How to Improve Project Collaboration

Complex projects will involve teams from different parts of your organisation or from multiple organisations, some of whom could be competitors on a different project. It would be hoped that the common goal of project completion will encourage the different interests to work together to resolve any problems quickly so that the task gets done on time and to specification. Our experience has been that hope alone is rarely enough for effective collaboration to thrive.

“Although teams that are large, virtual, diverse, and composed of highly educated specialists are increasingly crucial with challenging projects, those same four characteristics make it hard for teams to get anything done. To put it another way, the qualities required for success are the same qualities that undermine success” Gratton and Erickson, Harvard Business Review, Nov. 2007 

If you want your team to work successfully  in a collaborative manner you will need to take positive action to embed the behaviours that will encourage co-operative and will  overcome the natural tendencies to privatize knowledge and to be competitive.

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You could put on a training programme but this can often be theoretically and not always applied in practice we find it better to make a number of live interventions once a project team has mobilised. Of course these interventions will only work if the culture of all the organisations involved are supportive to collaboration and if this is something that senior leaders consciously demonstrate during their work. If the culture is in place then our three easy interventions will help you as the project leader to drive the change you want so that collaboration becomes a key element to your project success.

Stage One: Establishing the Collaborative Team

This stage will involve a number of activities but a crucial element will be a face to face event. The value of face to face conversations are hard to fully replicate in other ways so unless it is just impossible  find a time and place to physically connect. The amount of time for this varies but often the 24 hour retreat – 13.00 – to 13.00 works well, as it provides time to connect socially as well as professionally.

This event is an opportunity for your team to work collaboratively together on a number of real challenges and tasks you need to do to kick off the project. This will include the following activities:

  • Setting the project vision – appreciating the different expectations of success can help your team to find “win win” solutions to challenges that they will face during the life time of your project.
  • Exploring Expertise- highly intelligent and skilled professionals often do not explain their expertise in an accessible manner and this can be a source of conflict when their expertise is not fully utilised later in the project. Providing time for your team to share and appreciate the range of skills and expertise they have will work much better than playing any number of “trust games”
  • Exploring Behavioural Expectations – this is a really important activity because it will involve you sharing your expectations of behaviours to support collaboration. You can use the results of this activity later on in project reviews to provide an easy forum for team members to address behaviour that is not supporting the project.

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Stage 2 – Project Team Collaboration Reviews

The number and timings of these collaborative reviews will vary but the critical element is that there is space provided to specifically explore collaboration and not just talk about the project goals and milestones. Sometimes these reviews are done virtually and sometimes a combination of virtual team meet ups and face to face sessions are used.

  • Reviewing the Vision – you can review the vision from the start-up session and ask the team to identify the activities that have directly addressed the overall vision for the project. You can explore alignment between the collaborative behaviours and the project vision.
  • Updating Expertise– sharing learning and identifying any gaps in knowledge, skills or behaviour will help your team make better use of its resources. A useful method for this are action learning groups. These give you a face to face or virtual space to explore learning from the project and identify any gaps in knowledge/skills.
  • Reviewing and resetting expectations – you can covert the discussion about behaviour in the start up to a quick “temperature” checking tool. Your team can self assess the levels of collaboration in the project team. You can collate the resut and share these with the team to help you all explore both successes and challenges in behaviours and agree a options to further develop your collaborative work.

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Stage 3 – Celebrating the Collaboration

A frequently overlooked intervention is an opportunity to review and celebrate your project collaboration . This can be done with a series of interventions, it does not have to be a face to face event. Some elements you will find useful include:

  • Reviewing the Vision– reflecting on your shared vision at your first project session and exploring how this differs from the project outcome. This is a great time for you to ask questions about the difference between aspirations and the realities of projects and to explore the impact of this mismatch
  • Celebrating expertise and skills – during the project your team  will have developed their skills and expertise so it is about providing a way of charting this growth in a shared format.
  • Reviewing behaviour – if your team are likely to bid for future work on collaborative frameworks then taking time to honestly reflect on the collaborative behaviours shown is a the best way to prepare your team to perform at even higher levels on the next project.
  • Recording the story of the project creating a story board of all the photos and key stages to your project can be a good way of celebrating your journey. This can be done easily using an on-line pinboard facility.

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The interventions outlined above are things you can do as the project leader. You may to engage a neutral facilitator to work with you so that you can participate in the discussions and leave someone else to worry about the process. Whether you work independently or with a facilitator you will find that giving this focus on collaboration will help your team avoid some of the conflict that can often set project team behind schedule.

If you want to have an informal, free chat with one of our team we have facilitators working across the  the UK and Europe and we can call by for a face to face dicussion or connect virtually with you to talk about improving collaboration

Christine Bell

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Can you Collaborate?

Collaboration is everywhere. Companies are seeking to collaborate with others to develop their brand. As team members we are urged to collaborate with other teams so that we can better serve our customers. Large public sector contracts are requiring the competitor teams to work collaboratively together on the project and to demonstrate competence in collaboration before the contract is awarded.

  • But do we really get what this means to us as individuals?
  • Do we recognise what we need to change in our behaviour so we are seen as someone who can be collaborative?

Probably in answering these questions your responses could be:

Who would not want to be collaborative?

It has become one of those characteristics like communication that everyone believes they do well but equally complains that everyone else does badly!

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Collaboration v Competition

At the heart of our challenge with collaboration is that although we think we want to collaborate we have a deep grained tendency towards competition and to wanting to win. This desire to win can mean that we inadvertently do things which cause the collaborative relationships we have been building to break down. We cannot resist the desire to show that it was our unique contribution/idea that allowed the team to be successful. We do this even when it means the others in our team will appear less effective.

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As a facilitator I will often be asked to observe team working on real or simulated problems and am always fascinated to see how any element of competition will hinder attempts at collaboration. The team just wants to do whatever will lead them to be successful at the task in the short term.

Building Trusting Relationships

So what is it that is needed to make collaboration more possible? The key to this is the ability to trust others. We need to trust that the others in our team will put the urge to win aside and will do the right thing for the team even at the cost of their own personal gain.

  • How do you know you can trust others?
  • How do you make sure that they behave in the interests of the team?

The short (and I know rather disappointing) answer to this is that you can’t. You cannot make others do anything. How they behave in a collaborative relationship will be in reaction to your own behaviour and this is the part you can control. This means that the more useful question to ask about collaboration is “what can I do to be seen as trustworthy?”

In the past trust was always seen as something that took time to build up. Recent insights from Swift Trust Theory have indicated that this is not always the case. In reality a lot of trust comes about through our actions and by consciously demonstrating trust in our behaviour we build that trust relationship.

Can I Be Trusted?

The three main actions you can take to build up your reputation for being trustworthy (and therefore someone I would want to collaborate with) are:

  • Do what you say you will do, when you said you would do it
  • Share what you know with others
  • Do your job well, be competent

This sounds simple but these building bricks start to build up the trust relationship and from this you have the basis of an excellent collaborative working relationship.

The extent of collaboration across different organisations is growing and so we need to make sure that in our organisations we create the conditions that make it possible for teams to collaborate.

There are four key areas to work on with your teams:

  1. Agree ways of working – it is vital to be clear about who does what, what the expectations are for how things are done before starting the tasks.
  2. Define and Share Goals – there will be shared goals for the project but also different team members have different goals. Being open about these personal goals helps each party to get what they need from the collaboration
  3. Manage Behaviour – we all think we are trustworthy, we all think we are great listeners, we all think we are open to feedback but the truth is often very different. We need to support teams to address behaviour and increase the self-awareness within the team.
  4. Review and Reflect on Practice – collaboration needs practice so your teams need to take stock of what went well by conducting a structured lessons learnt review.

Most importantly teams need time to support them in becoming collaborative. Sharing information with others, discussing joint plans, identifying personal objectives, all of this is time consuming. The final goal will be a richer outcome but there will be short term pain which will sabotage the collaborative working unless we recognise this by allocating more initial start-up time for our project teams. A great example of where this valuable time made a huge difference to a start up project is in our case study.

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So can you collaborate?

There are some important things you can do to manage your collaborative behaviour by recognising how strong your competitive desire to win is and looking at ways in which you can rein this in!

You can start developing your trustworthy behaviour so people want to collaborate with you and finally you can give others and demand for yourself the time and space to work in a collaborative manner.

Our facilitation team are skilled in working with teams to encourage greater collaboration. Do contact us for a chat!

Are our meetings giving a return on investment?

Whilst delivering a training course recently, the perennial topic of effective meetings raised it head – again!

Several of the people on the course were quite stressed, working long hours, looking tired and generally not the happiest people on the planet! I then did a quick survey, asking the simple question, ‘On average, how many hours per week do you spend in meetings?’  The replies ranged from about 5 hours to one person spending 30+ hours per week in meetings. Each of these meetings seemed to be typically attended by about 6 people. I then asked:-

 ‘and if your company’s CEO walked into the meeting, would all participants be able to explain what the meeting was going to achieve and how they were contributing to that objective?’ 

There was some nervous shifting in chairs and mutters – I felt I touched a nerve, so not wishing to heap further pain on already stressed individuals I backed off and opened up a ‘back to basics’ session on effective meetings, this resulted in a number of delegates committing to revisit their own meeting schedules.

It seems that most of us know what we should do for a meeting (e.g. justify, plan, prepare, run, follow-up on). However it is easy to find a series of meetings that have become a routine – they have a ‘life of their own’ – and occur without much thought and even less challenge about the actual value.

In our working lives, do we start to behave like hamsters in a wheel, expending more and more energy running around the same track? If this touches a nerve for you, do yourself a favour and just do a very quick analysis of your recent time at work:-

  • How many meetings did you run / attend?
  • Was the meeting justified, was it the best way to achieve the objective?
  • Was each meeting effective and efficient, were all attendees required and able to contribute?
  • If a key stakeholder, like the company CEO, or a major shareholder in the company, walked into the room, would you be confident to explain why the meeting was happening?

If you are positive in all your answers, Gold Star, well done! – keep up the good work.

If not, maybe you have found one key to a more productive and less stressful working life.

Collaboration: The Key to Project Success?

In October 2012 the BBC broadcast a 2-part series by Evan Davis entitled ‘Built in Britain’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01nd290.

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In these programmes Evan explored the potential for major infrastructure projects to act as a catalyst for reinvigorating the UK economy. In part 2, the story focused on two major projects; the high speed rail link between St Pancras /Channel Tunnel and the 2012 Olympic Park. The projects and the potential economic impact were very interesting.

The programme explored the reasons for the success of these two projects and sought to explain the reasons for our ‘new found ability to deliver complex projects successfully’. In addition to funding and engineering excellence, key project people identified a significant reason for the success of these projects in comparison to previous experiences was the contractual relationships set-up; which really encouraged people to work together – a very practical demonstration of the power of collaboration.

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This is music to the ears. For many years I have worked with projects, engineering, construction and business change projects. In my experience the most successful projects emerge when project teams really do work together and engage their stakeholders effectively.

Global Change

The Project Director inherited a global business change project that had experienced two previous false starts. The Director instigated monthly, off-site, facilitated workshops which meant from the beginning of the project all the stakeholders in the project got together to set expectations, reviewed progress and sorted out challenges that were being faced. By doing this they really pulled together.

New IT Systems

Many business change projects incorporating new IT and the solutions need to be rolled out across numerous business units in the country.  For one organisation they made a significant step towards collaboration by arranging a short sequence of facilitated project launch workshops .

During these different workshops the facilitators focused on providing processes that enabled participants to absolutely engage in the highly uncertain situations.

These workshops went much further than the traditional project kick-off meetings where PowerPoint slides are shown and contact details are exchanged. In these facilitated workshops differing viewpoints and perspectives at the start of the project were seen as enriching the process. Through a series of professionally facilitated steps, all participants were able to share, explore and ultimately shape their projects. This led to true collaboration.

Just as in the recent infrastructure projects described in the Evan Davis programme, these business change projects were all delivered very successfully.

Perhaps the evidence points to an emergent clue – the key that unlocks a stream of successful projects – true collaboration requires time together to build trust and engagement
Talk to us about how we can help you to set up early project team engagement sessions  info@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

 

Facilitation Must Be More than Fun

Inevitably when we commence planning with clients / potential clients we hold discussions with the leader – the champions of the cause.

In two recent examples comments have been made that set alarm bells ringing. One client said, “I hope you are not going to get us to play silly games, a recent facilitator had us throwing cushions around the room, someone ended up with broken glasses, I’ve no idea why we did that”. Another client recalled having some fun painting tee-shirts, but didn’t feel there was any relevance to the workshop.

This set me thinking. We start with the premise that the role of the facilitator is to provide the group / team with processes that enable them to (more) effectively address a defined purpose. We find that whilst there is often a need to explain and sometimes justify our proposal to include a certain exercise before we run it, we have not encountered examples where after the exercise has run people, especially the leader, dismiss it as ‘silly’ or a ‘waste of time’.

It seems that, at best, some facilitators are failing to communicate the purpose of their exercises, at worst, perhaps, some are including disparate activities without purpose to the fill the time. We believe that this is bad news for the franchise that is ‘facilitation’. Our aim should be to provide effective processes that are ‘fit for purpose’. Maybe, sometimes, an exercise fails to work / deliver the desired progress; this can and does happen, the professional response should be to say so, to regroup and address the need in a more appropriate manner.  This should be transparent to all involved so that people will not go away muttering ‘I’ve no idea why we did that’.

We are not being spoil sports, ‘fun’ exercises can be very usefully incorporated into team building and creative learning events, but let’s make sure that they really do fit and ensure they are highlighted in context to participants.

Nigel Chapman, Centre for Facilitation

nigelchapman@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Board meetings and facilitation; an unnatural partnership?

A luxurious board room, dominated by an imposing table with heavy chairs placed around it. A Chairman exuding authority, calmness and control. Apologies for absence taken and the minutes of the last meeting accepted. Each item of business carefully recorded by the secretary, with Board members subtly attracting the attention of the Chair when they wish to speak. The meeting creeps from item to item until each member is asked for “Any Other Business” and the date of the next meeting is agreed.
• Is this a tried and tested format which works well and shouldn’t be messed with?
 • Or an old fashioned way of doing business which doesn’t allow for true creativity and problem solving, and holds organisations back?
At the Centre for Facilitation, our experience shows that there are some occasions when flexibility may help a Board of Directors to do business more effectively. The critical point, of course, is “does it help them achieve their business objectives?” There is nothing worse than a facilitator entering a board room, asking members to jump out of their seats, moving people around, posting flipcharts on the walls, and generally putting participants well out of their comfort zone – unless these activities are clearly linked to the business of the day. However, even if the facilitator makes a link, this type of disruption to normal procedures may be the quickest way for them to be thrown out of the room and never asked back.
It is an obvious conclusion, but a facilitator must know the audience and how far they may or may not be prepared to move from their normal way of working.

  • Talking to and understanding the Chair’s requirements before the meeting.
  • Ensuring that the objectives of the meeting (or individual items) are clear
  • Finding an appropriate process for each item which achieves the stated objective,

are the essential skills of the facilitator. Only then can the Chair and the facilitator (together) agree a plan for running the meeting, which may or may not require some aspects of the meeting to divert from traditional practice.

One example might be if there is an item on “reviewing the performance of x / y / z and determining future investment of these areas”. The item may need to begin with a more traditional form of presentation or review of each area, but then the facilitator can help the Board reach a decision more effectively through – for example – asking each member to generate their own list of criteria for investment, displaying the joint list and then asking them to score each department objectively against the new criteria, either as individuals, in smaller groups, or (if time) as a whole group. The business benefit of the smaller group activity is that the whole Board can reach a decision more quickly, because every member can contribute to the scoring without having to wait for their turn.

With a skilled facilitator, Board meetings of the future could consist of something like… a luxurious board room, dominated by an imposing table with heavy chairs placed around it. A Chairman exuding authority, calmness and control. A facilitator helping the group to achieve their business objectives through the introduction of a range of methods. The approach always maintain the interest of members, may involve moving briefly to another room, retains the traditional approach when it is required for information exchange or voting, and above all, moves the business forward through a complete focus on business objectives.
Clare Howard
clarehoward@centreforfacilitation.co.uk

Home Early: Good or Bad?

Whenever I run sessions, the question “We are really doing well – how would you feel if we had a shorter lunch and tried to finish earlier in the day?” is usually greeted with universal enthusiasm. Occasionally, however, there are people who prefer to stick to an agreed and advertised end time rather than find themselves with an unexpected half hour’s free time. This was driven home to me during a recent session when one participant felt aggrieved that the outcome had been achieved earlier than she had expected, and the day finished at 4pm instead of the advertised 4.30pm.
Of course, as we all know, people have different preferences when it comes to sticking to a schedule. More importantly, a good facilitator will know when the timings have to be “flexed” to allow for penetrating and valuable debate on an issue which, although timed for maybe 60 minutes, is clearly taking longer to solve. Similarly, we have to know when a discussion is not achieving its desired outcome and needs to be cut short and the process changed to enable a different method to be used to achieve the required result.
I think the key skill lies in flexing the timings accordingly within the agreed start and end point to a day, without finishing late, and yet taking into account those (admittedly few) people who may get upset if you finish early. One solution I find works ( on the enjoyable occasions when a range of facilitated techniques have resulted in an early conclusion) is to warn participants that the timings may be cut short, but that the session will still be “live” and open for further discussion for those who wish to stay until the appointed end time. This works well because although the formal debate has concluded, and results captured, the informal networking and sparking of ideas can continue.
Of course, this means that the facilitator needs to be on hand, and still working hard, right up to that appointed time, but after all that is what we are paid for!

clarehoward@centreforfacilitation.co.uk