Tools & Technologies

Chaos in Collaboration (Part 1 of 5)

I’m speaking next month to a group of Information Management professionals in New Zealand on the topic “The Key to Collaboration without Chaos”. I have a little giggle every time I think of the title (collaboration without chaos, c’mon!). Perhaps I should start the presentation by saying that if you see collaborations without chaos, then you don’t need a collaborative working arrangement. Surely the reason that we put people together on a team is that they have such a huge challenge facing them, and that one person can’t do the whole thing alone. And so a team is put together, and the messiness of team collaboration begins. In the course of their work together, if there is perfect agreement on all points, then the very need for a team in the first place should be questioned. Something is not right with this picture.

Thus if collaboration is chaotic, then (a) is that actually a problem?, and (b) is there a key to collaboration without chaos?

My answers today are: to (a), yes it can be a definite problem, and to (b), yes there is a key.

What Does “Chaotic” Mean?
With a hat tip to, “chaotic” means:

  1. Completely confused or disordered
  2. A condition or place of great disorder or confusion
  3. A disorderly mass; a jumble
  4. Lacking a visible order or organization
  5. Completely unordered and unpredictable and confusing

In general, those are not the descriptive words that we want associated with our work.

If, as I have said above, that collaboration is by nature chaotic, then what’s the key to collaboration without chaos? Shared agreements.

Is a Meeting or Discussion Thread Chaotic?
Think of it this way. When you’re in a meeting, lots of stuff is swirling around. People are talking left, right and center. Paul is trying to make a point, and Sally interrupts to share a related point that she’s quietly been pondering. Robert then opens his mouth, and argues for the consideration of an alternate point of view, and then Reid cycles back to an earlier point made by Jessica and tries to point out the similarity. And on it goes.

From the perspective of someone watching the proceedings, a meeting seems highly chaotic (and even to people within the meeting, it can seem highly chaotic!). And yet if Paul, Sally, Robert, Reid and Jessica are worth their salt, someone’s going to ask at the end of the meeting: “So where does this bring us to?” (what’s the concise summary of what we have all just discussed), and “So what’s the next action?” (as a result of all that we’ve talked about, where do we go from here?). Now that everyone has tabled their views, has hashed out the nuances and is sure that they know what each other is really saying — now that everyone has a shared cognitive understanding — what are we going to do?

The same dynamics can be seen in an electronic discussion. When we have a discussion by email or through a threaded discussion system, we’ve first of all got to air all the differing points of view. Someone has to take one position, someone has to take another, and others have to fill in the gaps and argue things through. Each person is carrying a certain viewpoint in order to round out what’s being said and proposed, and is ensuring that the person championing the leading view has actually done all of the work to ensure things are right on. To the people who are actively involved in the discussion thread, they know pretty well the shape of the discussion, and carry around their own mental model of what needs to happen to bring closure to the topic under consideration. To someone looking in from the outside, until they have read through all of the points and understood the contours of the various arguments in play, it will appear to be very chaotic.

It is this process of coming to a shared agreement that is essential if an episode of chaotic collaborative work is going to become a useful contribution to the overall collaborative effort, rather than degrade into unrelenting chaos. When everyone leaves the meeting “on the same page”, then something that was chaotic has become something that is orderly, or non-chaotic. When anyone can review a discussion thread that has been closed off and can see the summary document and the decision that was taken, then something that was chaotic has become something that is orderly, or non-chaotic.

Shared Agreements
So it comes down to agreement. Chaos is fine, perfect and even highly desirable during the process of the collaborative work, but if that is permitted to remain the accepted state for too long, then the whole process will become mired in chaos and no-one will know what they are supposed to be doing next. And that’s bad. Thus in the context of using collaboration technology to facilitate the processes of team collaboration, collaboration is chaotic when:

  1. We extend over days and weeks conversations that should take place within the space of an hour … we stretch discussions out too long and challenge the ability of each individual to hold an accurate mental picture of the current state of things.
  2. We don’t take the time and effort to clearly decide what we are going to do, and ensure that everyone is committed to it and moving in the same direction.

And by extension, then, I say that organizational collaboration is idiotic when:

  1. People don’t have the right tools available to do the work they are being asked to do; and
  2. People haven’t been trained in collaborative approaches so that they can work effectively with others through collaboration technology.

What Next?
In future installments, I hope to write about:
The Concept of Collaboration
The Changing Locus of Collaboration
Integrating Collaboration Tools into the Enterprise; and
Pitfalls to Avoid with Collaboration, and Steps to Success

Categories: Tools & Technologies