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Work collaboratively with people from inside and outside your organisation. Includes practical steps, tools and activities. How to make decisions collaboratively.

This resource is for managers, project workers, and digital leads in charities who want to build a collaborative culture in their digital projects. 

It covers:

  • What is collaboration? A useful working definition. 
  • Is it worth it? Short answer, yes.
  • 8 practical steps, each with tools and activities
  • Collaborative decision making and why it matters
  • What to do if you don’t have many resources to collaborate… 

What is collaboration?

Collaboration is an overused word. It’s often used simply to mean “working together”. 

But a truer definition is “working together consciously and effectively”.

Conscious and effective collaboration requires:

  • real communication
  • active listening
  • a willingness to consider different perspectives. 

It's about creating a culture where everyone feels empowered to contribute and work towards a shared goal. 

Is collaboration worth it? 

Lets imagine what happens when you DON’T collaborate… 

Without proper collaboration:

  • Everyone does their best individual work but there’s a lack of cohesion.
  • People end up wasting their time because there’s no common understanding of goals and processes.
  • Team members are frustrated and don’t feel heard or appreciated by each other 
  • If there are disagreements or grumbles, they are unlikely to be voiced. So they are never learnt from
  • There are crossed wires about what different people are doing and how / when.
  • The final outcome is OK, but not great.
  • After the project, everyone is relieved it’s over and wouldn’t rush to do it again.

You are probably familiar with at least a few of the above feelings or scenarios. They are all genuinely difficult things to do, but when a team is truly collaborating, you find that all of the above get better (that’s not to say it’s ever perfect, of course). 

8 practical steps for collaboration

Including tools and activities.

Creating a culture of collaboration is not something which happens once at the beginning of a project, and then is over. It needs to be initiated, nurtured and developed. All of these approaches, tools and techniques can be useful from project start to project end. 

To get the most out of them, think about how and when to use each one.

1. Align the team

Start the project by getting everyone on the same page.

Answer these questions:

  • What is the context?
  • Why are we here? What’s brought us to this point?
  • Does anyone not know anything or want to ask anything about the project so far?

2. Agree how you’ll communicate

Have explicit conversations about communication systems and protocols (if they are not already in place).

Answer these questions:

  • How will we communicate (email, Slack, phone, Whatsapp)? Will we use different systems for different types of communication?
  • When will we communicate? Will we have regular meetings? Schedule them in.
  • What tools will we use to document and share your communications? Will there be a record of our meetings? Where will they be stored?
  • When differences of opinions occur (as they always will) how will we handle it? 
  • How will the team make decisions together?
  • How will we build regular reflection and opportunities for feedback into the project? 

Useful tools and activities:

See how some charities have used tools to work collaboratively:

3. Lay foundations for understanding

Help the team members get to know each other, as whole people, and understand how each other likes to work. This is about helping your team to make things explicit. You want team members to feel genuinely able to communicate with each other, even when their needs and preferences are different. 

Answer these questions:

  • Who is everyone? What is each person’s context/history relevant to the organisation and this project?
  • What is each member's understanding of their role and responsibilities on the project? Do these roles fit together? 
  • Is there a hierarchy within the project team? What is it?
  • What days / hours does each team member work? 
  • Are there any holidays booked over the course of the project?
  • Does anyone have competing demands on their time they’d like the team to be aware of? (care work, studies, other employment, health situations etc.

Useful tools and activities:

4. Be consistent

Stick to the practices you’ve decided on together. If something isn’t working for you, suggest an alternative to the team and get consent. 

Useful tools and activities:

5. Build relationships

Notice how your team is forming, developing and collaborating. Share challenges and observations and ask for help. Model the collaborative attitude that you want to create within the team. 

Useful tools and activities:

  • If in person: going out as a group for lunch and other social activities
  • “Random” channel or in Slack (or other communication method) to allow members to share things outside of the project. 
  • Going to workshops and courses together 
  • Regular reflections on your experiences: challenges, wins, surprises etc. 
  • Driving and restraining forces within the team: forcefield analysis 
  • Coaching and facilitating techniques
  • Showing interest and appreciation for each other

6. Welcome difference 

Don’t shy from difficult conversations. Acknowledge and celebrate difference rather than avoiding it. 

Useful tools and activities:

7. Reflect and learn

When wrapping up your project, bring your team together to reflect. Share and acknowledge joint and individual wins, challenges, learnings. Think how you might implement these learnings going forwards. 

Useful tools and activities:

8. Celebrate the project and each other

Have a party when the project is completed and show your appreciation for your colleagues! Enjoy the feeling of having finished the project and gotten to know each other better through it. 

Useful tools and activities:

Collaborative decision making and why it matters

Why decision making matters

Getting clear on who is involved in making decisions and how you make those decisions can enhance the quality and efficiency of the project and the satisfaction of the project team. 

Two key principles:

  • Making decisions quickly helps meet deadlines. 
  • Enabling everyone to contribute and buy-in to decisions helps the project meet its goals. 

Often, however, people simply copy approaches they have seen elsewhere, without thinking about how they impact team culture. For example, some project teams make decisions by diktat – where the most senior person decides. Or by voting where one group wins but another loses. 

Both these approaches cause problems and reduce collaboration. People feel alienated by these approaches and stop giving their best. And the chance of making the wrong decision increases, because the wrong people are making the decision based on wrong or insufficient information. 

4 questions to clarify your decision making

1. Who will be responsible for doing the work that results from the decision? 

They should probably be a key person in making and informing that decision. This usually means that people other than team leaders or project managers should be making decisions. This doesn’t mean there is nothing for team leaders and project managers to do. Instead of making all the decisions, their job is to create the conditions for good decisions to be made, by the right people. And to ensure people can follow through on decisions.

2. Who is responsible for the budget sign off? 

Typically they end up as the decision maker. Does it have to be that way? Can you get some or all budget responsibility handed over to the whole project team?

3. Does everyone need to be involved in everything?

Usually not. If you clarify and agree which people need to make which decisions - and then leave it to them - it becomes easier and quicker. 

4. Are team members prepared to work within their range of tolerance, rather than with their preference?

This concept from Sociocracy is very useful in decision making. It asks us all to identify what we would tolerate, rather than what our preferred option is, and work with that when a team is making a decision. Learn more about preference, range of tolerance and objection. 

What to do if you don’t have the resources to collaborate…

Working together consciously can seem costly. Maybe you think you don’t have the money to give your team the time to truly collaborate. At this point ask yourself:

  • What is your purpose with this project?
  • Who are you serving by doing the project unconsciously and potentially ineffectively?

Remember there’s a big difference between efficiency and effectiveness. Plus, what can seem like time costly exercises in listening and relationship building within your team can actually save time and money further down the line. Note what happens when you don’t collaborate

What next?

If you’re hungry for more, take a look at:

Article credit: this article was written collaboratively by the Building OUT team at Outlandish.


Image credit: Lollyman on Flickr

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