All Collaboration is Personal

Collaboration asks more of us than other kinds of teamwork.

Not all work requires collaboration. Take my first "real jobs" as an example.

I graduated with a fancy degree, then became a cashier at Blockbuster and Toys "R" Us (auspicious, I know!), a shuttle bus driver, and a pink-skirted pancake waitress. Artistic flair and a knack for creative problem solving? Irrelevant.

Past me as a waitress in training. They don’t let just anyone wear those pink skirts!

When you take a well-defined job, you rely on Communication (i.e., folks telling you what to do and how to do it) and Coordination (i.e., figuring out when to show up and where to stand), but you don’t collaborate much. Employers don’t need your novel ideas or saucy repartee, nor do they condone creativity behind the cash register.

The clearer the task, the less you need to talk about it.

That changes as the complexity, uncertainty, and room for creativity increases.

Collaborative work lacks clarity by definition. This can make it more fun and rewarding! We have options! We get to learn and grow and think creatively!

The academic definition of creativity. Image credit Dave Mastronardi

But before they make something creative, collaborative teams must negotiate, co-create, and navigate between many possibilities. There’s a lot to figure out.

For example, consider how you might answer the core Why, What, How, Who, and When questions for these jobs.

Job 1:
Return the grocery carts to the store 🛒

Job 2:
Add AI features to the software 🤖

🛒 Why?

So shoppers can find a cart for their groceries when they enter

🤖 Why?

AI is the future, we gotta keep up with the market, it will delight users (probably?), AI can solve problems faster and surface data insights, Microsoft is a partner and they expect it, because sales told the client we're releasing an AI feature...

🛒 What?

Get the carts from the parking lot. Return them to the store.

🤖 What?

How about a chat interface? Or an AI digital coach? Or an automatic re-balancer that shifts the portfolio in real time? Can we run some sprints and test some paper prototypes? Where are the system maps and service blueprints?

🛒 How?

Walk out there. Use this strap to grab lots of carts at once. Pull, then push.

🤖 How?

Set a near-term roadmap (how?), prep our data (how?), select and integrate an AI tech (or build one? how?), test with customers (how?), refine the interface...

🛒 With Who?

You. Just you.

🤖 With Who?

Dev, dev ops, product, marketing, partners, UX, design, QA, finance, security monitors, CX, AI consultants, legal... and customers?

🛒 When?

Tues & Wed, 3 pm - 10 pm

🤖 When?

Yesterday, please.
Ha ha ha ha!

No. Really.

As the clarity increases, the need to collaborrate decreases

New software features? There are so many options!
The folks with grocery cart clarity don’t need to collaborate that much.
Image credit Dave Mastronard

Effective execution requires clarity.

When clarity is high, we know what we should do and what to expect from everyone else. The carts come in and the code ships out.

To produce something new and useful, collaborative teams need clarity too. They must choose between dozens of viable answers to the why, what, how, who, and when questions.

The why and what, or purpose and product, often get the most attention. But this can leave many of the how questions unanswered, which creates drag. Every minute spent guessing where to post a document or who to copy on an update (for example) is a minute you’re not shipping new value.

When Collaborative Preferences Collide

More collaboration options = Less clarity = More potential for collaborative friction

Collaborative friction arises when team members act out conflicting ways of working. For example, if you put documents in Google Docs and someone else puts them in a wiki, you'll both be frustrated.

Collaborative friction slows teams down and weakens relationships.

There's no value added when each person creatively decides where to file things. So, to smooth collaborative friction, teams decide how to work together and capture their decisions in Team Agreements.

Team agreements document how the team works together. They’re informed by what the organization requires and everyone’s preferences. Image credit Dave Mastronard

Every documented decision creates clarity. Eliminating guesswork makes valuable work go faster.

Or at least, that's what the most effective teams do.

In Search of Fabulous Team Agreements

I’m interviewing Team Agreement experts as we develop a format for adaptive teaming. We’ll publish their insights in the weeks ahead. For today, though, I want to share this.

Team Agreements act as a speed multiplier for collaborative execution. If you want creative collaboration AND tangible results within a reasonable timeframe, this is the way to go.

The experts I spoke with have decades of experience working with teams across regions and sectors. Collectively, we agree: team agreements work.
But of course, they only work when teams create them!

And mostly, they don't.

So many dumb little disagreements are allowed to fester! This is good news for outside business experts because teams lacking clear agreements often become dysfunctional and gridlocked. That leads to nice fat consulting contracts. 🤑 

It’s not great news for folks working on collaborative teams, though. So if you’re joining a new collaborative team, what can you do?

All great collaboration starts with personal clarity.

On every collaborative team you join, you are The Expert on how you work. Over time, you'll develop a sense of the tools, schedule, environment, and practices that support your excellence. When you join a team, you can come prepared to proactively suggest and advocate for the practices that suit you best.

(See our article on developing a private Professional Portfolio and Quickstart Guide for Working with You.)

You must also become The Expert on how you work best with others. Those others are experts in how they do their best work. Assuming you aren't a team of Stepford wives, your diversity presents the team with many options.

This is where the negotiation of on-the-fly processes comes in.

Come prepared to negotiate and compromise, too. Regardless of your positional authority or role on the team, remember...

All collaboration is personal. Try not to take it personally.

There's a good chance you and your team members will unintentionally tread on each other's toes. Creative collaboration asks us to share our ideas, insights, and values in a setting absent obvious answers.

If someone does something differently than you, that doesn't necessarily mean that they disagree with your approach, hold a strong opinion, or have even thought it through. Sometimes, though, that difference feels like a rebuke. Left unaddressed, perceived rebukes over minor differences can escalate into major battles.

To illustrate, here’s a true tale from my past.

I once worked on a team that had no standard for how to indent software code. Some people used two spaces, others used four. When a two-space indenter opened files with four-space indents, they would reformat the file to replace the four-space indents with two. This felt like a violation and rebuke to the four spacers, who promptly reformatted the file again.

Well, that rubbed everyone the wrong way. Talk about friction! Pretty soon, these developers were delaying feature development to write dueling scripts that reformatted the entire code base their way. Management only discovered and squashed these shenanigans after the space-war scripts broke the software. And then, management dictated a new standard. Soon, developers quit, citing the "hostile working environment."

Silly, right? And yet, boringly common. I bet you have an unhappy pile-on story like this in your past, too.

So, instead of changing other people's work:

Get curious. Watch for differences and seek agreement.

Instead of reformatting each other's code, the developers could have asked.

"Hey - I've been using 2 spaces for indents, and it looks like others are using 4. What should our standard be?"

I recognize that this requires courage.

If your bosses haven’t set an expectation about how to create new agreements, it may feel risky to raise questions or state your preferences.

This is why leadership experts emphasize the importance of psychological safety. The strongest teams share the belief that they can take risks, express opinions, and make honest mistakes without fear of reprisal. This creates the space they need to navigate through all the what, why, how, when, and who options they face.

Leadership is an action, not a position.

Donald McGannon

When you notice and seek to ease collaborative friction, you demonstrate positive leadership and foster psychological safety.

To level it up, take a tip from the advice process and propose a decision. Include why you believe the team should agree to work in this new way, then invite counterpoints. Finally, take responsibility for documenting the decision so the team can easily find it.

Proposed Decision: Standardize on two spaces for indenting our code.


• When indents change, the code gets hard to read. Regularly reformatting files to improve readability wastes time and risks introducing errors. A common standard will improve readability and save time.
• Two spaces condenses the code, reducing the need to scroll.

Objections? Other ideas? Let's discuss here. Otherwise, if this works, I'll document this agreement in our developer README on Friday.

When you take an approach like this, you:

  1. Take ownership and responsibility by noticing that you work differently than others and stating it as a factual observation rather than an accusation. No passive-aggressive baloney for you!

  2. State a preference (advocating for what you feel works best) while also requesting a group decision (recognizing that you may need to adapt when collaborating with others).

  3. Demonstrate leadership by suggesting ways for the group to collaborate more smoothly.

  4. Foster psychological safety by calmly raising a point of potential disagreement.

  5. Create a tiny Team Agreement! 🎉 

This becomes much easier when your team creates a Team Agreement upfront, of course, because then you're simply suggesting a change to that agreement rather than initiating a whole new conversation.

If the idea of reducing collaborative friction appeals to you - stay tuned! We're diving deep into how your team can create your Team Agreement in the weeks ahead.

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