#156 - Helping Collaboration Happen
Plus: Hard conversations mean caring; Delegation; Manage your top performers; Team feedback; The problem is more interesting than the solution; Secure resources by talking to people; Learn to say no
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I was part of a discussion earlier this week on promoting collaboration on teams.
Collaboration covers a lot of ground; we work together for a bunch of different reasons. Working together is harder in a lot of ways than working alone, so it’s not necessarily a goal in and of itself! There’s three big reasons why you might use collaboration (1) knowledge transfer, (2a) getting work done better (matching the right people to the right task) and (2b) getting work done faster (parallelizing work over several possible people). As with so many things in management, clarity on the problem you’re aiming to solve makes things a lot easier
For knowledge transfer - either within the team or team and stakeholders, or ideally both - approaches I’ve seen (and used) that have worked well include:
Routine (usually every month or two) tech talks. My favourite version of this is to gather together 2-3x 10 min talks, on a theme if possible, or not if not, covering something cool they learned or did, as a demo or a walkthrough or a presentation. The idea here is to keep it short and lightweight, so it’s not a big lift and make it easier to do frequently. In my previous jobs these have always gone really well; I’ve also always strongly encouraged (but never required) writing the talk up afterwards as a blog post - the words and figures/diagrams/screenshots are already there, so it goes together quickly, is something they now have as a portfolio item, and gets wider visibility for their work.
Promoting a culture of question-asking, for instance:
Slack channels dedicated to questions on various topics
Establishing an expectation that people shouldn’t struggle with something on their own for more than 30 minutes (say) before asking for help
Promoting question asking early - for instance in my last job, for the first three months of onboarding we have had a #welcome-personname channel that people opt-in to joining, where personname can ask any question they like, knowing that people have specifically expressed willingness to help - this has helped make it clear that asking questions is encouraged on the team
Standups - status reporting should be done asynchronously. That frees precious synchronous standup time for higher-level knowledge sharing. One approach that works quite well is to go around asking what’s going well, what is something you learned, what’s something you have a question about. Having a question to bring to the group more or less be mandatory not only helps encourage questions, it means that a lot of potential issues got raised early and people with the right expertise could volunteer.
Documentation, which is invaluable but hard to get written - an approach that often works well the person searching out the knowledge responsible for writing it up and contributing it. The key to keeping it maintained is to have a specific named someone who owns it afterwards (which isn’t necessarily the person who first wrote it).
Meeting series (scheduled or ad-hoc) when someone’s learning something that another person has some expertise in, and others can be invited to join. Sometimes these have turned into mini-workshops which can be offered to stakeholders or peer teams.
Having routine retrospectives where people can share what’s gone well and what hasn’t, and ideas can be shared about improvement.
Pair programming - really good for mentoring or teaching a new technology, works well remote or in-person. Some people like this more than others, but people have always been open to it as a one-off when it has a specific purpose
To make sure the pair programming or meetings go well, make sure there’s a positive culture of feedback within the team. Some approaches for this include:
Helping work get done better of faster means coordinating multiple people’s work. This is hard, and famously gets harder quadratically (or worse!) in the number of people involved. Some pieces of coordination are:
Finding out who the right person is for particular tasks - matching available expertise to pieces of the problem, and who is interested in what (one-on-ones help for this)
Trying to take advantage of the diversity of the team by bringing together different expertise or perspectives as often as possible, because we know that produces better solutions;
Keeping track of work being done by different people.
Supporting healthy disagreement - making sure team members have the tools to provide feedback to each other in a constructive way.
Learning from the collaboration by having some sort of retrospective practice.
and, ideally, making sure that as much of this is happening at the team member-to-team member level, and not escalating.
Note that with the partial exception of “keeping track of work being done by different people”, all of the above tasks are greatly helped by the knowledge transfer activities above. It becomes much easier for team members to identify the right person to work when standups and tech talks show who knows about what. Work can move more quickly when there are asynchronous knowledge sources like documentation, previous talks in blog post forms, and slack search. People can work more effectively when they know how to give and take feedback, and when they know how to do mini-retrospectives about their collaboration.
Debugging a collaboration problem starts with being very clear on the specific issue your team is facing. Developing an effective collaboration culture, on the other hand, can start anywhere - these practices are self-reinforcing, and build stronger more effective teams.
Reader, what have you seen work - in your own teams or on those of others? What problems have you seen? Let us know - send me an email (just hit reply) or leave a comment below.
And now, on to the roundup!
Having the Hardest Conversations Requires the Deepest Caring - Admired Leadership Field Notes
The vast majority of us didn’t get a lot of good role models of effective managers in research and grad school. If we did see negative feedback given or other challenging conversations happening, it was done either passive aggressively, or, occasionally, in a loud and browbeating manner. We don’t want to be like that, so we.. just.. avoid the hard stuff.
Look - we can’t keep doing that. Having the hard conversations is part of the job. It’s not kind to let someone continue doing poorly and not telling them. It’s not caring to let other coworkers grumble because something a team member is doing them and just ignore it. We have to step in and have the hard conversations, and do so compassionately.
The funny thing is that hard conversations only get easier when we don’t care. For those with a conscience, they are excruciatingly painful. But good leaders have them because they are compassionate people. They make the right call and have the tough conversations because they care enough to do so.
The Fine Art of Delegation - Nadine Richmond
We’ve been talking a lot about delegation recently - and for good reason! It’s a crucial step in giving our team members growth opportunities while also getting tasks off of our desk.
Richmond writes about the questions she asks herself when deciding what and whether to delegate:
Does this task need my effort, or does it needs someone’s, to be done well enough?
Does this task need to have more people trained up in how to do it?
Could this task benefit from having a new perspective or improvement brought to it?
Does the person being delegated to need to grow skills in this area, and will this task help them grow (even if right away it’s a stretch)
Does the team need to learn that I’m not the only competent person available to them, so they need to learn to be comfortable with the work from someone else?
Do I actually have the time to do this?
Even if I do, is it the best thing for me to be spending my time on?
Your top performers need to be managed, too - Kelly Vaughn
Especially when we’re new managers, we tend to focus our attention where there are problems. The team members who are knocking it out of the park aren’t problems, so the default is just to treat them with benign neglect.
This is a mistake! These are the very team members we don’t want to lose and could be doing more.
Recognize and reward excellence
Provide challenging opportunities
Offer autonomy and trust
Foster mentorship and collaboration - encourage them to share their knowledge and expertise
Engage in continuous feedback
Support work-life balance
“Provide challenging opportunities” is a key one (and ties in with the importance of delegation). Hard projects are what some of your best team members are craving - give them that opportunity to grow! Offer appropriate levels of autonomy and trust for those new challenges. And give them feedback - not just positive, but negative, too. They want to grow.
How Managers Can Make Feedback a Team Habit - Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis
It’s not clear what the purpose is, it’s given too seldom and/or tied exclusively to formal performance reviews, it’s not given in a meaningful or actionable way. And when most or all of that’s the case, people are understandably hesitant to ask for or deliver feedback to peers.
Create a shared understanding on the team about what feedback is and is for (Tupper and Ellis have seen teams come up with “actionable insight”, “data for your development”, “Perspectives to help people be at their best”, and others)
Increase ease and speed of delivering feedback by having some formulae, like
Asking for ideas for improvement
Challenge-and-build questions like “why could this idea fail”, “how might our competitors approach this problem”
Managing Within Organizations
Over at Research Computing Teams last week, I wrote about a situation that some of us in other kinds of organizations face as well. If we manage a team of highly specialized experts, and our own manager doesn’t really understand the details of what our team does, they will necessarily be a little fuzzy about what we can achieve.
In that situation, then, it falls to us to hold our team to high standards of impact - no one else can do it - and to communicate with external stakeholders like our manager about that impact.
The solution isn’t interesting, the problem is - Ben Cotton
Too often we find ourselves focused on the parts that are interesting to us: the implementation of a solution. But the more valuable — and rewarding — work is solving a problem […]. The best way to get someone’s attention is to solve a problem they have. If you don’t tell them that you solve the problem, they move on until they find something that does.
A common and recurring issue that comes up when I talk to Ph.D. managers is exactly this disconnect. We’re trained to go very deep on a topic, execute some highly detailed analysis or simulation or experiment, and then share with fellow experts exactly how we did it so that our work and the results can be assessed.
Our life outside of research is very different. If we go to conferences for our work still then we can have those kinds of discussions, sure. But inside our organization - no one outside the team cares. They care about what problem they were having that you’re solving. And if they're not really worried about the problem? Then the solution doesn’t matter much.
To make sure we’re doing work that matters, we need to understand the people who come to us and the problems they recognize that they’re having.
How to Secure Resources for Your Projects - Elizabeth Harrin, Rebels Guide to Project Management
There are some things you can do to make it easier to make sure that your team members have enough time to dedicate to the work that you need them to do. That starts with understanding who influences decisions around how individuals spend their time – the gatekeepers.
Decisions about which projects are prioritized and when are invariably judgement calls. Decision-makers - whether the people who would fund a project or the people who would work on our projects - are people. Having good working relationships with these people can be the difference between your project happening soon or “when we can” - or not happening at all.
Harrin recommends that we:
Build relationships with gatekeepers
Build relationships with subject matter experts
Keep resourcing under review
Peer one-on-ones (#137) are a great way of building relationships and keeping lines of communications open; they can be biweekly or monthly and can be as informal as having a coffee together. Routinely talking to members of our organizations that interact with our teams is one of the ways we can our teams more successful.
Managing Your Own Career
The real reason you're finding it hard to say no - Flora Devlin
We all know that we need to say “no” more, and we know why. Saying yes to something is saying no to everything else we could be doing in that time; we need to focus on what matters. That’s why we had the Stop Doing Something challenge (#48, 49, 50).
So if we know what to do - say “no” - why is it so hard?
Devlin, who’s a coach, tells us to look inside for the answer:
It’s hard to say no because there’s almost always an internal conflict. There's a strong, and less obvious, reason why we want to say yes.
She suggests we ask ourselves some questions:
Reason for saying yes - what benefit am I seeking from saying yes to this?
What assumptions am I making?
How to say no - how would I challenge this assumption, and what steps would I need to take?
And suggests some common reasons why we might find ourselves saying yes against our own better judgement (each one of these apply to me at various times):
People pleaser - “you’re worried that by saying no you put someone out or disappoint someone.”
Focus time avoider - “you get to avoid working on that hard thing […] that you don’t know how to get started with.”
The value adder - “You like sharing your opinion, information, or feedback. It feels good to know that you’re sharing”
And that’s it for the week! I hope it was useful; Let me know what you thought, or if you have anything you’d like to share with me about how a newsletter or community about management for people like us might be even more valuable. Just email me, leave a comment, or reply to this newsletter if you get it in your inbox.
Have a great weekend, and best of luck in the coming week week with your team,