Almost every successful digital project is the result of a collaborative team. But building that team is harder than it looks. Here's some sound advice if you're trying to achieve true collaboration.
For every familiar digital problem, there is a familiar digital answer: collaboration.
Experience management is not a single skillset. It requires the cooperation of various different teams; design, delivery, content, e-commerce, SEO, analytics, to name a few. This new world is a candy-store to the digitally engaged marketer. But with new possibilities also come new challenges in partner selection and delivery. In fact, the range of roles and skillsets involved in the creation of any customer experience has never before been more complex.
Gone are the days when creative and design skillsets sat proudly front and centre, supported by a production back-office (the do-ers). Today the playing field is more level and all the players are, in theory, of equal value.
I was recently involved in a project where the team functioned something like this:
consumer insight consultancy hands over to a ...
creative design agency who works with a ...
content house to create inputs for a ...
web production team that takes requirements from a ...
measurement partner who hand insight back to the client.
For even the most digitally savvy, a simple campaign can become a little mind boggling.
Theory states that putting all the partners in a room to solve a problem together will get it done faster. No handovers, no refactoring, parallel workstreams. Collaboration, when well engineered, poses many benefits exclusive to digital, in that your experiences will be designed with the candy-shop of digital considerations in mind. The experience will be creatively designed for easy production. The infrastructure will be built to support ecommerce. The content will be search engine optimised from the outset.
However, collaboration, on its own, is not enough. Cross agency collaboration can lead to a number of other pitfalls for business leaders that can put a project in jeopardy. Below I’ve outlined my top four, and what to do to avoid them.
A shared goal isn’t enough, you need a shared starting point too
Too many times I’ve seen team leaders placing groups of people in a room, stating what the goal is, and firing the start gun. No tools left on the table, no brief, no building blocks to play with - just each other, and a problem.
This always reminds me of a famous sequence in the 1995 Tom Hanks film Apollo 13. When the air filters fail on the spaceship, a NASA manager at Houston asks his team to try to collaboratively create a carbon dioxide filter, using only objects available on the ship. He empties a stockpile of these objects onto the table, and delivers the memorable line:
“We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this, using nothing but that.”
Immediately the odds and ends are transformed into a workable solution.
Imagine for a moment that manager empties nothing onto the table. He enters a room full of smart, industrious individuals; states ‘we’ve got to create a filter or the astronauts will die,’ and leaves. I imagine the scene would have played out very differently; What do we do? Where do we start? Who decides? stress levels rise, productivity stalls, shouting ensues, nothing happens.
The point is, collaborative teams need tangible starting points. This focuses minds on the challenge at hand and helps to define roles and boundaries. Your meeting room table might be round, but it had better not be empty.
Deadlines and handovers may be gone, but clear roles are not
During collaborative projects it’s frequent for leaders to highlight the equal value of all players involved. Nobody’s work is worth less because we’re all in this together. It’s an important and inspiring concept, and goes a long way to facilitate good and healthy collaboration. But on its own it won’t be enough.
All too often forgotten is the equally essential counterpart: that while each player has equal value, they also all have very unique and irreplaceable roles. Establishing that each player is not just equal but also special can change the dynamic of the work environment; by putting special status on each player in their own way, a leader both empowers them and empowers others to ask for help. From the start toes are not stepped on, communication is given meaning and purpose, and mutual respect is established.
Establishing that special status for all may take some work up-front. Gaps and overlaps in skillsets are hard to avoid, but identify them where possible and try and be clear about who owns what. Provisional roles and responsibilities can be easily stress-tested by considering hypothetical situations. Once you’ve identified those roles, try and embed them by ensuring at the start of the project that questions and issues land in the right hands to be solved.
There still needs to be a decision maker in the room
All too many times I’ve seen collaboration used as an opportunity to shirk leadership and, importantly, responsibilities. A collaborative, open project will inevitably have areas where decisions need to be made. In an agile project - with no handover periods or review phases - questions, issues and escalations are intentionally unscheduled. Unscheduled challenges, however, can be kryptonite in otherwise productive projects if there is no clear decision maker.
Clouds of email chains begin to swirl - escalations to unclear senior roles hang unanswered. All the while the team, supposedly responsible for solving the problem, are left demotivated. And when individual team players also have their own agency targets to manage, environments can become divisive.
A good leader needs to be empowered, but more importantly demonstrate active participation and an ability to expedite solutions. This warning is the easiest to action, but also may be the most important: if you’re setting up a team to collaborate towards a solution, that team automatically includes you.
Temporary should never mean unsustainable
Lastly I’d like to look at collaboration from a slightly different perspective: time. I’ve often seen collaboration used as a tool to get a lot done in a short space of time. When tight deadlines call for drastic action, leaders often resort to co-location and collaboration as first points of call. This allows them to apply pressure on the whole team uniformly to deliver results. If everyone is in the same room, nobody can say they didn’t get the message.
However, in these scenarios, the thought of post go-live is often left unaddressed. It’s essential to the morale and collaboration of the team, not to mention the success of the project, that every party understands what the desired future state looks like. Without any thought to the future, team members may not see the value in supporting others. Even if the project has short term goals, the view of the team and ways of working need to be timeless.
With all the above in place you’ll be able to create effective collaborative teams. You’ll encourage immediate momentum, a respectful, productive and sustainable environment, and you’ll be able to resolve blockages or bottle-necks with empowered decision-making. In these situations good ideas and smart solutions are commonplace. The result? Exceptional consumer experiences, delivered at the right time, in the right format, targeted at the right people.
Alex Mogull is a Consultant at Cognifide with a focus on Agency Enablement and Digital Business Operations. Other articles written by Alex include, A three-step approach to technology adoption.
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