on collaboration

there's few terms that mean so much and so little at the same time. Given my last post was a little biased on the "get shit done" side of things, I felt it was good to write a bit about collaboration. I don't mind collaboration, I think it's absolute key to getting meaningful things done - it's just very important to think carefuly about what kind of collaboration you want, need and can facilitate. And what kinds you probably don't need.

First of, and I've written that before, in my experience, groups are incredibly good at collaborating once the joint goal is clear - if everyone wants to achieve the same thing, the likelihood that folks will find ways of working together to achieve that goal is rather high.

Things get slightly more hairy once you need to establish collaboration between folks that might not share the same goals - short term value creation vs. long term clean architecture, as an example. While the superficial goal - getting something delivered - might be identical, the secondary goals are wildly diverging, even incompatible. How do you facilitate effective collaboration in a setting like this?

Truth be told, I actually don't know the answer to this one. But I can share some things that worked well in the past for me, and some truths that i took away for me.

First of, be clear on why you actually need folks to work together. Is it to increase the speed of something, parallelising work? This is often the case when sharing e.g. an engineering task between multiple people. Or is it because you need to make sure a decision is made in a balanced and as-informed-as-possible way? Or is it just common practice in your organisation that important decisions are usually not explored and made by individuals? All of those things are different modes of collaboration, and all work slightly different - and require different guardrails to make them effective.

First, let's speak about parallelizing work. You want to bake a cake, but to make it faster you hire two bakers. Now, entertaining that example, they would probably break up the big task into smaller goals and distribute them among themselves, leading to some speed up. Hint: they won't be double as fast as one baker. I generally feel that this is the easiest form of collaboration, and one where there's not too many things that can go wrong once the initial complexity has been resolved - how to split and distribute the work. Given competent individuals, the actual execution should be rather eventless. In settings like this, I'm trying to ensure that each person has the space and autonomy to be impactful, while ensuring they get the support from their peers should they get stuck. Coming back to the beginning, since the goal is pretty clear, groups of people are usually rather good in cases like this to collaborate effectively and find structures and self-organize in a way that's beneficial for the group and the outcome. It's easy.

What if the task is to find out what cake to bake? Now, that's more tricky. Way more tricky, in fact. You could also say it's very easy, as long as everyone agrees - and that's the fallacy here: is there such a thing as group decision making? There might be, but it's tricky.

Imagine you're putting the baker in a room with two people who previously ate cake and are now somewhat experts when it comes to cake. They have an animated discussion about what cake to make, and at one point, they vote. Against the advise of the baker they opt for a cherry cake, which the baker is not able to bake at this time. Perfectly good decision making that leads to a bonkers result. But is it better if the baker just bakes whatever he feels like baking? Probably also not, there's value in having a decision and considering input. So it's something in between, somewhere between a person calling the shots and a democracy?

Personally, when I'm not clear on how decisions are made in a given organization, group or situation, I tend to ask "who's deciding if we can't agree". And there's always someone. For real, there never was not someone. Make sure you know who that someone is, and clarify what the roles of everyone in the room are. People need to know whether they're only consulted, whether they need to make a decision themselves or whether they're just consuming oxygen in a particular circumstance. Most importantly, it needs to be clear who is bearing the accountability for any given decision. Clear roles, clear accountability. Fast and good decision making requires quite some organizational clarity. That might be hard to establish, but a lack thereof just means you'll make less decisions, you'll make poorer decisions and you'll have a good amount of disagreeing groups - simply because it's not clear who's deciding for whom.

While it seems hard at first to delegate specific decisions to specific folks, it's harder to not create this clarity in the long run. At the end of the day, groups never really make decisions, only individuals do. Empower them.