Effective Collaboration: Discussion, Decision Making, Commitment

The Agile community promotes the value of collaboration in teams, although promotes may too weak a verb for our fascination with collaboration. And while collaboration can have many benefits, in practice we often act as if collaboration was mostly about talking to each other. It’s really far more than talking and I think there are three critical elements of an effective collaborative team: Discussion, Decision Making, and Commitment. While healthy discussions are a key piece of collaborative effectiveness, without Decision Making and Commitment, it’s just a lot of talking.

Discussions take place in a variety of formats—pairing, stand ups, planning sessions, retrospectives, and many more. There are a number of great sources for learning how to create effective collaborative sessions where the participants feel a sense of accomplishment rather than a sense of just another boring meeting. (Collaboration Explained: Facilitation Skills for Software Project Leaders, Jean Tabaka, Coaching Agile Teams: A Companion for ScrumMasters, Agile Coaches, and Project Managers in Transition, by Lyssa Adkins, Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great, by Ester Derby and Diana Larsen. Note, these books cover much more than managing good discussions).

At some point teams have to move from discussions to decisions. Whether you are part of a 9-person iteration planning meeting or a pair of developers coding, decisions need to be made. Many of them are easy, but there are also difficult ones that seriously test team cohesion. Why is decision making so difficult? To me there are three aspects of this difficulty: focusing on activities not outcomes, lack of decision making processes, and an individual/team paradox.

Several years ago I wrote an article on decision making in software project management. In reviewing six well-known project management books, I found one paragraph on decision making! There were hundreds of pages describing in detail how to “do” stuff, but little guidance on how to make critical decisions. The focus was on all the myriad of activities of project management, except one of the most critical ones—how to make good collaborative decisions—in other words, how to decide on the outcomes of a process. Processes don’t deliver results, decisions do.

The lack of emphasis on outcomes, versus activities, extends to developing processes for decision making itself. Few organizations have processes or training around decision making. (Specific processes are outside the scope of this blog; see my Agile Project Management book for one specific decision making process). Talking and deciding are two distinct activities and doing the former well doesn’t mean doing the latter well. Part of the reason decision making remains difficult is that it brings out the often hidden paradox between individuals and teams. There is a lingering concern that teams arrive at mediocre decisions and that “smart” individuals make better decisions (And we all know who the smartest ones are, don’t we?). The paradox rises in part from Western culture, especially in North America, which seems to value rugged individualism rather than the power of community. This cultural bias gets injected into organizational decision making, creating ambivalence about how decision should be made. And, as with any paradox, it’s not a problem with a solution, but an issue that has varying resolutions depending on the timing and context—ie., some decisions may be made by individuals and others by teams depending on the circumstances. One key to making good team decisions is having a good facilitator.

Finally, effective teams make commitments—to each other and to the organization. Commitments within a single team can be informal (in recording not in the commitment itself) while in large projects with multiple teams there needs to be a more formal n inter-team commitment mechanism. Team working agreements are an example of making a formal commitment to each other about certain behaviors. Commitments need to be taken seriously and monitored regularly. Everyone misses a commitment at times (by over committing, failure to execute,or just miss-communication) but these misses should be corrected quickly and a series of misses by an individual or a team should be examined in a retrospective.

Part of operating as a self-organizing team-of-teams in a larger project involves commitments between teams. These can be documented using a special type of story card I refer to as an Inter-team Commitment Story. This creates a peer-to-peer commitment where one team is the customer and the other the delivery team. These roles can get interesting as I’ve often seen Agile teams that make poor customers—they don’t want to spend the time performing typical customer activities such as defining requirements and doing acceptance testing—things they expect their own customers to do.

So collaboration is far more than talking. Talking is easy. Reaching decisions can be hard. Creating effective decisions making processes can be hard. Overcoming an individual/team paradox can be hard. Following through on a commitment can be hard. But all of these things are critical to effective collaboration in organizations.