3 collaboration pitfalls to avoid

Want to foster a more collaborative culture in your IT team? Here's how to sidestep 3 common mistakes
438 readers like this.

There’s a current trend among IT managers in underperforming cultures to talk about the importance of collaboration as if they’ve just found the golden ticket in a well-known fictional chocolate bar. To reinforce their point about the criticality of collaboration, they talk about it. A lot. They need to collaborate on this, increase collaboration on that, and cross-collaborate on the other: What we need is collaboration!

When talking about it doesn’t work, they move to copy others who collaborate well. Not by implementing a strong vision, defining a set of values, or by holding people to agreed-upon behaviors – you know, the stuff that works – but by settling on quick-fix solutions instead. (More of those in a minute.)

[ Culture change is the hardest part of digital transformation. Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

But make no mistake: Collaboration – or the way that people work together – is critical for IT cultures to be successful. It’s just that most IT cultures aren’t very good at it.

In the 2018 Deloitte Human Capital Trends Report, 94 percent of organizations said that “agility and collaboration are critical to their organization’s success.” Yet only six percent say that they’re where they need to be today.

Collaboration – or the way that people work together – is critical for IT cultures to be successful.

Google’s 2015 Working Together Better report talks extensively about the importance of collaboration and its positive impact on both culture and results. For example, 88 percent of those who strongly agreed that their culture was one that fostered collaboration also said that morale was high.

High morale = happy staff = improved culture = greater productivity = better results

OK, so it’s not quite as simple as that, but you get the idea of how important collaboration is. So why don’t more IT departments take the time to define their culture and the collaboration required to be successful?

Well, because it’s easier to throw the solution over the fence to someone else than to put the time and effort into building something that works. It’s not even cost that prevents some leaders from defining the culture, because they’re more than happy to throw good coin at the following, which are all proven not to work - in isolation:

1. Going open-plan

While open-plan works for some people (waves enthusiastically from my keyboard), it most definitely doesn’t work for others – particularly introverts, who can be found in any IT staff. In the rush for greater collaboration, CIOs are undermining concentration and productivity by creating spaces that suit one personality type over another.

It was always thus. For decades, leaders of organizations around the world have strived to create the “perfect” environment in which all workers within a culture can do their best work. However, from schools to skyscrapers, the same mistakes are made as they assume that everyone either wants to work in one way or can readily change to working another way.

As soon as the headphones go on in an open office, the culture and the collaboration that comes with that can be blocked out.

Tip: Different personalities require different spaces in order to do their best work, so take this into consideration when refitting the office.

2. Expecting too much from a tool

One thing that every IT culture needs to consider is how it uses technology to support how its people and internal operations interact on a day-to-day basis. These collaboration transformation projects are popping up all over the place, with tools such as JIRA, Microsoft Teams, and Slack being heralded as game-changers when it comes to human interaction.

You can’t change the culture to fit the tool.

One of the biggest mistakes that these collaboration transformation projects make is to focus on implementing technology rather than providing a tool to support the evolution of communication. Only by providing a new set of behaviors and practices around the use of these tools can IT departments ensure that they don’t become places for people to hide.

Tip: Ensure that any tool that’s implemented complements the current culture. You can’t change the culture to fit the tool.

3. Focusing on method, not mindset

By far the biggest collaboration mistake IT departments are making right now is to roll out a method and expect everything to change overnight. Agile is the current method of choice, and great things are expected from the people who attend the training courses to learn how to do [insert preferred agile method here] well.

The assumption that some organizations make – that everything can be “done agile” – is just as ridiculous as making people fill out a thousand forms to ensure consistency of project delivery during the PRINCE2 boom (best known in the UK.) If agile training is rolled out in a waterfall way, that should be further proof that little thought has been given to the evolution of the culture. The same old collaboration mistake of “if we roll it out then everything will change” will be made again.

[ Culture change requires open communication. Read also: How to build a strong agile team. ]

Tip: While gaining new technical knowledge is important for culture, it’s important to work on emotional intelligence and mindset to ensure that the behaviors support application of the method.

Of course, if the cultural conditions are reset by the staff and different ways of working and interacting are then introduced in a controlled way, these can all add value to the way that IT departments collaborate. However, great collaboration requires highly emotionally intelligent people who care about their work, their colleagues, and the organization. If any of these factors are missing, all the collaboration approaches will fail as there’s simply no immediate, quick-fix way to foster a culture of collaboration.

[ Get The Open Organization Workbook, a free download with advice from more than 25 experts on building transparent, collaborative organizations. ]

Colin D. Ellis is a culture change expert, an award-winning international speaker and a best-selling author. His latest book, "Culture Fix: How to Create a Great Place to Work" (Wiley), has seen him travel all over the world to help IT departments transform the way they work.