Wednesday, 08 August 2012 01:00

Achieving Collaboration Without Breaking the Bank

Written by Ann Helfrich, Susan Jones, and John Roberto

An approach to defining and implementing your collaboration model

How adept an organization is at collaboration can be a competitive advantage or, alternatively, a source of significant risk. The general makeup of project teams has been shifting to a more diverse, virtual makeup as organizations spread out geographically and increasingly work with multiple stakeholders on projects. Project management approaches that do not take into account increased communication and collaboration needs created challenges for which organizations are ill prepared. While the market is flooded with tools that claim they can improve collaboration, purchasing a new tool and weaving it into a company's infrastructure is often not within the available budget. Moreover, a new tool may not be the only answer or even the recommended first step towards improved collaboration.

We suggest that the most economic and effective approach to improved collaboration is to understand your project team’s environment and communication needs by taking the time to define a collaboration model. The path to designing a collaboration model takes diligence in identifying and evaluating your organization's project, people, processes and existing technology in order to determine the optimal collaboration processes and tools to support the organization.

In this article, we will discuss an approach to defining and implementing successful project collaboration in your organization.

The elements of our project collaboration model

A collaboration model is more than just a set of processes. From our perspective, it represents the successful identification of project information to allow for the effective integration of people, process, tools and technology, as well as on-going adaptation and adoption into a cohesive collaboration model. The intent of this proposed model is to create a standard way of thinking about collaboration so that the project teams can focus on tweaking inputs and assumptions for their current project.

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Defining the elements and challenges of our project collaboration model

The key to project success is often how well a team collaborates to achieve the common goal. When a team collaborates well, it is frequently taken for granted. When a team is struggling, we have found it is typically caused by one of these common challenges.

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Now that we have defined a collaboration model and its challenges, here is a practical approach you can use to implement a collaboration model within your organization.

Implementing a project collaboration model

The approach breaks down into four basic steps:

  1. Understand project characteristics and needs

  2. Define how your project team collaborates

  3. Train, test, and rollout tools

  4. Monitor adoption and leverage change management techniques
  1. Understand project characteristics and needs

    An awareness of the overall technical and organizational infrastructure, security and/or regulatory constraints of each component of the team will help identify the challenges that might be faced when establishing the collaboration model. If a subset of the team has access to the most mature processes and latest technology that fits the project deliverables perfectly, but similar resources are inaccessible to the rest of the team, there will be a likelihood of collaboration breakdowns.

    The first step is to identify the project’s end product. Processes and tools that work for tangible deliverables such as a white paper, formal analysis, website or application may not translate well when the product of a project is intangible, such as the transfer of intellectual capital. Recognizing that collaboration processes need to be different for different types of end products is an important awareness to gain.

    Once the end product has been defined, assess the team charged with delivering it. Team members within the same company or even the same division tend to have the same vision and a similar level of knowledge for collaboration tools. Team members outside the local area or local organization may need to be aligned with the end goal to ensure adoption of tools and processes. Knowledge and, where it makes sense, incorporation of the tools that the resources are familiar with will also promote alignment and adoption across the team.

    In today’s global team environment, team members within the same company and/or division may not be co-located. Simple considerations such as time zone and local holidays when setting up schedules and meetings, as well as an understanding of cultural nuances and lingo, can foster a sense of good will and team building that is invaluable.

  2. Define how your project team collaborates

    Once the nature of the project and the involved effort is understood, the next step should be assessing team members, processes and the tools that will support the collaboration model.

    • People - Based on the analysis of project characteristics, are there any individuals or groups of team members that may be challenging and need to be addressed? For projects that involve multiple organizations, review the organizations to understand areas of commonality. These areas of commonality can be used as lynch pins for how collaboration is achieved.

      • Example: How to handle communication and task handoff with team members in different time zones, or how to handle issues related to team members having organizational goals and priorities that are different from other team members and that may cause conflict with the project goals.

    • Tools - Evaluate the tools available and determine which one(s) are best suited, given the experience and skills of the team members (one option is to train team members). Then select the likely tools that will be used by an assessment of internally available tools, or by vendor selection if they aren’t available internally.

    • Processes - Knowing the people and potential tools, it is time to identify processes that will help mitigate people-related collaboration risks.

      • Example: Email is to be used for project information and normal communication, but is not to be used to document or resolve issues. Issues will be documented in our issues log on the project website.

    Storing collaboration models created by other project teams so that they can be leveraged and customized by other teams can prove to be a valuable time-saving approach. 

  3. Train, test and roll out collaboration tools

    After a collaboration model has been outlined for the project, one often overlooked and potentially critical step remains: communicate the collaboration approach to the project team in order to develop a shared understanding and commitment. It is important to not assume everyone is on board, so check with the team to ensure they understand the benefits of agreeing upon a collaboration approach up front.

    Based upon tools and processes identified for the project, identify where training is required and whether steps are needed to ensure team-wide adoption of the processes and tools. Finding out that a team member lacks an understanding of tools such as a live meeting for screen sharing when in the middle of a critical issue resolution can greatly reduce the risk collaboration breakdown.

  4. Monitor adoption and leverage change management techniques

    A key to the success of your collaboration approach is to ensure effective and sincere adoption. New habits can be reinforced by leveraging change management techniques. The project effort, team member familiarity as well as the level of change being introduced will drive the level and nature of the adoption monitoring and processes.

    Be watchful of the symptoms of collaboration failure. These may either be the abandonment of agreed upon tools or processes, slow adopters who linger with old tools (e.g., continuation of document distribution via email after a document repository is in place), or duplicate/redundant processes arising due to tool/training challenges. The usage or lack thereof of the approach by your team will reveal opportunities for improvement and evolution throughout the effort.

    Be ready to adapt the process, on-board new team members as needed, and adjust the model to meet your team’s needs.

Conclusion:

Collaboration breakdowns can cause team conflict and ineffectiveness, which can result in hefty delays or increased costs to the project. Smooth, efficient collaboration as well as adopting a consistent approach can be key to project success.

Given the changing work environment, improvements to collaboration require analysis and planning. The approach described here is to invest the time and effort to treat collaboration as something that needs to be managed within a project. Analyze the needs of the team, define how the team will collaborate through the project via a collaboration model and communicate the approach to the team. After the model is in place, monitor adoption and adapt as appropriate.

Taking the time to understand and improve collaboration as well as achieving the right balance of processes and tools that meet the needs of your team can result in an area of increased risk becoming a competitive advantage for your projects. 

Don't forget to leave your comments below.


Ann Helfrich is a consultant with Systems Evolution Inc. (www.sysev.com) with over 24 years of internal and external consulting experience. Her background includes Strategic Project and Program Management, Business and Technology Analysis, Program Development, System Architecture Design, Solution Implementation, and Change Management. 


Susan Jones, PMP is a consultant with Systems Evolution Inc. (www.sysev.com) with over 10 years of experience in the area of IT Project Management. Her background includes Warehouse Management, Print Fulfillment and large-scale OS deployments with focus on Process Improvement and Change Management.

John Roberto, PMP is a consultant with Systems Evolution Inc. (www.sysev.com) with over 18 years of internal and external consulting experience. His background includes Program Management, Project Management, Process Improvement, Strategy and Business Analysis. Mr. Roberto has worked in the financial, medical device, and automotive industries.
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