A while back I picked up an anthology written by one of my favorite outdoor writers, John Gierach. He writes essays about flyfishing and the outdoors. One of his recent compilations, Death, Taxes, and Leaky Waders, includes an essay about setting up camp with a long-time fishing partner: “We now set up camps with such wordless efficiency that spectators sometimes think we’re mad at each other. I’ve learned a lot from him, from the nuts and bolts of fly tying and casting—both of which he’s damn good at—to philosophy. It was while fishing with A.K. that I discovered you could tell the plain truth about fly-fishing and still be a humorist.”
Although I spend a lot more time at work than I do with my fly-rod (or even on my motorcycle), I still haven’t reached the point where I can collaborate with “wordless efficiency.” Part of the reason might be that teams change, people come and go, and we’re often so “heads-down” and hard at it that we don’t pay as much attention to what other members of the team are doing or how they’re doing it at any given time.
Several years ago I read that the best air force in the world (at that time) was the U.S. Air National Guard. I was surprised. I thought it would have been either the U.S. Air Force or maybe even the Israelis. However, as I read about what made them such a powerful fighting force, it really makes sense:
- Most (if not all) of them were combat veterans
- They had worked together for a long time (in some cases almost 20 years)
- They could anticipate what each other would do in different situations because they had shared so many of the same experiences together
The article (which I wish I could put my fingers on today) suggested that most fighter squadrons don’t fly together for years at a time. Whether it’s the Air Force or the Navy, fighter jocks tend to be shipped around from squadron to squadron (or from team to team for that matter). I don’t think it says anything about their skill level that the old guys in the National Guard are so good, they just haven’t shared as many of the same experiences together.
It’s probably unreasonable to expect project teams to “wordlessly” go through the day getting stuff done. That’s one reason it’s so important that project leaders step away from the computer once in a while to actually communicate and collaborate with members of the team. I’m pretty fortunate now. My team doesn’t change from project to project. Although there are some personal quirks they are stuck with when dealing with me, when we communicate, we do so from a foundation of knowing each other and how we deal with issues from project to project and initiative to initiative.
I don’t believe “wordless efficiency” is really what we want in a collaborative environment anyway, but knowing our collaboration partners and our role on the team is just as important to the successful completion of a project as it is to a fighter squadron (although life and limb are rarely at risk on any of the projects I work on).
I once spoke with a project manager who made it a point to capture best practices and build them into templates for repeatable parts of the next project. Doing this made it possible for him to focus on those parts of the project plan that were unique or otherwise needed special attention. It also made it easier for members of the team to became familiar with and collaborate about this way of getting things done.
More importantly, it helped ensure project success and allowed his team to effectively collaborate on the challenging aspects of those projects which had the potential to provide real business value. It seemed like a real win, win, win to me at the time. I must admit, I’ve never thought of templating processes as a vehicle for improving collaboration, but I do now because it incorporates some of those characteristics that make the U.S. Air National Guard such a great fighting force into project teams without making them work together for 20 years.
What are you doing to encourage collaboration among your project teams?