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Stop, collaborate, and listen... with intention

Working and collaborating in a hybrid world is a topic that most of us will have lived experience of…and strong opinions too, but are the approaches we use actually helping?

I’ve had a chance to talk with a group of early career project managers about how this affects them and the way they deliver their projects. What we recognised is how critical it is for intentional collaboration, adapting to rapid change and consciously reducing “distance” to deliver successful projects.

If you have delivered anything in your career you have been using project management…consciously or otherwise. The projects that we deliver are based on a deterministic view of project management, it's the philosophical view that events are determined by earlier causes, it's cause and effect. If we look at waterfall project management, we create a plan, we consider risks impacting delivery, and then we build a plan to execute, with a bit of contingency in it. In many businesses, leadership expect plan A, we build in risk contingency as project managers to deliver Plan B…but, I'd argue that it's still massively optimistic. It relies on including every element of real life, every cause-and-effect impact, in your plan!

Graphic: Traditional project management methods tend to evaluate actual performance against plan a... not adapting to real life

The world that we live in today has been affected massively by the information age, by digitalization, and by the complexity of the supply chains that we depend on. This has created trillions of new cause and effect relationships creating a VUCA world -Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity. How many of us consciously changed our approach due to all these new cause and effect impacts? it's been almost unconscious, like the frog and the pot of water where we slowly boil it, and the frog doesn't realise that it was being boiled all along. How do we accommodate all these cause-and-effect relationships in our projects? We were often caught out with the largest global factors.

  • How many of us had a plan including the pandemic as a major factor?
  • How many of us have a plan right now including the rising energy prices, the cost-of-living crisis or high inflation?

A famous heavyweight boxer may not the first place you go for project management advice, however there is wisdom in the words of Mike Tyson, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” That's reality when you’re delivering projects. You cannot forecast every event, foresee every change, but we've still got to deliver great projects in a VUCA world. If we can only see so far and we only know so much, we must intentionally approach projects ready to learn and adapt to the situation. Planning for the short term, and adapting as a team, collaborating to make decisions based on the world that we encounter. We are more connected than ever; our teams and the environment are complex and always changing. Learning and adapting to events, through collaboration, has become more important than deterministic project management. Building learning and adaptability into the ways of working of your project team through intentional collaboration. What factors help us successfully collaborate?

Mike Tyson wearing pink boxing gloves with the words "Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth"

A recent Harvard Business Review article described a key blocker of effective project team collaboration as “distance.” physical, operational, and affinity distance.

Physical distance is tangible, it's the geographic distances between people and teams and the time zones when we're trying to get different teams to come together.

Operational distance, this team size, skills, capabilities and bandwidth that individuals have within the team. These are the foundations of working as a cohesive team and bringing the full power of all members to the team performance.

Affinity distance, affinity is our purpose, our alignment, our trust in each other as a team and without affinity, being part of something cohesive, then operational or physical issues and distances may not be survivable. Your project may suffer because you just don't have the common purpose that you're trying to achieve. Let's take each in turn.

Graphic: Teamworking and collaboration

What is the impact of physical distance? We’ve probably all worked in teams that only meet virtually. Recently, accelerated by the pandemic, we have seen growth in geographically dispersed teams, diverse skills, and diversity of people, mindsets, and approaches. We’ve all turned to Software to help out. So many collaboration tools are available to workflow, cloud-based knowledge or file sharing, and communication, I can't imagine there's anyone reading this who hasn't used Skype, zoom, or teams at the core of making your project teams work. A recent poll showed, unsurprisingly, that collaboration tools grew 44% over between 2019 and 2021. Now you might think that the pandemic was obviously going to drive the growth…we must reflect that these ways of working are here to stay. With so many collaboration tools, software and apps, it's very seductive to think that tools are the solution to all our problems. There’s no problem with remote working…It's worked during the last few years… efficiency has improved… What about the distance created?

A recent review identified that people cannot unplug, cannot communicate and struggle to collaborate. Teammates suffer from loneliness, lack of motivation, distraction because they don't know their purpose. Losing the human connection when you can no longer get physically together creates significant issues when delivering projects. Furthermore, the physical distance between us no longer masks the impacts of operational or affinity gaps that always existed in our teams. These issues are now exposed without the corridor conversations, or the coffee queue chats that filled in so many of the gaps in delivery of projects and informal collaboration. To recognise and counteract physical distance we need to be much more intentional in our team activities to fill this gap. Software is a one-dimensional view of your team no matter how well its used, it will miss how people are motivated and perform in delivering projects. Enabling people to contribute through collaboration and teamwork is even more crucial now that the physical distance makes collaboration more challenging. Collaborating becomes critical to project team performance and software has been a useful way for us to fill a lot of gaps, but it's one-dimensional. It creates ability to work in global teams, but its unable to fill the gap which is the human connection that we all need.

Graphic: Intentional approaches that support meaningful collaboration

What do we see with operational distance? The size of team that you work in will have an impact on your successful collaboration. You may have heard of Dunbar's number describing the effective size of team or used within agile methodologies when scaling to larger programme and business teams. Robert Dunbar's insights were that there was a cognitive limit to what people could do in terms of operating and human groups and the small end, he recognised you would have close personal relationships built on trust…your inner circle. As group size grows the relationships with people tend to become more superficial, when we get to 150, you can have useful relationships with many people, but you are starting to lose the quality of those relationships. They are workable but may not have the same levels of trust that you had. As we grow further into 500 or over 1000, the links become looser, we can remember that face, but can’t put a name to it, that’s the limit of your knowledge of that individual. You can see the significant spectrum here from the close-knit trusting relationships to the extensive, can’t recall their name, relationships. What we want to do is to be conscious and intentional to reduce the operational distance. Getting your team size to the right size helps build psychological safety, making it easier to build those trusting relationships that then reduce both operational and the affinity distance. At those levels, you can have meaningful collaboration in your team and build intentional relationships.

Looking now at affinity distance. The fundamentals of making teams work and making a human connection should be built on trusting each other. Through collaboration, we build trust. If we trust each other, we can be less fearful of conflict or difficult debates that may teams need to have. Building on this, we become able to think about commitment, about our accountability and reduce that affinity distance that we have across our team. This is the fundamental rationale behind Patrick Lencioni and his five dysfunctions of a team. This is one way in which we can intentionally try to create human contact, human connection and be collaborative in a way which is intentionally driving us to a more adaptable team. I think a great insight on this is around the number of Connections that you may have on Facebook, the number of Connections you may have on LinkedIn, that's something where we would commonly have hundreds if not thousands of connections. And if you consider some of those connections, how well do I know that person?

Graphic: What are the key drivers that affect team performance

We are more connected than ever, our teams and the environment are complex and always changing. Learning and adapting to events, through collaboration, has become more important than deterministic project management.

Collaborating becomes critical to project team performance and software has been a useful way for us to fill a lot of gaps, but it's one-dimensional. It creates ability to work in global teams, but its unable to fill the gap which is the human connection that we all need.

The challenge is to intentionally collaborate and create an environment where we can be working effectively in a hybrid world. While we have limited ability to reduce physical distance in teams we can reduce operational and affinity distance through intentional collaborative approaches. Being conscious and intentional with the size of our teams, providing clarity of purpose, and creating psychological trust are crucial for successful project delivery.