikis, shared storage (network drives), and online collaboration suites (like Google Docs and Office 365). 

Collaboration Types

If you do not have a repository of knowledge you should create one as soon as you can. Take the lead by starting to populate it with some of the things you know. 

One cautionary tale about a knowledge store repositories is that once you start creating too many of them, you will start losing some of the value of knowledge retention. I’ve been in organizations where the information is sprinkled around Confluence, Box, Google Drive, SharePoint and as a result no one knows what system to use and no one thinks anyone is going to find anything. 

The best practice around these tools is to pick one and stick with it more than worrying about “choosing the right one”. If you need to migrate to something better later on than it’s important to not just leave the historical content behind, but find a way to carry it forward; you don’t want to create a situation where documents from July are in system X and the documents prior are in system Y.

The second basic tool of collaboration is a meeting, and these can be formal or informal. 

It’s easy to go overboard and become the organization where people just run from meeting to meeting, so my suggestion is to have a meeting with engineers who are working on a particular feature and make it optional for the rest of the team to show up. The nice thing about formal approach is that you might be more efficient with the right process. 

The bad thing about having formal and recurring meetings is that you might just follow the process and have meetings that waste people’s time. If a meeting picks up a bad reputation for being a time waster, people will avoid it and it will lose it’s original intended value. 

In my experience, meetings are best when they are scheduled only if there is enough content to justify holding one to make a decision. The engineering leader needs to step up and schedule it because I have rarely seen individual engineers organize those. Dilbert has created the perception that scheduling meetings is seen as corporate waste, so someone has to step up and take the responsibility and justify putting something on people’s calendar.

The third common tool of collaboration is communication systems. 

There are e-mail, chat systems and various ticketing systems. This is where leading by example is another critical piece.  E-mail is the easiest system to implement because every organization has it and it allows collaboration across organizational boundaries - e-mail is ubiquitous. The problem with e-mail is that everything comes to your inbox; marketing e-mails, sales people pestering you, personal reminders, and also the important work related stuff.

E-mail creates a cognitive load because it requires triage. The good thing about e-mail is that people generally don’t require an instant response, but they get used to it if that’s how you behave. Another issue with e-mail is that distribution lists generally are not configured to archive the things that were shared. A new person joining the team might not see the design document from 3 months ago that’s referenced in an email they receive. 

Chat systems are a good alternative to e-mail if you use them carefully. The greatest advantage of chat systems, like Slack and HipChat, is that they archive the content in a particular channel and also that they keep the chat internal without letting sources from outside the company to interfere with the work related discussion. Of course the problem with chat is that people are expecting instant responses. 

Here are two practices that I recommend when using chat systems: 
  • Use channels as much as you can, even if you have a question for just one person unless it’s sensitive information assume that other people would benefit from the answer now or later.
  • Know when and how to turn the chat off or invoke “Do Not Disturb”.  It’s impossible to do deep work when people are pining you with “hey!  are you there?”  Just like with text messages, its not a big deal to come back later and explain that you were busy with something and couldn’t get back to the person right away.
This is a high level summary of my top collaboration tips and tricks, but the key lesson here is while there are tools for you to decide on and which you pick will determine how to use them. 

Just like an individual sales person rarely loves using a CRM, and individual engineer might not like explaining, documenting and describing their ideas, each comes with pros and cons unrelated to the problem you were trying to solve. Most of the time the beneficiary of the collaboration is the team, and the company, and it’s on the engineering leader to lead by example to make sure the maximum benefit is extracted while the minimum negative side effect is experienced. 

In deciding how your company will work together, there is now a portion of your time that a Chief Technology Officer needs to be a Chief Collaboration Officer.

PS: do you have other tips and best practices?  I’d love to hear about them.  Shoot me a tweet or leave a comment.


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