April 28, 2019

3 Simple Changes We Made to Encourage Collaboration

When we started Sift, it was just five of us in a coworking space. Sometimes it looked more like we were hanging out than actually working. Collaboration seemed to flow freely.

If we had a problem to solve, it was simple to walk up to the whiteboard, figure things out and pat ourselves on the back … only for an engineer to arrive from a meeting and start wondering what the heck was going on.

Even though we were so enormously excited to collaborate, we had actually created a culture where people were scared to leave the office, because they were nervous to miss out. It was a valuable lesson that collaboration has to be waged, and we’ve put a lot of thought into our collaborative processes. I’d like to share a few of the lessons our team has learned with you.

Define clear communication rules

We have so many options when it comes to communication: Slack, project management tools, text messages and even the old-fashioned tap on the shoulder.

However, there are appropriate times to use each method of communication, as well as specific purposes for each. At Sift, we’ve recently codified these rules, and that has been a big help. Take, for example, our Slack policies. We encourage people to use Slack for quick answers and real-time collaboration. If conversations begin to focus more specifically on a project, we ask our Sifters to have those conversations in our project management tools.

But we also ask our employees to respect the space of others. We actually ask people to put Slack on do not disturb while they are doing intensive work, and we expect our employees to respect those boundaries from others. Creating these rules has defined shared expectations for collaboration, and unlike in our early days, it also empowers people to focus on the task at hand. There’s no need to worry about missing out, because we’ve told people it’s okay to be unavailable for a while.

Give a warning order

I’ll admit it. I’m a startup founder cliche. I like to stand at a whiteboard and brainstorm, all while gesticulating with my hands so much that Beto O’Rourke thinks I should cool it down.

But I’m an extrovert. Other people work in different ways. Some want to brainstorm in a Google doc or their notebook. Others want to sit over coffee and riff over ideas informally, letting things simmer before they make a decision.It’s a conundrum of collaboration: How can we collaborate when we’re all so busy thinking in different ways?

It’s simple: plan.

At Sift, we use something called a warning order. It’s a concept I picked up from my time in the Marines. A week before we’d be ordered on a new mission, we’d receive a warning order from our commander, instructing us on the challenges we would be facing and what to begin thinking about. When we met a week later to begin our mission, we were all sufficiently prepared, and the groundwork had been laid successfully for mission success.

After all, you shouldn’t wing a meeting. Giving people time and space to think about topics will result in better solutions than grabbing someone on the way to a meeting and saying, “Hey, got a minute?” From the start your meeting will begin with your team fully engaged, and they’ll have had the time to do creative thinking about the topic at hand.

Be your own speed bump

There’s a common theme in our approach to collaboration: take it slow. All too often, people confuse collaboration with speed. I know we certainly did at Sift.

But there’s a simple question you should always ask yourself when making a decision: Are all of the stakeholders in this conversation present?

If the answer is no, then you need to slow it down. Find the people who need to be involved in the decision so they can be empowered to be part of their decision-making — no matter if you’ve just had a brilliant idea during a meeting, if you’re riffing on Slack or even had a revelation during a lunch break. Keep people in the loop to build a team that collaborates.

I’d love to hear what you’ve learned about building more collaborative teams. Tell me in the comments below!

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