When you look up Project Collaboration, you will find a bewildering array of software tools available. There are tens – maybe towards a hundred – of credible software solutions for helping your project team to collaborate effectively. But as a Project Manager, all you want is to get the best collaborative behaviour from your team.
You may have a software tool available to you on your project. You may even be in a position to make a selection: good luck. Or maybe you have to make do with tools that are not designed for project collaboration, and make them work to help you.
So this article is not about which tool and why. There are many many good solutions out there with a huge spread of collaboration features and more. Collaboration is built into task management, Kanban and all sorts of Project Management software, as well as being the sole objective of tools like Yammer and Slack. Other tools are really productivity based, and make collaboration easier as a route to enhanced results. There is too much.
Instead, I want to talk about the principles of good Project Collaboration, with or without dedicated software. From this, I’ll also draw some lessons for how to use any collaboration tool you do have effectively. And I’ll also consider what this tells you that will help you select the right tool for your project.
But first, here is a short video that answers the question, ‘What is Project Collaboration?’
I shall group my comments into five major themes. But before we get to these five themes…
Project collaboration requires one thing above all else.
And if you want to create this, there is one thing you absolutely must do. You must give your team a very real sense that what they are doing is worthwhile. You must show them that your project has a purpose that they can want to commit to. Nobody is ever motivated to do anything if they can’t see why it is important. But if your project is important, and everyone on your team believes this, then they will want to make it succeed and will share a common purpose in doing so.Good #Project Collaboration needs a shared sense of responsibility. Click To Tweet
Once you have created this sense that everyone wants to work together, then you need to put in place the conditions for successful project collaboration. I have scoured my experience for tactics and advice. And I have grouped them into five themes.
Human beings are social creatures. An at the heart of our sociality is conversation, chat, and gossip. The more you can create space for real world-like interaction, the better your results will be.
In the world of remote teams, based in different offices and, often, on different continents, this will not always be possible. At least, not in the real-world physical sense. But if you can create periodic all-hands gatherings, and smaller sub-team gatherings, people will become more familiar with one another.
It is very easy for a Project Manager to talk to your team. But collaboration comes from dialogue, not a monologue. So set up opportunities for team members to talk to one another.
A specific example of this is teleconferences. These, if you don’t use them, are group phone calls. Project managers are organized people who like a strong agenda and good control over a meeting. It’s easy for a group telephone conversation to degenerate into chaos without this control. But real conversations are messy. If you over-rule all informal conversation, you will stifle creativity and team collaboration. Allow time at the start for a little chat, and let the team take control from time to time – even if it gets a little chaotic. Re-assert control and summarise, and you’ll find everyone feels a greater sense of having participated.
Scratch that. Email is a Dreadful communication medium. Arguably, it is the worst. Ever. Yet some people let it become a sole proxy for talking to colleagues. This even happens between co-workers in the same room. If you possibly can, create ways for people to communicate everything important in better ways. Then, you can use email exclusively for hat it is best at: creating written records of important or complex information that two people need to share.
Without a plan, most people feel uncertainty. Consequently, they lose confidence in their leaders and don’t know what is expected of them. In some cases, they ill collaborate to create the certainty and confidence they need. But far more often, they will withdraw into their shells, and await instruction. So, for good project collaboration, people need to know what the plan is, and who they need to work with.
Just because people need a plan, it doesn’t mean it needs to be you who provides it. It’s far better if you can lead your team to create their own plans. With a clear appreciation of the end-purpose, they are likely to do a better job than you would, alone.More minds = Better Plans #PMOT Click To Tweet
Joint planning has another big benefit for Project Collaboration. Your team members are far more likely to commit to and collaborate on a plan they have created, than the one you have handed down. They’ll believe in it more, and feel more of a responsibility to deliver it. Because it’s theirs!
Good collaboration among your project team relies on them knowing who is doing what. Without this, they can’t easily know who to collaborate with! Create planning documents that clearly show who is working on what, with whom. You don’t need clever software. My favourite tool for this is the Linear Responsibility Chart (LRC) – sometimes called a RACI Chart. Each is a slightly different representation of the same core information. I list the LRC as one of my top ten tools that will help you get better Project Management results.
As well as creating openness around what everyone will do, you need to allow people access to see one another’s work diaries. This way people can easily establish informal meetings. But… and this is a big BUT, I don’t favour allowing people access to scheduling into each other’s diaries. That way lies the madness of people losing control of their own work-time. It robs them of both productivity and a feeling of responsibility. And no-one should be able to do this to anyone: not even you, the Project Manager. It is disrespectful and counter-productive. </rant>
Problems and setbacks can be a great asset in driving project collaboration. When we feel a shared sense of purpose, a challenge to achieving it can galvanise collective action. So don’t miss out on the opportunity to get the best from your team in times of trouble.
Do you have the answer to every question? I hope you weren’t foolish enough to think the answer to that one was ‘yes’!
You don’t know everything, but collectively, your team may do. They will certainly offer a wider range of options and a wiser collective evaluation than you could alone. So ask questions and listen to the answers. Trust your team, and you will frequently be stunned by the quality of solutions they come up with.
Better yet, go one step further and train your team in a collective problem-solving process. It can be something as simple and ad hoc as Waigaya. Or it could be a structured problem-solving process like DMAIC, 8 Disciplines, or Synectics.
Problems are opportunities to learn. And this is true both when we get it right and when we get it wrong. So make sure that a regular Lessons Learned Review meeting is part of your project collaboration agenda. Get the team together and examine what went well, and what did not. Discern reasons for the failings. And, equally important, create procedures to upgrade, systematize, and embed the successes.
How well your team collaborates is often a matter of leadership. And that’s your job!
A large part of your job as Project Manager is to speak to people. Just as Shakespeare’s version of Henry V wanders the English camp on the eve of battle, you need to get around your project team. Project collaboration comes when people feel they know what’s going on and they have the confidence of their PM. Notice collaborative behaviours and compliment them.
Recognition, Praise and Celebration
Three things together lock in habits:
So recognise, praise and celebrate project collaboration where you find it, so team members are enthusiastic to do it more.
Be collaborative yourself an seek feedback on your own actions as project manager and leader. Speak with people and ask them for their opinions and advice. And listen to what they have to tell you, without giving in to the desire to defend your actions.
Information and knowledge are the primary resources of project collaboration. The extent to which you make them readily available will often dictate the level of collaboration you see.
So first of all, put as much information as you can on tap. Don’t hoard it in a cellar where it can do no good.Water or Wine? Put information on tap. Don't hoard it in a cellar where it does no good. Click To Tweet
If you want people to use information, it has to be stored where they can find it quickly and access it easily. You are looking for a solution that keeps everything up to date, and that everyone can get at when they need it.
The last of my 15 tactics is to be wholly transparent about who is responsible for what, and to demonstrate strong accountability. You could do this in the form of terms of reference, job descriptions, delegation schemes or any of a number of methods. What matters is that each team member knows who is accountable for what. This way, they hold each other to account.
If we put all of this together and start to apply it to the use of software tools, I think we can draw out some general advice. Here, I am going to assume you have selected your tool, or you are using what is available. So I will focus on how to get the best from what you have. In the next section, we’ll look at selecting a tool.
First of all, a fool with a tool… is still a fool. Make sure your people learn to use the tools properly, so that using them is as easy (or easier) than not. If you are going to invest a lot of money in software licenses of SaaS subscriptions, then it’s a foolish economy to skip the training time and cost, in the hope that people are smart and the tool is obvious.
Often, people are smart. And the tool is obvious. But without dedicated training time, people can’t be bothered to learn more than the basics, so they only sue a small part of the tool’s capabilities. And that leads to patchy commitment and consequently to poor project collaboration.
A tool is a tool to help get the job done. It won’t replace good quality real-world conversations. Encourage these as well – and phone or Skype-type calls if people cannot get together in the same place.
Project collaboration fails where people don’t realise there is a conversation going on, or cannot find the conversation they started yesterday or last week. This all becomes much easier when all virtual conversations take place using just one tool. So once you commit, banish all other tools (including email, if you possibly can!)
Likewise, use the same tool for all scheduling and task assignment, so these sit next to the conversations that they will integrate with.
And also related, if all the information people need is in the same place as their conversations, it not only simplifies the process of collaboration, but also draws people to use the tool.
Here’s a simple, but salient fact. People rarely base decisions on logic. Instead, they make a decision based on how they feel and then use logic to justify it to themselves and others. So the perfect tool with every feature you could need won’t make people use it, unless they feel good about using it. So make your project collaboration tool a place where people feel good. Use it to share out recognition, praise, and thanks.
So, from all we have so far, what advice can I give you about choosing your project collaboration software tool?
By this, I mean that it needs to just become a part of the way people do things. Accessing it must be trivial, and using it must quickly become second nature. It must have a low impact on computer/device performance. And it must work, as expected, pretty much all the time. Take your candidates out for a hard test drive. Try to break them by deliberately making foolish, but easy to make wrong clicks. How bad is the damage to productivity and archiving? When people are in a hurry they make mistakes. That isn’t the fault of the software designer. But if simple and easy-to-make mistakes have dire consequences, that’s bad design.
This one is so hard to define, but organizations and teams have a culture, and some tools will fit in better for no easily discernible reason. For this reason…
And critically, if something doesn’t feel right to your team, then even if they can’t say exactly what’s wrong with the tool, reject it for one that does feel right.
This leads me to the next tip. Define a vital few ‘must-have’ features and functions. Beyond that, avoid the temptation to focus on ‘what else do we get?’ Instead, focus on ‘how much do we like the way it does the vital few functions?’
No tool can match what every project needs. Sure, swapping tools for every project will be disruptive, but if the tool you are used to doesn’t serve the needs of your next project, then start out with the right investment. A wisely chosen project collaboration tool is like a strong set of foundations: you will stop realising its there, but you will be implicitly relying on it every single day.
For many projects now, team members cannot be in the same room. This would be ideal, especially when you are planning or problem-solving. So if it cannot happen, the next best thing is for your collaboration tool to make good quality discussion easy. What does this mean for you? It may mean sharing presentations, or a collaborative whiteboard. It may mean simulated sticky-notes or a voting system. Dynamic issue resolution is another use you may put your tool to. It is a combination of chat and decision-making. So what capabilities do the candidate software tools offer?
Finally, my preference would always be that a project collaboration tool also serves as a knowledge repository or it integrates seamlessly with one. This latter point is key for two reasons:
Often software that tries to do too much does nothing really well. So think about creating a fully integrated set of software tools. But find a set that works seamlessly together. For a big project, this may mean you will be justified in investing in some developer time to build the integration. But with much modern software, the ability to integrate with APIs is either baked in, or easily achieved with integration tools like Zapier or IFTTT.
I have a preference for a tool that will let me see easily everything I may want to know about the people I am chatting with. This may be a link to a biography. And if it is, I’d like to ensure certain key fields appear in everyone’s description.
How will your team need to communicate when they collaborate. Sometimes it will be one to one. Sometimes one to many. Maybe they will need to come together in informal groups. And sometimes they will need to broadcast to everyone. Find a tool that allows users to address custom audiences as well as one-to-one or one-to-all blasts.
My final tip – or piece of advice – it to avoid looking for the ‘best possible solution’. Firstly, it may not exist. Second, if it does, the tool that fits the description may change tomorrow, with the launch of a new software. And finally…. life’s too short. People tend to be happy when, instead of looking for the best, they find the best of a shortlist, all of which meet their core needs. So articulate your ‘must haves’, and maybe your top ‘should haves’. Find three candidate project collaboration tools that meet that agenda. And compare them through testing and tyre kicking, to pick the best for your team.
I kind of get fed up with people asking ‘What is the best project collaboration software tool?’ It’s only possible to even start to answer that question, in the context of the project. And even then, the best tool is the one that works for you.The best #project management collaboration tool is the one that works for you. #PMOT Click To Tweet
I’d love to read your tips and tactics for project collaboration, using software tools effectively, and choosing the right one for your project. I will respond to any comments you make down below.
Dr Mike Clayton is one of the most successful and in-demand project management trainers in the UK. He is author of 14 best-selling books, including four about project management. He is also a prolific blogger and contributor to ProjectManager.com and Project, the journal of the Association for Project Management. Between 1990 and 2002, Mike was a successful project manager, leading large project teams and delivering complex projects. In 2016, Mike launched OnlinePMCourses.
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