Collaboration is considered a skill. While true, it's more accurate to understand collaboration as a collection of skills. What differentiates collaboration from mere cooperation or teamwork is that collaboration is a network of symbiotic relationships that exist outside any specific project or task to support a shared purpose. The shared purpose is essential because it is what fuels everyone to achieve it despite disagreements, obstacles, or setbacks. Moreover, collaboration is context-specific. This means collaboration is fluid, changing from moment to moment, adapting to match what the context requires.
Some situations are more complex than others. Projects and tasks, even when related, have completely different contexts. Let's take the case of a cross-functional business development team, which has representatives from sales, finance, marketing, product dev, and customer relations plus the sales team that supports it. The biz dev team defines a project to move into a new market. The sales team creates tasks to drive its team to achieve sales and revenue goals within that new market. In addition, all the rest of the departments have tasks they must deliver on as well, to support the sales team.
What's project-level work? Projects are discrete endeavors set up to achieve a specific goal. They start and end. So do tasks, but projects operate at a more strategic level. In this example, biz dev decided to help grow the company by expanding into a new market. At the project level, the cross-functional team needs define and plan how this goal will be met. They need broad vision to identify potential new opportunities, strategic thinking to decide where the best opportunities are, and expert input to set up realistic goals to quantify the project's success.
These groups collaborate because the interdependencies are complex, resources limited, and the shared purpose they all believe in is bigger than the individual project. That purpose is to grow the company. This is only one project of dozens throughout the entire company. It's the way this group of people has determined they can best contribute to the shared purpose.
Projects rely a network of sub-teams to execute on the specific tasks. Project dependencies are more numerous and complex than task-level dependencies. Each project team's make-up reflects this varying complexity, presenting their own challenges to practicing common collaboration skills.
Having a group of people come together to make a joint decision in a project setting is always a challenge. The more people you include, the more voices you’ll find must be heard. And having more ideas isn’t always better. Making project-level decisions requires greater sensitivity to how thoughts are shared, how we respond to team members' contributions, and how to manage any fallout because not all team members will be 100% on board with the decision made.
Collaborative decision-making at the task level has to stay within the pre-defined parameters as part of the project's decisions. This is an advantage as it provides an objective, natural backstop against letting any task member go too far astray. The sensitivities are less personal – and more focused. There's always an external "outside the scope" argument to be made when needed.
Despite that, team members have greater ownership and responsibility for the decisions they make to execute tasks that meet project expectations. There's no place to hide behind "the group's" decision. As tight as we want project team members to be, those teams can get pretty big. And a team responsible for completing a task has clear accountability on that task. There's no place any task team member can hide. Instead, they must stand, make their case, and ultimately own any operational decisions they made.
Communicating Among Members
Project teams are more likely to be cross-departmental than typical task teams. Familiarity can speed up task communication and provide less room for miscommunication. Even better, task teams who often work together have built a strong base of trust. Fewer updates and check-ins are felt necessary to ensure everything's running on time.
In contrast, project communication is more formal. Team members are more pro-active about sharing where they are in the project and if they need assistance. It's often helpful for project discussions that are solely among some team members to be made available to the project team at large. Private chat logs don't facilitate project collaborative communication as well.
When other project team members can review the discussions and challenges being shared among other team members, it's easier for them to identify areas where they can be helpful. Task team communication is more organic, with multiple informal opportunities to support team members.
Which brings me to the third, most critical collaboration skill – sharing expertise and tacit knowledge among the team.
Developing Team Expertise
The most successful collaborative experiences are when team members share a lot of tacit knowledge — that deep, unconscious store of undocumented insight everyone has based on experience. Task team members often know what they don't know. They recognize how other task team members have useful areas of expertise that the team can exploit together — making them a more powerful team.
Looking at things from a project level, it can be hard for most team members to "know what they don't know." A contact or process that helps the entire project may not be visible. Thus team members must over-communicate, consciously work to build that trust, so people feel safe to reveal where they can bring extra value or point out where some extra value is needed. Project teams members must come to the discussion with the conscious intent to seek out those hidden nuggets of tacit knowledge.
Just as we realize each other's different work styles, we'll collaborate more effectively when we consider the context of our collaboration and bring the particular skill set needed to make it successful.