The delicate balance of team collaboration

Combining individual powers to make team collaboration easy

One lightbulb lit out of several
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When I was young, I was never a fan of Captain Planet. The cartoon first aired when I was in fifth or sixth grade, and back then I was more interested in reading books and playing games on my father's IBM PS/2 than in watching a story about children who were unusually passionate about environmentalism and regularly combined their powers (earth, fire, wind, water, and heart) to promote it.

Now that I'm a bit older, I have to admit there's a good message there—beyond the importance of recycling, I mean. There's even a lesson Captain Planet can teach us about collaboration in an open organization.

Collaboration can seem intimidating at first. I get it. Thinking about having to collaborate with others on a project used to give me that same sinking feeling I got every time a teacher announced a group project. When not everyone is invested, the passionate people—the ones who understand the importance of the mission and are willing to give their time and effort—end up doing twice the amount of work as they carry everyone else along (and I always wanted good grades, so I did a lot of carrying).

But collaboration doesn't have to make us feel that way. An open organization can provide a delicate balance of freedom, courage, commitment, and accountability that creates a space for collaborative magic to happen.

Earth

This story begins, like so many great stories that have come before it, with a question posed to our company-wide mailing list.

"Before I go doing this myself," I wrote, "is anyone in the company maintaining a directory of internal communities of practice?"

I left out the bit about really, really, really not wanting to do this myself. I've never been passionate about communities of practice. I knew I wouldn't be able to devote the attention necessary for tackling this project (and doing it well). But the need for a central community resource was just too great for me to ignore. I was willing, if not eager, to take it on.

As it turned out, I was in luck: I wouldn't have to. My question provided the foundation on which collaboration could begin.

Fire

Every project needs a champion. With no one passionate behind the scenes inspiring others to act, the project will slowly die.

This story's champion is the manager of the consulting and services organization's Community of Practice Working Group. At the time, she was moderating 14 active company-wide communities all focused on "delivery methodology, theory, customer/business/technical problem solving, products, and performance, each with the objective of collaboration and best-practice sharing leading to greater customer success." And she loved it.

"This is it!" I thought, doing a little happy dance in my ergonomically designed chair. "She just saved me six months of work!"

Wind

I thought the story would end here, but when we met, we discovered that our objectives differed in a small, but important way: The communities growing out of the services organization had a primary purpose of addressing customer feedback from the field (e.g., technical product uses), whereas the communities my team sought to form would have a primary purpose of sharing internal best practices (e.g., a problem we need to solve, regardless of technology used to solve it). Our projects were facing in different directions: one externally, and one internally.

How could we fit them all together?

If we listed every internal community on one page, how would we distinguish between the more formalized services communities and the more ad-hoc internal communities? And who had the time to design, build, and maintain a company-wide directory, anyway?

Water

The internal communications and branding teams came to the rescue. Meeting with them helped us understand more about the results of similar prior efforts and learn who we could ask for help moving forward

Together, we reviewed the existing resources and outlined our individual objectives. We each had context unknown to the others, such as the brand team's upcoming push on a Diversity + Inclusion campaign, which would include related communities of practice. And the communications team knew of a way to use one of our internal communication tools to help us organize and distinguish the different types of communities.

Still, we were left with the two most important questions: Who was going to build this? And who was going to own it going forward?

Heart

The part of this story that makes it worth telling, and the part that will stick with me for a very long time, is this: Even though it would have been true for every one of us, not a single person said, "That's not my job."

Instead, each one of us said, "I would like to do X part, but not Y part," in an honest expression of how much time and passion we had to invest. We combined each of our unique strengths for a common good:

  • The internal communications team secured assistance in creating a wireframe for us, but they couldn't commit resources to building it.
  • The manager of the services communities was eager to start building the site, and I was ready to jump in with whatever she needed, including building out the list of existing communities outside her org. But neither one of us really wanted to own the company-wide directory going forward.
  • And our good friend Rebecca (of Open Decision Framework fame) responded by saying she'd be willing to own it if someone else would build it.

I'm not sure I've personally experienced a better example of collaboration, especially considering we all came from different business units.

Let our powers combine

Collaboration doesn't have to be intimidating, and it doesn't always mean you're going to end up doing more work.

Just like in the cartoon when they summon Captain Planet—"with our powers combined!"—the principles of an open organization encourage everyone to pool together their strengths; the particular blends of skills and passions that are unique to them and make them feel most energized and comfortable. And when that happens, the end product of the collaboration can take on a life of its own.

Ours didn't have blue skin and green hair, but there's always next time.

About the author

Allison Matlack - Allison is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer turned communications lead at Red Hat who is known for her enthusiastic speaking style and passion for helping other leaders inspire their teams. She's an experienced Agile practitioner and coach of software engineering teams in various stages of maturity, as well as a comms specialist with a change-management style steeped in the tradition of the Open Decision Framework. She's honored to have been an Open Organization Ambassador since 2016 and loves...