Communication Playground

How to support collaboration in project teams?

One week ago I attended the alumni party of the Danube university Krems. The highlight of the party was the Blue hour talk on the topic “Why do people cooperate and collaborate?” Is it in their nature or is collaboration and cooperation a result of of socialisation and civilisation? The speakers Dr. Lukas Zenk and Univ-Prof. Dr. mult Hilarion Petzold opend the talk with two keynotes, which were followed by a very interesting discussion on the topic covering different perspectives and opinions. Collaboration and cooperation are in general very interesting topics, to me. But it is even more interesting from the background of project management.

Projects are realized by teams, which often work together for the first time. Especially in case of IT projects the team members may also have different cultural backgrounds. The teams may even not work at the same place and therefore is a so-called virtual team. But nevertheless the team has a certain goal to accomplish in a given time frame with defined budget and scope. Seen from this angle collaboration and cooperation is even more important in project teams. If the team fails most likely the project will fail. Both speakers covered aspects which made it easy to link them to project teams and common challenges and problems.

How can I support cooperation and collaboration in my project team?

To cooperate and collaborate successfully in a group we need to have a common mental world. What does that mean? A common mental world means that we understand each other’s way of thinking and have a common volition and emotion of the group members. The starting point for building a common mental world in the project team is volition. Everyone should want to work on the achievement of the projects goal. The kickoff meeting is the starting point to onboard the team. The project manager must give them all the information to understand their roles and contribution to the project. If everyone has the will to work toward one common goal it should be possible to achieve understanding of the way of thinking and to have common emotions – the team spirit.

If someone does not really want to work on the goal the project manager should try to find out why. There are several reasons for this kind of behaviour. Maybe it’s possible to change the person’s mind or at least to find a reason why it’s beneficial for the person to support the goal.

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How can I improve collaboration in my team with different cultural background?   

Collaboration in teams with different cultural backgrounds is difficult. Everyone has internalized his or her own culture. To understand a person from a different cultural background it needs knowledge of the respective culture. For example, what is the meaning of a smile? We interpreted emotions, gestures and expressions based on our set of cultural values. This can lead to misunderstanding and hinder or even block collaboration. In a project team with different cultural background it may be helpful to get training to be able to understand each other.

Beside that it needs openness and curiosity to engage oneself in the encounter with a different culture. Foundation for this curiosity is laid in the very early stages of our lives – in kindergarten. If this foundation is missing and someone has not learned how to learn and change oneself, it is hard to catch up later on in life.

How can I improve communication in my virtual team?

Virtual teams are quite common in IT projects. A lot of different communication tools exist – video conferencing, conference calls, phone, chat or email.  The all offer the possibility to communicate and to exchange information. But the more reduced a communication tool is the harder it is to understand the other person’s perspective. Video conferencing offers the possibility to hear and see each other. Email just offers the possibility to read what the other person has written. Especially for new teams it is a problem to use very reduced communication tools. The team may achieve the goal but it will most likely have more problems or need more time. It gets even worse if the team has not met at least one time.

Meeting face-to-face allows the team to get to know each other better and to discuss divergence of opinions directly. This will have a positive effect on the collaboration. So no matter how hard it is – the team should meet in person at least once. If that’s not possible for some reason the communication tool with the most available features should be used if feasible. As soon as the team members know each other they are able switch to more reduced communication tools.

Summarizing my insights these are the most important things to support collaboration in your team:

  • Your team needs to have the will and motivation to work together toward the project goal.
  • If your project team has different cultural backgrounds: make sure they have the knowledge to understand each other.
  • Organize as many face-to-face meetings as possible. At least at the beginning of the project a face-to-face meeting for the full team is necessary.
  • Get your project team the best possible communication tools to work with.

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