Products these days are complex. If you think about how many people are involved to gather requirements, to discuss priorities, to write the software, maybe create hardware, to test each feature, to come up with a great design and to operate or distribute the products… not talking about marketing, finance & controlling here… Building great things is a team effort nowadays and communication is the key for success:
40% of creative teams productivity is directly explained by the amount of communication they have with others to discover, gather, and internalize information. [source]
How does information flow? Another statistic tells us that 70% of the information exchange is driven by the team lead and only 30% inside the team. The boss is a bottleneck: Information should flow freely inside the team. How can we change this situation and foster more collaboration inside and in between teams? Here are my thoughts for a collaboration revolution:
Problem: Physical isolation
A lot of workspaces are not designed for collaboration: A hallway with some doors left and right… How should information flow here? Open space offices foster collaboration. You can see who is there and start a direct conversation. Putting up open workspaces with couches, arm chairs or bean bags are great to work somewhere else but at your desk and have spontaneous discussions. When I’m in the Atlassian office in San Francisco I use these places to show that I’m not working on a very intense task that need all my concentration but be ready to be disturbed. On the other hand you should have mechanisms to show people that you don’t want to be disturbed because it will destroy your current flow of work. Some teams are indicating that by using headphones, even though they’re not necessarily listen to music or having a dedicated person on the team that is answering questions for the whole team (doing kind of support).
There is also a need not to isolate specialist. We know that cross functional teams are a great idea. Having a designer in the team when working on the new user interface is making decisions fast and understandable.
Problem: Communication barriers
Three communication barriers are making communication hard: Places, people and timing.
Places: It’s hard to get the right information when you work in a remote team, in a coffee bar or at home. But if you want great people, you probably won’t find them in your town and it’s hard to move them because the competition are already offer them working remotely (do you hear me Marissa Mayer?).
People: Employees keeping information on their hard disks, in Emails or in their own heads. Information are exchanged on hallways not accessible for all employees.
Timing: Meetings are a killer for individual productivity. They have to fit in everybody’s schedule. We also don’t work synchronized anymore! When someone is doing a coffee break another one just works on a great idea she just had at the same time.
We use our collaboration platform Confluence for tearing down the communication barriers. We once had a post on Confluence where our support expressed their feelings how unhappy they are with the work load and conditions. Independent of place, role and time zone other employees from Atlassian were commenting on that post adding arguments and trying to find solutions. After one week we put together a program for better work conditions in our support. We wouldn’t have accomplished the same results by inviting stakeholders to a local meeting.
Also chat is helping a lot when hitting a timing or place barrier. One team can start a conversation in a chat room during day time on this side of the globe and another team on the other side can join the conversation 12 hours later during their day time.
Problem: Foggy goals
If goals are not clear, how can we work as a team? I’ve been working with yearly goals that were obsolete after 3 month. But there was no mechanism to redefine those. Also I was missing a frequent check if I’m on a good way reaching my goals or on changing tactics how to reach those . I’m now doing a bi-weekly check on my 3 month goals that reflects our yearly team goals. Goals can be changed easily if the company focus changes.
Goals should also be transparent. What’s the reason that I don’t have the possibility to find out the goals of other team mates and other departments? It’s so important to align your goals to those other teams have.
Problem: Impersonal environments
Definitely the most important part of the collaboration revolution. If we have a good personal relationship to our team mates we know our strength and weaknesses and how to effectively get the work done! But more important: If you have friends at work it’s so much more fun. So what can we do? First have a good onboarding system. At Atlassian everybody needs to write an introduction blog post in their first week. People can make comments on it and learn some personal things about the new employee.
When your organization is growing it’s hard to know everybody. Hubspot is trying to solve this problem with an electronic wallboard in the hallway, showing faces of people and their name. Watch the video and grab the source code.
A few weeks ago I did a presentation on this topic. Here are the slides and a video on German.