This is Flow
The first time I found flow is an experience I'll always remember. Just around the turn of the century, I was asked to help Hitachi Data Systems improve the way they track, test, and manage data storage configurations. We had a lot of data, but it wasn't organized well or easy to access. To tackle the challenge, we decided to build a custom web application. Our user, the product manager, was thrilled.
After a challenging first phase using traditional software development techniques, we decided to experiment with extreme programming–a software development approach that spearheaded the Agile development movement. Despite severe criticism (Agile approaches were under great scrutiny at the time), we delivered a quality solution that exceeded expectations in a relatively short amount of time (months, not years).
That wasn't the first time I was involved in delivering a quality solution on time and within budget and it wouldn't be the last–however it wasn't the result that defined the moment for me–it was the experience. The journey to the final deliverable was exhilarating. On several occasions, we were all there past midnight, but it didn't matter. We were in a zone. Work was effortless. Time stopped. And we were delivering an amazing solution. This is flow. An unforgettable experience that comes with high collaboration.
Design for Success
High collaboration doesn't happen by accident; it must be designed. Advances in teleconferencing technology, an increasing desire for work=life balance, and a social media culture have pushed people away from the office and into their homes. This is not a bad thing, and we'll address this later, but it's easy to see that teams with high levels of collaboration are going the way of the dodo. But it doesn’t have to be that way for you.
The first thing leadership should do to foster high levels of collaboration is make sure the organization is designed properly. It starts with the corporate strategy and the stated value of collaboration. Once that message is clear, structure the organization for collaboration by considering the roles that need the highest levels of collaboration, and bring them all together under one manager. Install cross-functional processes in situations where you have more than one collaboration scenario to solve and install a center of excellence to help with guidance, learning, and development.
Finally, fortify a culture of collaboration with the metrics and rewards. It may seem odd to measure the degree of collaboration, but it's easy to administer with a simple assessment. Clearly define the behaviors that, when exhibited, demonstrate high levels of collaboration. Then, put a structured program in place to observe whether these behaviors are obtaining. This will give you a clear idea of how well your work practices are meeting your collaboration goals.
Practice Makes Perfect
When looking for good work practices, it's best to start by examining Agile software development practices. The broad adoption of methodologies like Scrum make it easier to bring good collaboration practices into your organization, even if you don't adopt the entire methodology. Unfortunately, Scrum is not as prescriptive as some of the earlier Agile methodologies, so–aside from some basic practices like stand-up meetings– there's not much to leverage. Conversely, a methodology like extreme programming provides a specific set of practices that we can learn from.
One of the more controversial practices of extreme programming is pair programming–a polarizing subject that clearly divides people into supporters and critics. I fall into the supporter camp because I've experienced the benefits firsthand. Pair programming is when two people physically sit together at one desk with one set of tools (keyboard, mouse, monitor, etc.) to work on one solution together. When done properly, two people can think almost twice as fast as one and produce a higher quality solution in their first iteration. More importantly, the collaborative experience is a catalyst for flow.
Another practice from extreme programming that fosters great collaboration is collective ownership. The whole team owns the solution, not any one individual. This forces people to work together in a high-performing way to accomplish a common goal. It's almost impossible to be individualistic when you're partially responsible for work that others have done.
Settling the Colocation Debate
Another practice extreme programming demands of its practitioners is colocation–physically locate everyone in the same place, including the customer. This is one of those areas where companies often find some way to justify cheating. Not a good idea.
The reason why extreme programmers insist on colocation is because it incubates teams that have very high levels of communication without the need for time-consuming documentation. But is colocation necessary if your only goal is high levels of collaboration? Is it possible to have a remote workforce that's highly collaborative?
The answer is yes, but to get there, you need a fair amount of colocation. The teams that work well remotely, get there by first working well while physically located together. In addition, to maintain a highly performing remote workforce, it's necessary to periodically get them in the same room to sharpen their collective saw.
However, the highest levels of collaboration are only achievable with teams who are constantly in physical contact with each other. As much as we appreciate the convenience of working from home, we're social creatures. There's no substitute for human interaction–it's part of our DNA.
The benefits of highly collaborative teams extend beyond strategic results. For people, high collaboration is a path to flow–a metaphysical experience that bolsters well-being and empowers people to perform at their highest potential. If this is your goal, you must be intentional in your approach. Design the right organization, practice good collaborative habits like pair programing and collective ownership, and physically bring everyone together–at least periodically. Commit today to invest in bringing your organization to the highest levels of collaboration. There's nothing better than the gift of flow.