5 Times We Think We're Collaborating (But We're Not)

February 16, 2017 Marcus Varner

Collaboration has become quite fashionable.

As companies have grown more complex, the teams that can keep collaboration alive—continue pulling the very best ideas out of their teams and stay tightly woven together as they make those brilliant ideas reality—are the teams that win. Truly, the benefits of collaboration are numerous.

Unfortunately, as so often happens with trendy things, collaboration has attracted fakers and wannabes—common office practices that look like the real thing but are nothing more than hollow imitations. These decidedly un-fashionable actions prevent our teams from experiencing the benefits of true team synergy, while we remain none the wiser.

So how can we recognize when we’re truly engaged in collaboration and when we’re just going through the motions? It starts with identifying common practices that we think are collaborative but actually aren’t, including these five faux pas.

1. More Meetings, Please

One meeting, perhaps to kick off a project, is an acceptable and even necessary medium for collaboration. But recurring meetings, like semi-weekly or daily, can quickly become collaboration in appearance only.

It turns out meetings have become the knee-jerk reaction of every office denizen who feels a project spiraling out of control. And while excessive meetings give some a false feeling of control, they give others the gift of less time. According to one Salary.com survey, 49% of workers consider unfocused meetings to be their biggest workplace time-waster.

Of course, the solution is not to throw out all meetings with the time-wasting meeting bathwater. For example, it’s hard to pull off a productive brainstorming session without a meeting. The trick, then, is to use them only when we need them and cut down on the company’s over-reliance on meetings as a way to collaborate, especially about items that can easily be done via chat, video, or in a work management tool. If a meeting is unavoidable, don’t use the time for status updates, make sure there is an agenda, and watch the clock.

2. Broadcasting Our Own Opinions

Being asked to collaborate on a project or new initiative feels good, right? Someone wants and needs our input to help make the final product the best it can be. Great! But be careful. It might be tempting to go into it with our opinion guns a-blazin’ and bless the uneducated masses by broadcasting our most profound thoughts. We’re all super smart after all, and aren’t they lucky to have our gifts at their disposal?

This fantasy might be true if collaboration weren’t a two-way street—just as much about listening to others’ ideas as it is about making sure our own thoughts are heard. According to MovingExperience.com:

“Collaboration takes good communication, and we well know that communication works two ways – making yourself heard, and being heard. Often our focus is on the first, but listening is a huge key to working in partnership successfully, and to getting the best result.”

Take the time to observe, listen, and then process every collaborator’s view. When it’s our turn to contribute, we can do so from a more informed position.

3. Face to Face or Nothing

Some of us love to meet face to face about everything. Sometimes it’s because we like to feed off of the creative energy in the room, and there’s no doubt that the nonverbal communication of face-to-face meetups can convey volumes that text messages and emails can’t. But let’s admit it, sometimes we insist on every collaboration being in person because we—gasp!—aren’t comfortable with the technology that exists to make virtual collaboration easier.

There, I said it. Our insatiable drive to communicate face to face on every little thing is often the product of a deep-seated fear of technology collaboration tools. And it’s driving our co-workers batty.

Much like meetings, too frequent desk drive-bys or undocumented hallway or watercooler conversations to “just check in” can hurt the productivity of individuals and teams, as well as jeopardize the project timeline. A Forbes article provides ample data behind just one reason this habit can be harmful to work productivity:

“When people get interrupted frequently, there’s only a 44% chance that they’ll leave feeling like ‘today was a really successful day.’ By contrast, when people can block out interruptions at work, there’s a 67% chance they’ll leave feeling like ‘today was a really successful day.’”

To avoid being the productivity-killing technophobe in the office, it’s important to fight the inexplicable need for face time. For example, when the urge arises to drop by someone’s desk or slide a note under the bathroom stall, try posting your message in the shared drives or in your team’s cloud-based software. Or hit them up with a non-intrusive instant message (notice that’s singular…I’m talking one, not twenty).

Another option is to get used to using video chat and video conference call apps.

“We push people to use video calls rather than voice or chat only,” writes Kelsey Uebelhor. “Video calls help people get to know each other while avoiding potential communication issues that can occur when only using chat.”

Even better are work management solutions that automatically remind and allow team members to give status updates in one central location on their own schedule, where you can check in without even entering their airspace.

4. More Approvers = Better Product

One of the most common ways in which teams are asked to collaborate is input during review processes. While approvals are crucial to the success and timeliness of a project, they’re also one of the biggest challenges teams face. Collaboration does not always increase in value as the number of collaborators increases.

It’s tempting to take every piece of completed work to every project collaborator for approval because we want to show how great it turned out. But what can happen is the “too many cooks” phenomenon. That is, if we ask for an opinion, the person we ask will quickly find one. If this is repeated for all collaborators and team members and we try to implement all the feedback, the work becomes a mess and drags far past its intended deadline.

Rather than doing this, during the project planning phase try to agree on a small number of people to give final sign off on all items needing approval. (Yes, there’s something magical about keeping your final approval group to three.) Once that’s decided at the beginning, it streamlines the approval process. You get the thoughts of key contributors and stakeholders, but you also get peace of mind knowing that they can’t singlehandedly derail the timeline with their feedback.

Of course, using a platform that centralizes approvals and workflows, tracks each stage of work, and sends notifications to the final approvers is the best way to alleviate this collaboration challenge.

5. Collaboration Tool Free-For-All

Allowing work teams to use any tool they want for work may seem like it would create the type of flexible, chill, productive environment that gets work done. But it doesn’t. It creates problems such as missing information, duplicate files, redundant communication, and longer times to project completion. Workfront CMO Joe Staples puts it this way:

“If only 80 percent of work is done in the platform, you’re still missing that 20 percent, which could be very important. It has to be all or nothing.”

Simply put, when your collaboration is scattered across a half-dozen tools, so is your work data—when Task X will be completed, what’s holding up Task Y, or what Team Member Z is working on. This makes it very hard for managers to get a complete picture of what’s happening. The result: no one knows exactly what team members are working on, managers look like bumbling idiots, and executives are considering drastic measures.

The best way to truly collaborate effectively is to choose the right tool for the job. But be careful. The right tool is not email. And most of the time, it’s not a spreadsheet. Neither are inclusive enough in their features to breed true collaboration.

“[Email] is not a collaboration tool at all and trying to use it as one is extremely inefficient,” says Staples. “Similarly, spreadsheets are static, offering very little tracking to understand who made what changes, with versioning issues that quickly spiral out of control.”

The best way to collaborate using tools is to find one tool that does the job of many—a purpose-built platform that’s designed for work management and collaboration.

To learn just how much misused meetings and email are destroying collaboration and productivity, check out Workfront’s 2016 State of Enterprise Work Report.

About the Author

Marcus Varner

Marcus is a content strategist and producer who loves helping brands craft content that improves customers' lives, builds brand credibility, and demands to be shared. For the last 10 years, Marcus has worked in every type of content—from writing to video production to design—and is currently a senior content marketing manager at Workfront, where he oversees all corporate- and awareness-level level content. When he's not producing content, he's consuming it, in the form of books, movies, and podcasts.

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