team working together at table on laptops
PHOTO: Annie Spratt

Most collaboration tool “rollouts” are a disaster. Leaders underinvest in change management and assume that technical tools will solve human problems in the digital workplace.

The best collaboration tools in the world won’t fix problematic cultures, mindsets, leadership behaviors or communication in your organization. As one leader I caught up with stated, “An idiot with a tool is still an idiot.”

So, what’s a leader to do to improve collaboration in the digital workplace?

A: Buy better tools?

B: [Heaven forbid] Build your own tools?

C: Develop smarter tool users?

The answer, of course, is D: “It depends.” Improving collaboration depends on your organization’s unique circumstances, technology stack, growth rate, innovation aspirations, size, collaborative maturity, culture and a host of other factors.

With easily more than 50 popular tools for communication, project management, file sharing, design, documentation and software development, implementing the right collaboration tool set is a huge responsibility.

Here are some guidelines that will help you successfully choose and implement the right collaboration approach for your organization.

Related Article: The Different Modes of Collaboration (and Why They Matter to Your Business)

1. Determine What You Need to Do

Start by asking yourself why collaboration is broken or needs enhancement. What data or dissatisfaction exists around the current collaboration environment? Keep in mind that collaboration isn’t just a tool set, it’s a mindset that filters how people behave, interact, share information, make decisions and allocate rewards and recognition.

As you define the problem you’re trying to solve, be sure to include the value that you’re trying to create by improving collaboration. Draw up a “purpose statement” that says something like this:

“Our purpose for improving collaboration is to [improve/enhance/fix/remove barrier] X, Y or Z so that we can [insert value to be created here].”

Collaboration must have value associated with it. Define that value in your purpose statement.

2. Create a Compelling Collaboration Vision

Once you have defined the problem, paint a picture of what the future of collaboration looks like. What would you want teams to do differently? What decisions would they be empowered to make? What difference would all of this make for your customers or clients?

Involve people to help you create your vision. Don’t create your collaboration vision in isolation. Collaborative visions build a sense of ownership and excitement about a shared future.

Related Article: 3 Collaboration Skills You Need for Today and Tomorrow

3. Narrow the Field

Now it’s time to start thinking about tools. Use your purpose statement and vision to help you narrow down the list of tools that you will consider. As you do this, it’s important to keep these two questions in mind: What problems are we solving and what value are we creating?

Create clear product selection criteria based on your purpose, vision, business requirements and IT strategy. Turn these criteria into a scoring rubric to help you narrow the field based on product features, business needs, budget and other requirements.

Gather user feedback on features and functionality. Weight users’ opinions and scores against your ultimate purpose and your value creation rubric. You should welcome all opinions, but acknowledge that all opinions are not necessarily equal.

Finally, make a decision and implement the new system.

4. Teach Collaboration Fundamentals

Change is difficult, and a successful implementation will require a comprehensive change adoption strategy. Your change strategy must include a training plan. But don’t just teach to the tool, teach to the outcomes you’re trying to achieve: better communication, faster product deployment, higher quality, etc.

Users must learn collaboration fundamentals such as setting expectations and understanding roles and responsibilities, the decision-making process, barriers to information sharing, prioritization and accountability.

Tools enable these behaviors, but if leaders and teams in your organization don’t understand the fundamentals, they will continue to struggle with collaboration regardless of the tools you implement.

Related Article: Poor Digital Skills Hinder Digital Workplace Progress

5: Create Pull Through Critical Mass

Mobilizing a critical mass of teams is key to adopting new, collaborative ways of working. In a 2015 interview with Fast Company, Slack founder Stewart Butterfield said that the rule of thumb at Slack is that it takes about 2,000 messages exchanged among members of a team to solidify adoption of his company’s collaboration tool.

“After 2,000 messages, 93 percent of those customers are still using Slack today,” Butterfield said. For a team of 50 people, he added, that equates to about 10 hours’ worth of messages.

When it comes to getting people to adopt a new collaboration tool, a “pull” strategy is preferable to a “push” strategy. If you’ve done steps 1 to 4 correctly, people will be excited to collaborate in new ways and to have the tools to do it. But there’s still work that leaders have to do to ensure success.

One of the best ways to get teams to spend more time in the new collaboration space is to reduce redundancy — limit the number of collaboration options they have available. Sunset old platforms that either work against your vision, allow for “workarounds” that enable employees to avoid the new system, or simply provide redundant functionality. Out with the old, in with the new.

These guidelines are by no means exhaustive. However, they are essential ingredients for making collaboration a part of your organization’s competitive advantage. While tools will not solve all of your collaboration challenges, leaders who follow these guidelines can improve collaboration in the digital workplace.