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Is good collaboration really imperative for project success? I’ve worked on a few successful projects where there was little collaboration, and I’ve worked on some unsuccessful projects where it felt like the team was highly collaborative. So the answer really depends on how you define success.

From my perspective, it’s more fun to work on a project where the team is highly collaborative, but what does that mean? Is good collaboration the same as good teamwork? I’m not terribly interested in rewriting the dictionary, so let’s agree, for this blog, that it is. Let’s put aside the part of collaboration that involves producing something of value. And let’s just focus on how project teams work together.

When a team is organized for a long-term project, or when it is formed for a somewhat permanent effort, it makes a lot of sense to spend time on team building and collaboration improvement. Sometimes your projects are shorter, and there might be a valid unwillingness to spend time and money on outside team building activities.

In this blog, I look at some ways to improve project collaboration without taking time out for team building activities. These suggestions can be easily incorporated in your project meetings.

Yes, and…; or Yes, so that…

The word ‘but’ can produce a very defensive response in some people. It’s a word that feels like a rejection of your idea. And yet, when we are brainstorming ideas, we often feel the need to express concerns about a proposal on the table. The challenge is to move the conversation away from the personalities and in the direction of the idea.

While you are actually conducting your meetings, try insisting that people converse by using a designated phrase. So, when you are brainstorming an idea, and you are hearing a lot of no’s or but’s in the conversation, try changing the conversation so that people have to use a ‘yes, and’ instead of a ‘but.’ Or perhaps, try the phrase ‘yes, so that.’ Pretty soon, you may find that your team is constructively developing ideas rather than shooting them down.

Talking stick

Have you ever listened to your most favorite TV news station when there is a divisive discussion on some hot topic? Frequently, the guests on the show are talking over each other so aggressively that no one can follow the conversation. While it may be fun to see the energy, it can also be maddening if you have an interest in what the experts are trying to say.

The same is true for your project meetings. People need to respect each other and stop talking when someone else is talking, but that can be hard when emotions are high.

If you see this problem, try insisting on a talking stick. The person who is actually holding the stick is the only one who can talk. And, when people finish talking, they need to return the talking stick to a central location. This time while the talking stick is being moved (or sitting in the center) is a valuable time for people to process the comments that have been made.

If you are working in a virtual environment, this suggestion is not as easy, but you can try asking people to hold a pencil or pen up to their camera when they are talking. And, nobody is allowed to interrupt until the pencil is taken down.

Active Listening

I’ve worked with people, and so have you, who are not gifted communicators. Their sentences are sometimes disjointed or don’t make sense. Or, they try to impress with big words that can have multiple interpretations. Or, they load up the conversation with a bunch of acronyms that take work to follow.

I sometimes find myself having to Google words or letters while a meeting is going on in order to follow the conversation. It’s worth remembering that we can’t change the behavior of others. But we can engage in active listening. So, what does that mean? We are all, as individuals, responsible for our own listening. No one can do your listening for you. It requires an individual commitment from each person on the team.

Try insisting that speakers in the meeting repeat what they heard the previous speaker say before they move on to their thoughts. It can offer uncover some real misunderstandings.

If you find that there is someone on the team who is not engaged, I recommend a private conversation with the individual. Normally, I try to avoid embarrassing people on the team.

Time blocking

I’ve written many times about using time blocking. I advocate using it for managing time, activities, and meetings. Here are a couple of things you can do that will make your meetings more productive:

  • Start and stop your meetings on time, and tell people what those times will be.
  • Assign a time for every item on the agenda and stick to it.
  • Use a parking lot – keep a list of the discussion items that are being deferred. Have a plan for ensuring that your parking lot doesn’t become a permanent dumping ground.
  • Keep an action item list – and assign someone to each item. Some might say to assign a deadline for each item on your list. If you decide against the deadline idea (and I might, in order to stay agile), have a plan for monitoring those items so that they aren’t forgotten.

Have a little fun

With all of the new tricks in video chat software, it is completely possible to have some fun in your meetings, even if you can’t have an in-person meeting. It depends a little on what kind of video chat software you use, but here’s an article that outlines some cool tricks. From my experience, when someone on the team throws in a Google effect, it lightens the tone on the meeting, without impeding progress.

Do these suggestion help? Please comment if you have any other ideas.