three mountain climbers going uphill in rocky terrain in Portugal
PHOTO: Diogo Tavares

A few years ago I worked with a distributed pharmaceutical team on a clinical trial. The first thing we did was bring everyone together in person for a week-long meeting. This was to build trust, make sure goals were aligned, and ensure everyone had the latest information. After the week, everyone went home. We provided everyone with a collaborative tool so the teams stayed in sync, shared information, could coordinate and more. 

Everything worked great for the first few weeks. But as we monitored the number, length and value of the interactions, we noticed that after six weeks these interactions started to tail off, no matter how many email reminders we sent.

We had enough budget to bring everyone together for another all-hands meeting. At that meeting I asked why this was happening, and the answer was shocking.

They said the collaborative tool was not adding value. Rather, it was just more overhead and reporting, was mostly outside the process, which meant they had to get out of the process, and get into the collaborative tool to communicate. This meant that to collaborate, not only did they have to take extra steps, but they had to switch tools, and could not carry the process context with them.

We asked what we could do to provide more value to them? What would help maintain the relationships they had built at the physical meetings (especially across companies, departments and groups)? How could we keep these distributed teams working together, and keep productivity high?

It took many years, working with many distributed teams to figure out the complexities of sustainable collaboration.

Related Article: Culture and Productivity in the Era of Remote Work

3 Factors for Sustainable Collaboration

Collaboration is based on interactions between people. Each interaction has its own rhythm and lifecycle. So continuous collaboration is not actually an ongoing communication, but the ability to sustain the interaction over time as long as it is creating more productivity.

To sustain collaboration in the long term, these three factors must be in place:

  1. Finding collaborative processes.
  2. Finding collaborative tools that could be part of the process.
  3. Finding a business or cultural reason for continued use of the tool to increase productivity.

Fruitful Areas for Sustainable Collaboration

Through research and work with clients, we found there are areas in all businesses, no matter the vertical, where collaboration was critical:

  1. New product development (R&D).
  2. Training and education (new product training).
  3. Customer service: (customer engagement, customer feedback, driving customer interaction).
  4. Sales and marketing: coordinating a client sale, development of marketing materials, etc.
  5. Meetings, especially where the C-suite's time was critical.

With over 2000 collaboration tools in the market place, choosing a tool can be confusing. Let me put your mind at rest: this is the last thing you need to do. Over the last 20 years we have found that adding a collaborative tool to an established process is often a thankless task, and one that does not increase productivity.

A good example of this is trying to make a transactional process into a sustainable collaborative process. We see this happen in finance all the time. One of the only collaborative processes in finance is budgeting.

Even today, many of the financial tools that focus on the budget, and on getting and maintaining the data, but not on the actual process of negotiation of the budget items (which would require collaboration) are not collaborative. Centage is one of the few tools that uses collaboration as part of the budgeting process. However, budgeting itself often has a short lifecycle for interaction, and may be complete in a week or a month with episodic interactions at best — so not necessarily the best foundation for sustainable collaboration.

A more productive foundation for sustainable collaboration would be to use a process like new product development in R&D. In digging into this process deeper we see that it generally starts with a problem statement, or research from users, which spurs a discussion of ideas and potential solutions. Many decision support tools can help determine what the best idea is. But collaboration is critical to moving forward in this process, not only to refine the idea, but to attract resources, get feedback and work through a variety of wicked problems to finally get to a solution. Then sustained collaboration is needed to build, develop, test and market the solution.

Collaboration is best sustained if the process is understood to be collaborative, and the process is developed to incorporate the rich interactions needed to develop the product. 

At this point you can pick a tool. But before picking a tool, look carefully at your current process. Is the process itself collaborative? Does it support interactions with everyone who is involved (both inside and outside the organization)? Do the interactions persist over time? Is the same team(s) involved? Do they already have collaborative tools they are using?

Related Article: Don't Fall Into the 'Collaboration for Collaboration's Sake' Trap

People Are Still the Biggest Challenge

The biggest problem for sustainable collaboration is people. Or in this case, the behavior of a group of people, often called “culture.” All the collaborative tools in the world, and even with processes that naturally foster collaboration, will not help if there's no collaborative culture and direct support and participation from management (who are often the worst collaborators in the organization).

It is hard to change people’s behaviors. But without a collaborative culture, and management using the tools on a regular basis, collaboration is not sustainable. For management, it is often getting out of the way of their egos, and seeing themselves as a coach or mentor, instead of a commander or general. Their egos got them to where they are in the organization, but those same egos get in the way of collaboration.

Related Article: Why Are Business Leaders Still So Bad at Collaborating?

Building With Sustainable Collaboration in Mind

Some of the best examples of sustainable collaborative organizations are completely distributed and committed to a culture of collaboration. Companies such as Automattic (WordPress), Github, Buffer, Zapier and more have collaboration as part of their DNA.

Because their employees are not restricted by time or distance these companies often don't have a headquarters or a lot of overhead. As Automattic's founder and CEO Matt Wullenweg puts it, “We focus on two things when hiring. First, find the best people you can in the world. And second, let them do their work. Just get out of their way.” 

Arkency is a consulting agency that builds business software, trains programmers and produces books and webinars. It's built a culture and environment for distributed team members to thrive, centered on the concepts of "anarchy, async and remote." Arkency founder Andrzej Krzywda said "Anarchy means flexible work hours, choosing your own priorities and coming up with the initiative (we love that!). Remote means you are working from everywhere in the world — home, your coworking office, whatever. And async means all communication is not meant to be done instantly — we avoid meetings and long discussions.”

Arkeny has found the collaborative tools that fit their culture, and communication is more asynchronous than real-time. In fact, Krzywda said, "More than remote, we value async, which means work at any time you prefer. The whole process is constructed around it. Asyc/remote is part of our DNA. I think it's now part of our lifestyle too. There's a lot of freedom with such an approach."

As you can see many of these fully distributed companies have reached collaborative sustainability. But it took, thought, planning, the right tools and most importantly, a company culture that embraced ongoing collaboration. Everyone from the top down supports the same collaboration tools and processes, and this is what makes collaboration sustainable.