Collaboration consideration

Oct 17, 2021

Implementing strategies to enhance collaboration can lead to better projects, better productivity, and better profits.

Collaboration: What jobseeker doesn’t mention a passion for collaboration? Engineering professionals talk about collaboration within teams and with clients, subconsultants, agencies, and partners. But do we really collaborate or are we just using a buzzword to attract and impress?

Collaboration is a culture and a choice. Some firms and individuals don’t view a collaborative environment as a crucial tool for achieving success. However, for those firms that have built a culture around collaboration, it is vitally important to get that collaboration right in every aspect of the business to be as successful as intended.

When collaboration is key to a company’s culture, it permeates through all aspects of the business: strategy, leadership, people development, business structure, and organizational performance. Therefore, getting it right is important. Saying collaboration is collaborative is one thing, but making that collaboration effective is something else entirely. This is the difference between collaboration as a buzzword and collaboration as a differentiator.

Test for collaboration. So, is your team truly collaborating or just talking about it? One simple litmus test for understanding the collaboration within any organization is to listen for “we” and “our” in conversations about projects or initiatives versus “I” and “my.” A collaborative mindset will create a team-based, shared responsibility for the success (or failure) of a project and this will show up in conversation. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with the “I/my” mindset in many cases, but if you want to cultivate collaboration, it’s a simple observation to understand whether it’s currently happening.

Collaboration can also be observed in a firm’s environment. Are people sitting at their desks all day and keeping to themselves (sometimes disguised as “being efficient” or “getting work done”)? Or are they up from their chairs in another cubicle or actively engaged in communicating with co-workers from another office? We certainly don’t want to encourage a constant social hour, but erring on the side of those conversations being collaboration and accepting some “unproductive” time will be more beneficial to employees and their work than the converse: Discouraging real collaboration, stifling creativity, and hindering the quality of the product. Other places to look for effective collaboration is in company meetings, gatherings, and general conversation. Do people from one department/team/group tend to only sit and congregate with each other or are your co-workers all intermingled regardless of role?

Finally, when truly collaborating on a project, a team benefits from input from people with different backgrounds and from other areas of the organization during the design process, not just in a QA/QC review. The meticulous survey crew, the young energetic designer, the mid-level project manager, and the gray-haired QA/QC reviewer may all be effectively contributing – but are those team members stepping in to do their part of the project and then stepping back out, or are they all actively engaged throughout the process?

Enhance collaboration. When the pandemic started, one of the unintentional consequences of making sure our co-workers and clients were safe was creating environments that were more naturally difficult in which to achieve effective collaboration. Beyond the inherent difficulties presented by the virtual world, a lot more meetings were happening to ensure separation, desks were further apart, and people weren’t as comfortable going over to the next cubicle or rolling their chair over to their neighbor to discuss an idea. However, the solution to creating effective collaboration in today’s environment is, at its core, the same as it was pre-pandemic: Be intentional. Be committed to the goal and vision of collaboration. The vehicle in which we get there may be a little different, but whether you take a boat, a plane, or a car, if you end up at the beach watching the sunset does it really matter?

If you don’t feel like your environment is as collaborative as you would like, some tools/tips that can be effective to further develop that environment include the following.

  • Improve communication. Without communication, true collaboration can’t happen. Train your team on how to lead powerful conversations, suspend judgement, and give and receive feedback. When the team can communicate effectively, they can begin to collaborate effectively. If there is an individualistic mindset (“I/my”) and individuals view feedback as an attack, there isn’t true collaboration. Feedback needs to be viewed as an attempt to make the project or team better. Everyone must be willing to give and take constructive criticism to benefit from collaboration.
  • Provide time to collaborate. Collaboration at the end of a project may still be useful, but keep in mind that last-minute changes and rushed fixes are no one’s idea of fun and can lead to poor quality. If it’s a priority, collaborate early and often.
  • Take an aerial view of your workspace. If you could hover above your workspace and observe where people are sitting, how they move about, and who they interact with, what would you see? Look at how your workspace is set up. Are you arranged in departments where all transportation engineers sit together, or is your transportation engineer sitting next to a site designer and shares a cubicle with a landscape architect? Do your senior-level people sit in one corner and your entry-level co-workers sit in the opposite corner? Consider intermixing your team. Don’t underestimate the power of “learning through osmosis” and having a project benefit from creating an environment where it is easier to join the conversation, even if you change nothing else.

Without a committed, intentional mindset and environment, collaboration is just a buzzword. Implementing strategies to enhance collaboration can lead to better projects, better productivity, and better profits. Is it time you put your firm to the test?

Matt Hoying is president at Choice One Engineering. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

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