It’s become a cliché in today’s marketing landscape that the only constant is change. It’s also widely recognized that since the Internet became a fixture in business environments during the mid and late 1990’s, the rate of change has shifted into a higher gear. In the decade just completed, a further wave of innovation led by widespread consumer adoption of social media has permanently altered the landscape in the direction of openness and transparency.
The era when businesses could tightly control their relationships with their constituents is quite simply over, and it’s not coming back.
What’s less obvious, but just as profound, is how businesses and professionals must adapt to these new realities by changing the way they work together. We’re in the midst of an inexorable shift in the dominant workflow paradigm away from from large, centralized, tightly controlled initiatives, to smaller, more ad-hoc and distributed teams that can be more nimble, innovative and productive. Today’s more fluid, less centralized environment demands a more collaborative, less hierarchical approach to digital property development.
Collaboration vs. Control - A Long Running Debate
In digital production, the tension between collaboration and control has a history that dates back to the dawn of computing. In his pioneering essay, The Mythical Man Month, Fred Brooks describes the challenges he faced managing a software development project all the way back in the early 1960’s. Many of Brooks’ observations (the oft-repeated production aphorism “9 women can’t make a baby in a month” originated here) are eerily prescient and just as true today as they were half a century ago.
Later, at about the dawn of the Web, Eric Raymond’s landmark essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar described a nascent open-source software movement that upended traditional assumptions about what distributed, decentralized teams of like-minded developers could accomplish when they collaborated over the Internet. Raymond argued that tight control over development teams and source code actually undermined innovation and efficiency. Now entering its third decade, the collaboration style popularized during the open source software revolution is a central component of Google’s success, and arguably has even influenced traditionally tightly controlled businesses like Apple and Microsoft.
This shift has reached perhaps its most extreme expression in businesses that are explicitly contrarian in their approach to product development. 37 Signals, for example, advocates principles that seem counterintuitive, such as “meetings are toxic,” “separate your team members from each other,” or “don’t ever let more than 5 people work on anything.” Founder Jason Fried paints this in the starkest terms: “Collaboration and control are like oil and water. They don’t mix.”
It’s still true that projects should be carefully managed, but there are new and evolving methods that can free teams from rigidly defined roles and responsibilities resulting in increased productivity and innovation. There are a variety of trends that parallel the shift from control to collaboration. Agile development, user-centered design, telecommuting, the transformation of office applications to cloud-hosted multi-user collaboration tools (for example Windows Live Office and Google Docs) are all manifestations of this shift.
There is also a strong generational component to this shift. Called “digital natives” by some authors, the first generation that grew up with the Internet is just starting to hit the workforce in numbers significant enough to influence it’s makeup. As a group, digital natives seem to be less motivated by traditional rewards and measures of success. They operate with an attitude of abundance because the commoditization of intellectual property has made barriers to innovation lower and access to powerful technology more widespread. With their high-degree of participation in social media, collaboration comes naturally to them.
How to Adapt
Businesses looking for a road map for how to succeed in this new environment would do well to recognize the new reality and move away from control and toward collaboration. There are a variety of things to consider when making this shift, but the key is not to be afraid of relaxing control. Collaboration doesn’t mean lack of discipline - often truly collaborative teams are highly disciplined and structured, but a collaborative, iterative process is at the center of this structure - agile development methodologies are an instructive example.
Here are some specific tips on how to succeed in this new environment:
• Hire people with varied skill sets. Information workers with multiple skills (who are beginning to be called “multi-disciplinarians,”) thrive in collaborative environments. Because many of them are self-taught and have learned on the job, they have the ability to sense where their contributions are complementary, when to lead and when to let others lead, and how to fit in just right to make a team well-balanced and high-functioning.
• Collaboration works better with small, narrowly focused teams. Smaller teams, by default, require less communication, less policy, and less procedure. They tend to manage themselves. This lack of encumbrance allows them to move more quickly and respond to change more rapidly. This is not to say that control works better with larger teams, or that tightly controlled teams can’t produce great things. But breaking up large projects into smaller chunks run by smaller teams can reduce risk.
• Collaboration works better with a more iterative process. By now, many have heard about the perils of the “waterfall” process, where decisions or mistakes early in a process can be difficult to undo down the road. An iterative approach can not only reduce this risk, but can also promote collaboration. Instead of involving different team members at different stages, mini-cycles involving the whole team get everyone in synch quickly and reduce the potential for disastrous disagreements and misunderstandings. Roles and a team collaboration culture take shape, and problems get ironed out during early cycles, so they don’t persist. And there’s just something about meeting a series of smaller deadlines instead of one big one that promotes the collaborative spirit.
• Collaboration is a better solution for multi-stakeholder projects where communication and process overhead can be a drag on productivity. When there are multiple stakeholders both within and outside of an organizations, complexities can proliferate. In such situations, misaligned goals and competing, or even conflicting agendas can make tight, hierarchical control unfeasible. But it also increases risk, because the more elaborate a system of control is, the harder it is to fix when it breaks down.
• Companies should consider their customers collaborators. Social media tools have made listening to customers easier. But its quickly becoming a necessity. Moving forward, to truly differentiate, businesses will need to engage in real collaboration with customers, integrating them into the product and service development process as much as possible. In the realm of digital products, user-centered design methods such as ethnographic research and live prototype testing are proven ways to bake customer input directly into development.
Finally, thriving in collaborative environments requires suppressing the ego. Good ideas can come from anywhere. When all constituents can see evidence that their input matters, they take their contributions more seriously. And the days of the “big idea” are over. Most great products don’t come from a big idea rammed through by a big ego - they come from teams that have trained themselves to come up with small, but innovative ideas constantly, because they’ve mastered the art of collaboration.
Bram Wessel is an experience design strategist with Filter in Seattle.