Collaboration: It's More than Facilitated Meetings


Collaboration Gone Bad
In spite of all these benefits, some people shy away from collaboration. Collaboration isn't for everyone. Some people prefer to work alone and do their best work solo. Trying to force collaboration on people who aren't interested is an exercise in futility. Some might have had a bad experience and are wary of trying collaboration again.

Just as collaboration isn't a good fit for every person, collaboration isn't a fit for all work. A work group responsible for installing and configuring servers was urged to work as a team and "be collaborative." The group's work was queued by tickets that specified the setup for each server. Each setup was a one-person job. While there were occasions when it made sense for people in the group to work together, most of the time there wasn't a shared goal that required the effort of more than one person. Their manager decried the lack of collaboration-not seeing that the work didn't require it-and the group members felt their boss was unfairly berating them.

A weak goal can undermine collaboration and lead to churn. One company convened a cross-functional team to "redesign the organization." Each team member had a different idea of the scope and authority of the group. After several weeks of argument and aimless conversation, group members quietly drifted off to more focused and satisfying work. They never reached the point of collaborating because they didn't have a shared idea of where they were going.

A team needs the right mix of skills to collaborate, too. If the group lacks key skills, they won't be able to get the work done, no matter how well they get along and how creative and cooperative they are.

I've also seen collaborative teams struggle when one person didn't follow through on commitments or persisted in working as a lone wolf. Teams that have the skills to do so may hold the person to account or coach her off the team. However, if the team isn't ready to manage its membership and the coach or manager doesn't step in, that could spell failure for the team.

Also, when the team members have a shared goal but are rewarded and rated as individuals, people have less incentive to cooperate. Depending on how people are rewarded in the company, they may be incented to compete with each other or even undercut each other. Some collaborative teams survive in organizations that stack rank and otherwise foster competition; these teams need some other motivator to overcome the factors that demotivate collaboration.

And collaboration requires specific skills-skills that we don't normally learn in school. Dealing with conflict constructively, giving peer-to-peer feedback, and reaching sustainable agreements are all developmental areas for collaborative teams.

By all means, work to make meetings more effective by using participation and facilitation. But don't forget the other parts of collaboration: shared responsibility and ownership, learning, creating, thinking, and deciding. When we hone our collaboration skills, all of us are smarter together than any of us is alone.

About the author

Esther Derby's picture Esther Derby

A regular and Better Software magazine contributor, Esther Derby is one of the rare breed of consultants who blends the technical issues and managerial issues with the people-side issues. She is well known for helping teams grow to new levels of productivity. Project retrospectives and project assessments are two of Esther's key practices that serve as effective tools to start a team's transformation. Recognized as one of the world's leaders in retrospective facilitation, she often receives requests asking her to work with struggling teams. Esther is one of the founders of the AYE Conference. She co-author of Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great. She has presented at STAREAST, STARWEST and the Better Software Conference & EXPO. You can read more of Esther's musings on the wonderful world of software at and on her weblog at Her email is

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