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Summary:

In the race for greater productivity, team leaders eagerly latch onto the latest tool or productivity philosophy. It’s only natural: we’re keen to try new ways of getting things done. But in doing so, have we inadvertently become slaves to the machine?

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In an article published late last year, collaboration champion Brian Solis commented, “we’re blinded by the [social] networks and our need to listen, respond, and update. But, we miss the intimacy necessary to learn, adapt, and earn relevance.”

In reality, that description extends beyond social media to any form of online collaboration, including team members collaborating on work projects. In the past week, I’ve seen some serious missteps occur in teams with a tool focus, rather than a team focus.

In the race for greater productivity, team leaders eagerly latch onto the latest tool or productivity philosophy. It’s only natural: we’re keen to try new ways of getting things done. That need is even more important in a creative age, because the quicker we get the mechanics of our working day out of the way, the sooner we’ll be free to focus on the challenges of innovating.

But in doing so, have we inadvertently become slaves to the machine?

The Tool Trap

Paradoxically, tools that centralize individual’s work processes and progress tracking to facilitate collaboration can, in a team management sense, have the greatest potential to drain team efficacy.

Team members diligently tracking their time, sharing documents, coordinating calendars and logging stakeholder contact events may not have the time, headspace, or opportunity to explain to the team leader that the stakeholder seems oddly uneasy about the project, or that a colleague hasn’t really been herself for the last week or so. Yet these factors may eventually prove to be productivity — and project — show-stoppers.

Growing a process around tools is another common problem. To really work, collaborative processes must put people first. But often, a vague notion of a process is only made concrete once the team leader begins to think about the tools involved. This can lead to issues in the production, tracking, and maintenance of work outputs, as well as dissent and motivational issues among team members themselves. It’s always better to map the process first, then work out where collaborative tools could add value.

Switching between tools can cause serious confusion for team members trying to remember logins, which folder is which, and where they can find a resource among a myriad potential locations. It can also lead to miscommunication: did my colleague say he put that file in Dropbox, Basecamp, Google Docs or the shared drive on the server?

Getting Perspective

All of these eventualities are bad news for your team’s collaborative output. They can also negatively impact motivation and productivity. But they can cost businesses much more than that.

The more time you and your team spend engaging with, learning to use, focusing on, and working with your selected (or growing) suite of collaborative tools — and the problems they present — the less bandwidth your colleagues have to step back and think intelligently about projects, stakeholders, and the opportunities they can see to help advance the business.

The skilled professionals you’ve hired have more than qualifications, can-do attitudes and nerdy tendencies. They’re experts in their disciplines — and it’s the team leader’s role to make the most of that expertise. Giving staff the space and time to think about projects, formulate ideas, and share them should be central to the practice of collaborative business.

Force your team to record new ideas on the company wiki, and you’ll register only a handful of the possible theories they’re tossing around on their coffee breaks, toying with in notebooks, and chatting about in late-afternoon IM conversations. Require that everyone’s task list is up-to-date in Basecamp by 9.30 each morning, and you’ll likely be wasting energy reviewing tasks that could have been done in less time than it took your team members to add them to the task manager.

As Solis alludes, the currency of truly productive collaboration entails the ability to learn, adapt and earn relevance. This is especially true for team leaders managing the collaborative process of work in a highly competitive and changeable space. Here, the manager needs to invest the time to exchange and discuss ideas — to learn about their team members and adapt to their working styles and preferences. From there, they can choose tools that support intelligent collaboration, rather than making the sharing of even the most basic information a burden.

Image by stock.xchng user Col6085.

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  1. Full of insight and true! The social fabric of a team is mainly knit together by the “invisible” personal communication.

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  2. I could not agree more that with current technology people are fitting their behaviors to the tools as opposed to the other (correct) way around. The most natural way to collaborate with someone is in an interactive, live setting where there is a social engagement, multiple modes of communications, and multiple data sources that can be used as desired. Today there is too much bouncing in an out of various applications, each with their own user interface, to yield a satisfactory result.

    Many of the best collaborations are also informal. While meeting physically in the proper settings will always yield the most favorable results, emulating that kind of interaction within a virtual world context represents the closest online replica to what one can achieve in the physical world — especially when one has to combine immersion and interaction (conversation and sidebar messaging) between parties with display of various content sources, such as presentations, graphics, and video.

    Reggie Best

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