No More Teams

Posted in management -

This is a summary/overview of No More Teams, by Michael Schrage.

It’s an insightful book. The title is misleading, though: It’s not about abolishing teams or even re-working organizational structures. It’s about collaboration: why it’s important, how it works, and how traditional ways of managing teams can get in the way of it. And specifically, it’s about the technologies we use for collaboration: everything from cocktail napkins to to computer visualizations.

Collaboration is defined by its results. It’s about working together towards a goal: solving a problem or figuring something out. It creates something - usually some sort of documentation - which captures that new shared understanding.

More than ever, we have to collaborate to get anything done. The problems we have to solve are more complex, our expertise ever more specialized. No one person has all the knowledge, skill, and experience needed. We don’t know what information we need to share, or even what questions to ask. We have to go back and forth, filling in gaps, defining boundaries, and exploring possibilities.

Doing this involves developing a shared language: standardizing terms, inventing new ones, naming things. And also a shared visual language: diagrams, models, etc. People coming at a problem from different backgrounds will have different ways of talking about it, and need to build a common ground.

The tools that we use shape our collaboration. Any tool has design choices, constraints, and failure modes. Paper lets you capture a mix of text and graphics, and is portable, but not easy to share and update. Whiteboards are similar, and better for collaboration, but they’re immobile. Wikis are easy to share and update, but formatting is limited and adding images is awkward.

The discussion of specific tools is where the book shows its age. To be fair, if it feels dated, it’s because much of the future which it predicts has come true. The cutting-edge, custom, prototype computer collaboration tools which it talked about in 1989 are now recognizable as primitive versions of wikis, Google Docs, and such.

But its discussion of what is needed for collaboration to work, and how tools can help or hinder that, is still entirely relevant. It describes both the social dynamics and the work environment that are needed.

The social aspects hinge on the definition of collaboration as a group of specialists working towards a shared goal. Everyone needs to agree on, and be committed to, what the group is trying to accomplish. Each needs to be competent in their speciality; seemingly an obvious point, but sometimes overlooked. While each has their specialty, and thus a set of responsibilities, they’re not siloed: they can call on each other for ideas and knowledge. They can also draw on outsiders for insights and information. While they don’t need to be in continuous contact, they do need to have a regular pattern of communication.

They need to be willing to listen to each other, and value everyone’s contribution. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be nice or polite. Some of the most famous collaborations in history, in science and the arts, were notoriously antagonistic. In fact, politeness - the reluctance to disagree for fear of being disagreeable - is the death of collaboration. The process will be pleasant, but the results will suffer.

Collaboration also doesn’t mean everyone has to agree about everything, or that decisions are made by consensus. Often there are fundamental disagreements when a decision has to be made about how to proceed. One person will have the authority to make that call, though they shouldn’t wield it lightly.

The work “environment” is the medium of collaboration, both the places and the tools used. There may be a physical space where people come together and where they keep physical artifacts of their work: whiteboards, physical models, laboratory equipment. There may be virtual digital spaces: a wiki, a chat group, a shared drive of documents. Historically, that information space would have been physical letters and manuscripts mailed back and forth. The design and constraints of these spaces and tools will shape the collaboration.

There need to be multiple representations of the work: different ways to describe, visualize, or model the problem. In my world, software, that’s code, requirements docs, diagrams for architecture and interactions, and more. The environment has to let people tinker with these, play with them. It has to give them the freedom to explore possibilities.

There are also formal and informal spaces in the environment: laboratories and cafeterias, Word docs and Slack channels. The work of collaboration is both the focused construction of deliverable results and the freewheeling exploration of problem spaces. There needs to be a place for idle curiosity, wild speculation, and experimentation.

You also need meetings. Some part of the work will be pooling knowledge from different people in a high-bandwidth way. The book was written just as digital collaboration tools were becoming possible. Back then they were conference rooms with custom-built computer systems which allowed everyone to edit documents on a big shared screen. That alone was a breakthrough. It shifted the focus of meetings from individual grandstanding to the shared work. Keeping a live, visible record of the discussion let people know that their contribution had been included. Not attaching names let them discuss ideas more dispassionately. Making them aware that they were speaking for the record made them more precise in their phrasing and discouraged chatter, but also intimidated some people. And it didn’t stop people from monopolizing the conversation. Today videoconferencing, projection screens, desktop sharing, and Google Docs are common tools, but their use, virtues and pitfalls are the same.

Part of the intent behind the book was to inform the people who would be building these new digital collaboration tools, to make them mindful of the human factors. It’s still valuable for anyone using them, to make us all more conscious of the ways that they shape the way we collaborate, and to make us aware of when they’re getting in the way and we should try other tools or find other spaces to work in. While the tools have advanced, the human and social needs they address in collaborative work are much the same and probably always will be.

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