Any team benefits from being highly collaborative. This is especially true in agile development, where the techniques for rapidly building quality software rely on communication and relationships over documentation and process formality. Agile techniques demand teams exercise a higher level of collaboration.
Yet the agile community doesn't have a common definition for what “collaboration” is. Collaboration is usually defined simply as a group of people who work together. We often don't know what collaboration should look like or the benefits it can provide. How do we know we're leveraging the relationships and commitments of the team in addition to the energy of individuals?
This article doesn't focus on collaborative techniques or patterns. It defines collaboration independent of techniques because a strong definition of collaboration will provide a common perspective that makes any team or technique more effective.
Collaboration describes how a group of individuals work together to achieve a high performing team. A high performing team is able to leverage the team itself to accomplish more than the sum of what individual members can accomplish.
Collaboration supports this by increasing communication through robust relationships, keeping the team as a whole focused on common objectives, and leveraging an environment that exposes ideas and solutions. Here is a working definition of collaboration that's been useful in increasing collaboration among team members:
Collaboration: The cooperative behavior of a group of people empowered to solve a clearly defined problem such that the capabilities of the group are leveraged over the collection of individual talents. Members of a highly collaborative team consistently remove attention from personal agendas to focus their energies on team goals.
A highly collaborative team must have a clearly defined business problem to address and the authority to create and apply the solution. The business problem focuses on what the customer needs rather than a particular solution.
An essential component of collaboration is that each team member operates with the intellectual integrity to acknowledge a personal agenda or instinct is being promoted over the team's objectives, and the rigor to refocus on the dialog that moves the team towards solving the problem. This means that no one can entirely dismiss collaboration - it's either done well or done poorly.
Collaboration in Practice
Here's a brief case study that illustrates what collaboration can look like.
A group of technical and sales managers at an organization I worked with taught a series of weeklong training sessions. This organization had a strong interest in leveraging the capabilities of teams. The purpose was to train people how to succeed better as teams. Team members were randomly selected and given the same problem to solve. The instructors played three roles when interacting with team members: mentors, managers who supported the team to fulfill their objectives, and the customers.
With four or five teams in the group, the lowest performing individuals often ended up on the same team, with the highest performers on another. Predictably, at the beginning of the week the low performers did the worst and the high performers did best. As the week went on, the “bad team worked harder and later into the night, argued, explained and re-explained, justified, blamed, and failed to meet their objectives. There was no consensus.
Each person on the team was sure they had the winning strategy. Each person felt they knew what needed to be done and had difficulty listening to or accepting other strategies.
About mid-week, something surprising would happen. The team of low performers, facing constant failure, stopped arguing. Perhaps it was desperation, or individuals stopped assuming they new all the answers. Whatever the