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WTF is Collaborative Project Management Anyway?

March 08, 2017

WTF is Collaborative Project Management Anyway?

What is it?

If you’re asking WTF is collaborative project management, you’re not the only one. While traditional project management is well understood as a methodology, there aren’t a lot of authoritative sources for collaborative project management. The Wikipedia article for collaborative project management is an orphan with only a few references, and only provides a high-level view largely based on one person's research. Because there isn’t much information out there, we started putting this guide together based on our research and experience with collaboration.

This post runs a little longer than others we usually feature on the site, so if you’re looking for an easy answer, it’s here: Collaborative project management focuses on management by the team responsible for the work rather than a dedicated project manager. Where project management is a process used to plan, control, coordinate, and monitor teamwork by a project manager whose sole purpose is this management role, collaborative project management is used to plan, control, coordinate, and monitor distributed and complex teamwork within and by a team. You might have already guessed that. It's a simple difference, but it’s a big shift in philosophy and execution from the traditional model.

Let’s talk tradition

The traditional model is top-down. The project management office, a project manager, or an executive would come up with ideas for projects. The project management office would then create a brief for each project, compare the projects based on an internal formula predicting their outcomes, and then scope and plan the projects with the best-projected results. A project plan would be created, and then resources would be allocated, and a team would be created to complete the project as specified by the project management office, from there a project manager would be responsible for measuring progress and keeping the team on track to deliver on time and on budget.

Here’s a model borrowed from Pico Consulting. There are lots of steps, and it’s an ordered, methodical process.

Formal project management is a real skill, with certificates and qualifications that illustrate competency and mastery in the methodology. These are still important skills to have, but the business context in which those skills are applied is changing.

Collaboration is changing the way businesses work

Technology is making it easier than ever before to work together. That means we’re collaborating more than ever before. It’s been a long time coming too – a McKinsey article from 2014 references a 2005 survey of executives where nearly 80% said that effective coordination across product, functional, and geographic lines was crucial for growth – with only 25 describing their organizations as “effective” at sharing knowledge across boundaries. That was 12 years ago! The Harvard Business Review notes that over 25 years ago, Jack Welch was convinced that companies needed to, “work differently in the 21st century, with shorter decision cycles, more employee engagement, and stronger collaboration than previously required.” That became the foundation for GE’s Work-Out process. IBM created something similar called “working in the open”.

These “feelings” about the importance of effective collaboration were right on point. Today’s workforce thinks companies aren’t collaborative enough, and that lack of collaboration is viewed as a key source of workplace failure.

And it turns out that collaboration just makes cents. Yes, that’s a money pun. A Deloitte study found that collaborative businesses are twice as likely to be profitable and twice as likely to outgrow competitors than companies that don’t prioritize collaboration.

But even over a decade later many companies are still siloed off and run things the traditional way. It’s clear that companies want to be more collaborative, and recognize the need to shift workflows, but many are still struggling to figure out how.

Ok. I get it. Collaboration is important. Isn’t this article about collaborative project management?

Let’s get back on track. Collaboration is about bringing the right people together to accomplish a shared goal. Collaborative project management is a methodology for projects that involves bringing the right people together and removing the hierarchical barriers that prevent the team from making decisions. Whereas traditional project management is top down and the team sits outside of the board room waiting for orders, collaborative project management is more like the entire team is in the board room and each team member has a seat. I borrowed this graphic from Shareworkz to illustrate the point.

Collaboration is inherently inclusive - effective collaboration requires connections between individuals with diverse backgrounds and experience. It’s not enough to think about a project in a linear order. Doesn’t it sound like a good idea to have a customer at the table when designing new features? How about an engineer who can bring insights into how to incorporate that feature into the product? What about a marketer, and a sales person? Bringing a group with diverse perspectives around a project, and working openly together from ideation to delivery helps streamline the process because the team has all of the knowledge and resources it needs to finish the project.

Because the entire team is working together and making decisions about how to move work forward at each stage, formal project management tools and concepts like dependencies, GANTT charts, and all the lingo of formal project management aren’t necessary. The team you put together can bring everyone in from customers to freelancers, to management, to engineering, sales, marketing, you name it – and with the right technology, these individuals don’t even have to be on the same continent anymore.

IBM calls this style of work “working in the open” and it’s a concept they take very seriously. You can read more about it here. IBM first piloted the project under the codename Generation Open and enlisted 22 teams from around the world to participate. The end result of this initiative were cost savings of 20 percent, cycle time reductions on projects of over 30 percent, and a 20 percent reduction in product defects. By opening up all of the components of a project to the entire team, teams were able to make better decisions, and deliver better results, for less money.

That’s great, I’ll just start collaborating with my team more!

Awesome! We want you to start collaborating with your team too. So keep reading through to the end where we have some further reading to help get you started. But first, we wouldn’t be properly informing you about collaboration without discussing some of the potential pitfalls.

As collaboration becomes a job requirement, superstars tend to burn out. As more companies scramble to collaborate more and shift away from traditional project management to collaborative project management, there is a tendency to over-rely on certain members of a team. It makes sense, some of your team members are better connected than others, and are more natural collaborators. This one is easy to address since collaborative project management relies on building bridges and breaking silos, teams ought to reach deeper into departments, and put together several collaborative cross-functional teams all with different collaborators.

Another solution to this collaborative overload is to make tacit knowledge more accessible. As the overload study found, most of the requests to work with a top collaborator had more to do with knowledge than needing face-to-face time. By leveraging tools like wikis, and reports, making that tacit knowledge available without having to work directly with that individual would eliminate 80% of the burden on your VIPs.

Why are you writing about this?

As a marketer in the collaboration space, I spend a lot of time looking for trends and speaking with customers about the collaboration market. The only thing that’s clear right now is that the “collaboration app” market is extremely fragmented. There are diverse genres of tools all trying to claim that they have the ultimate collaboration tool. These genres range from chat to video conferencing, to team editing tools, to task management, to calendaring, to project management tools. And I’m sure we can all agree that real collaboration isn’t any one of those genres, it’s some combination of all of them.

At Samepage, we’ve felt that traditional project management doesn’t fit with modern workflows. It has been an ongoing challenge to put a finger on why that shift is happening, and how to contextualize that change. We think that collaborative project management is the most accurate term to describe how today’s high performing teams are structuring their work.

Last words

TL;DR – Collaborative project management is a new team-centric problem solving and project delivery methodology that stands in contrast to the traditional top-down individually managed and strictly scoped project management methodology. Being more collaborative is a major key to business success. You should try it.

For some further reading to help you get started on more collaborative project management there’s this great report from Mckinsey on making collaboration across functions a reality, and if you’re looking for a shorter read, we have this guide with 3 easy ways to boost your team’s collaborative project management.

Any questions? Let us know in the comments. Are you looking for some tips to improve your team's collaborative project management? Check out our article on 3 ways to improve your team's collaborative project management.