Project management versus collaboration - choosing your approach

When I’m asked “Why won’t our familiar project management approach work for this tricky project? Why should we try something that feels uncomfortable and different?” my response is along the following lines …

The project management approach

Project management is extremely useful when:

  • There is agreement on the scope of the problem …
  • Milestones and deliverables are clear and agreed …
  • This kind of problem has been solved before …
  • The appropriate expertise exists and is accessible …
  • There is certainty about what needs to be done …
  • The road ahead is clear even if at times the terrain may be bumpy …
  • The solution will be obvious when achieved.

Even if things don’t go quite according to the prepared plan, an effective project manager/team leader will get things back on track and back ‘on time’ and ‘on budget’.

And once we’ve solved this problem, we can solve another one like it using the same thinking and repeating the same project management techniques.

The collaborative approach

In contrast, the collaborative approach is most useful when:

  • The scope is hazy and everyone sees it differently …
  • No-one agrees when, where or how to start …
  • No-one has solved a problem like this before although many are working on bits of it …
  • Nobody has all the expertise, but everyone has some …
  • Existing knowledge is insufficient; new ideas and new thinking are needed …
  • The way ahead is uncertain; the diversity of views and our natural urge to return to certainty cause conflict …
  • The endpoint may never be reached; it keeps changing with new learning.

Choosing your approach

Working in complexity requires a collaborative approach and a collaborative mindset. It can be very hard for acknowledged experts to admit to not knowing, and for leaders to say they don’t have a solution and need help to find one. To make collaboration work, teams and organisations need particular skills that, in our experience, cannot be learned in a classroom. These skills include:

  • A collaborative mindset or way of thinking (CQ) ..
  • An understanding of the ‘why’ of collaboration ..
  • A practical framework or pathway to follow ..
  • An ability to work in uncertainty, to take risks, to test boundaries ..
  • An ability to experiment, learn new things by trying and sometimes getting it wrong ..
  • Advocacy and enquiry, listening and strategic questioning ..
  • Confidence in collaborative processes and an ability to adapt behaviours to help groups ‘hold the collaborative frame’ and build trust and positive relationships, rather than become divided by differences of opinion, argument or actual conflict.

In our experience, teams and organisations are starting to understand complexity and the collaborative approach needed to tackle it. They accept that the relevant mindsets and skills can only be learned through doing the work and looking over the collaborative parapet to see a new way forward.

What to do when you don’t know what to do

One thing is certain … collaboration will take you into uncertainty. You start on the collaborative journey full of enthusiasm and energy. “This is exciting,” you say to yourself and your new colleagues on the collaborative journey. “We can learn to work together and we can achieve things that none of us could have achieved on our own! Let’s get started!”

But someplace and sometime on the collaborative journey, the group or individuals within it will say “I don’t know what to do next!”

Sometimes this happens because the way forward, which looked like a clear road ahead in the collaboration guidebook, becomes narrower and full of thorny disagreements. People who seemed initially very committed to working together seem to argue over small things. There are differences of opinion that seem irreconcilable. Meetings descend into arguments about personal opinions rather than opportunities to share and explore diverse perspectives.

Here are a few thoughts about how to move forward when you and your group just don’t know what to do next on the collaborative journey.

A road map or a set of handrails can help

It doesn’t matter what map or model of collaboration you’ve chosen, when things get tough ask questions. What does the model suggest as a next step? Where might the group need to backtrack? What principles of collaboration, if applied in this situation, might overcome a roadblock? What questions or activities might take the group out of their messy arguments into a space of shared exploration.

Share your concerns about what to do next and find a solution ‘with’ your collaborators

When you’re not sure what to do next, ask the group for suggestions. Let go of your need to manage, and be willing to say “I don’t know, I need your help.” Invite conversations in pairs or small groups, encourage suggestions and thinking together. Explore the assumptions collaborators have about each other and the problem they need to tackle. Document the outcomes of the conversations. Use the data to make decisions together. Collaboration requires practice – so keep practicing.

Try something active

Next time you meet, try an investigative activity. Ask your group what would be helpful for them right now. Would a walkabout or a site visit create a shared experience to build positive relationships? Perhaps exploring new and unfamiliar spaces would make it easier for people to express their vulnerabilities and learn from others. Perhaps being physically active would stimulate their ability to think and act together. Ask whether meeting in a different space might change the dynamics and help you all to move forward.

Test a hypothesis

Run a small but do-able experiment to help the group focus on something practical and provide a sense of achievement and learning. For example, establish your hypothesis that, if your collaborative group could design and run its own meeting instead of ceding responsibility to a facilitator, it would learn something useful about collaboration. Then run the experiment and check whether the hypothesis is correct. Check that what the group is learning through its experiments is moving it in the direction it needs to go.

Look for articles and books, conferences and speakers

Research what other people have done in similar situations of not knowing what to do. Ask whether anyone in the group has read a book or article about collaboration or been to a conference or event where someone gave useful advice? Ask for a 2-minute summary of what they learned and ask the group what suggestions arise.

Just do something concrete – something practical rather than theoretical

Sometimes it helps to ask your group to do something meaningful from which they learn together. Identify a right-sized but real-world problem, associated with the collaboration, that moves the group closer to its ultimate goal. Work out a way to solve it together. Have at least one member of the group watch the process used to solve it and have them report back on what was done and how the group worked together. Learning through doing is powerful and builds trust.

Accept the consequences of whatever the group has done.

Try any of these suggestions and own whatever results you get. Learn from them and move on. Don’t be burdened by regret or a sense of making the wrong choice. There is no wrong choice. Fail forward. Learn from every experience including mistakes. And move on to the next choice.

When you don’t know what to do … try something!