5 ways to master agile collaboration

Teamwork makes the dream work, but how do you make your teams work well? Effective collaboration is a vital part of what it means to be an agile business, but many organisations simply stop thinking about this once they’ve assembled their teams. Here’s what they should be doing instead
Mastering Agile Collaboration In The Workplace

Traditional approaches to collaboration are as outdated as the fax machine. While most businesses have now digitised, many have permitted historic gaps between departments’ cultures to widen, leading to disharmony and a stifling of innovation.

The chasm between classic teamwork and the reality after the Covid-19 lockdowns is stark. For most businesses, remote working arrived in a flash with Covid-19, and many are still struggling to clarify expectations, prevent exclusion and create team environments which are positive spaces for ideation. Among staff concerned about home working, 75% say team collaboration has floundered, according to research by Lucid Software. 

Top-performing businesses are taking a different approach, though, adopting more mutually beneficial ways of working, effective leadership by example, and the clever use of tools. Their strategies are paying off through sharper responsiveness to emerging trends. Here are five key behaviours businesses can adopt to follow their lead.

Foster a culture of psychological safety

Businesses first need to create a setting where collaboration flourishes. Daniel Newman is a founding partner at Futurum Research and notes the “utmost importance” of positive working environments post-lockdowns. “Remote and hybrid work exacerbate the importance of culture because some of the non-verbal cues and relationship-building that used to occur has been lost,” he explains.

While offices naturally foster human connections, remote working does not. At customer relationship management business HubSpot, a culturally careful pre-pandemic move to hybrid working improved productivity levels and morale, and 88% of staff now operate at least partially outside the office. Meaghan Williams, the company’s manager of hybrid enablement, says the challenge for employers is to retain authentic interaction. “Connection and collaboration go hand in hand, but it’s going to take intentionality, introspection and ideation for companies to get it right,” she observes.

Shared psychological safety underpins forward-thinking teamwork. “That’s the starting point because collaboration and sharing ideas involve vulnerability and a leap of faith,” explains Constance Hadley, an organisational psychologist and lecturer at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business. “People need to feel comfortable and safe enough to ask what they fear might be stupid questions.”

Encourage experimentation

The next natural step is to support employees’ development of ideas. To keep evolving, companies must ensure their people are incentivised to experiment in their teams, put forward shared concepts and take healthy risks.

Achieving this means committing to the creation of the right incentives and conditions for staff, Hadley explains. “It needs to be the norm for new ideas to emerge, even from the failure of other ideas. If you’re asking for ideas, it’s critical to communicate what you’re trying to achieve, to set parameters, to reward people for their contributions and to allocate funding behind good concepts.” Forum discussions, and other opportunities for non-work catchups, can be critical elements of such an environment.

The most successful companies strike a careful balance of “enabling both experimentation and failure, with rapid agility and adaptation to get to the right result faster”, Newman notes. Proactive companies want to see experimentation because they took confidence from the changes achieved during the pandemic, when the concepts of failing fast and failing forward enabled rapid learning.

Introduce agile leadership expertise

Company bosses must lead by example in collaboration, perhaps by showing vulnerability and a willingness to learn. On a granular level, expert coaches can help to shape team mindsets. Tze Lin Kui is a senior agile coach at the market intelligence company GfK. He explains that he aims to “enable and connect people so they collaboratively work to solve problems”, whether that’s through facilitated meetings or workshops. “People can be defensive of their own ideas,” he says. “One of the consequences is that those who are passive withdraw from the discussion, even if they have great ideas.”

Team leaders should aim to eliminate ego from the culture, creating instead a shared success environment, according to Ahmed Sidky, an expert advising companies on cultivating agile thought processes. “The agile mindset is based on knowing we now live in a fluid, uncertain world,” he says. “Failure is important and inevitable. The goal is to learn early and fail fast, not taking anything personally.” Ongoing transformational learning is the key to establishing these more productive mindsets, he explains: “It goes much deeper than training. You have to get to the core of the way people think to drive behaviour and ultimately agility.”

Dynatrace monitors system infrastructure and the user experience. The company’s leaders laid the ground for remote working pre-pandemic, by fine-tuning the employee experience. The company’s founder and CTO, Bernd Greifeneder, says: “One of the most critical steps was to reimagine corporate IT as an employee digital enablement group.” The group simplified routine processes and enabled staff to collaborate with anyone in a similar time zone. Meanwhile, with employees commuting at least twice a month, offices were rebranded as collaboration spaces, so employees “don’t see their journey to the office as ‘going to work’”.

Ensure meetings are focused, but encourage natural connections

Leanness is an essential part of collaborative efficiency, which means meetings must have a clear running order and involve only those staff needed. With meeting frequency rising 153% during the pandemic, according to Microsoft Teams data, many companies are seeking to eliminate unnecessary sessions. 

At GfK, meetings are optimised and time-limited, with clear goals and only the right personnel present. But there is simultaneously a focus on fostering natural and enjoyable connections. Kui explains: “In my teams, we standardise the types of meetings we need and we timebox each type of meeting. At the organisational level, we set aside time for fun learning and innovative activities such as training, workshops and hackathons. This all helps to generate new ideas.”

By contrast, at companies that have opted to ban meetings entirely, open-ended conversations are often missed the most, experts note, with many of those businesses eventually reinstating weekly check-ins to see how staff are doing. Many have also moved to ensure remote employees can engage socially online or attend offices several times a month, so that more casual discussion and rapport-building can take place.

Use supporting tools well

While practices, culture and processes are the main drivers of collaborative success, technology is a key enabler. At HubSpot, the right tools and education were key to overcoming time zone differences while keeping teams motivated and aligned. “In addition to providing resources for asynchronous communication, we use tools like Loom, Lucidspark and Slack to help drive hybrid collaboration at scale,” Williams says.

Simple tech-based changes can also improve the fluidity of day-to-day collaborations. As well as moving internal applications to the cloud, Dynatrace has reduced the scale of its services requiring virtual private network access and introduced single sign-on systems to streamline access to its collaboration platforms.

Ultimately, though, some teamwork tools can still hinder collaboration by generating a deluge of unstructured communication. “Managers are spending a great deal of time writing emails or doing one-to-ones because they can’t as easily conduct the meetings that would help them find out what’s going on within their teams,” Hadley warns. 

After all, perhaps it will only be when AI tools can truly triage and answer routine internal communications that managers will have the time to really focus on enabling collaboration.