In early December last year, I attended a conference called the Programme for the Future in honour of Doug Engelbart – best known as the inventor of the computer mouse, but more accurately described as a champion of technology and tools that increase our collective intelligence.
Years in the corporate world had made me occasionally doubt the existence of such a thing, so I signed up right away. Legends like Steve Wozniak and Alan Kay were among the luminaries. (I’m pretty sure I was the least famous person there, outside of the one refilling the coffee.)
It was a fascinating exploration into the need for collaboration to solve the most pressing challenges facing our world, and the tools that enable it. It seems to me that this should be a topic near and dear to every project leader’s heart. After all, this is what we spend much of our working lives doing – steadfastly facilitating collaboration in the pursuit of often seemingly impossible goals outside of the reach of a single human being.
Bringing a knife to a gunfight
Unfortunately, most of the individuals, teams and organisations I consult with are still limiting their collaboration methods to phone calls, email or face-to-face discussions in a stuffy conference room. Many meetings are devoid of anything more sophisticated than a pen and paper to capture a few notes, just in case anything worthwhile is accomplished.
Don’t get caught bringing a knife to a gunfight! In order to avoid the madness of the mob, at the very least, your meeting facilities should have a white board, a flipchart and a couple of magic markers that haven’t dried out from disuse.
Maybe throw in a healthy supply of sticky notes – different coloured ones, not just the boring yellow kind. These rudimentary supplies enable people to share and capture ideas before they fade away along with the sound waves and the memory of the meeting itself.
Take enabling tools a step farther and consider adding graphical facilitation to your meetings. This is where an artist jacked up on caffeine captures pictures and words from your meeting content at speeds surpassing that of most industrial robots. The essence of your meeting becomes a huge colourful chalk poster on a wall covered in butcher paper.
Go completely off the hook and get a couple hundred people to collaborate on creating a forty-foot mural and you really have something you can touch and feel that starts to reflect the wisdom of the crowd.
Techniques like graphical facilitation and giant murals quite literally get people on the same page. Everyone can see what is being drawn or written. And they create a record of what has been said so we’ll have a fighting chance against the entropic forces continually working to unravel whatever group memory, agreements and organisation we establish in the chaos of a large and challenging project.
But the bottom line of the conference was clear – tools alone are not enough. We must fix the human problems of collaboration.
Whacky for Wikinomics
This conference put me into a remission of sorts. I have a bit of an addictive personality, and had just been recovering from a three-month obsession with 21st century collaboration methods. The trigger was reading “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything”, which I hinted at in a past column. Wikinomics is not just about Wikipedia, and it’s certainly not just about the internet either.
It’s about how hordes of people working together can solve problems and achieve results outside the reach of a single human being, or even hundreds of them. I recognized instantly the power of some of these ideas to transform project management for the better.
Although many naysayers scoff at the claims of a “birth of a new era”, I think that just proves that these radical notions really are destined to revolutionize how businesses run and how work is done. After all, pretty much every fabulous idea throughout history has been pooh-poohed by respected experts before being embraced.
In the simplest sense, Wikinomics suggests that there are better ways to tap the group genius than the traditional approaches in widespread use in today’s corporate world mentioned above. As project managers whose success rests of the ability of groups of people to work together productively, we have got to explore and embrace some of the radical innovations in channelling collective intelligence.
Email mailing lists and a shared folder on the intranet are no longer enough to equip our project teams for 21st century success. While there are lots of high-priced webbased collaboration tools out there, I’ve been rooting around for tools that are either cheap or free so there won’t be any budgetary excuses for not adopting them.
Here are just a couple I’ve been experimenting with. While you’re reading through the rest of this I hope you’ll be saying “Oh, sure, I already use something like that.”
Skype: Reach across the ocean for Free, go ahead and snort or laugh
I know it’s not late-breaking news. Most people grazing on the internet have heard of Skype by now, and more than 11,627,305 people are using it at the time of this writing. But when I suggest that my clients grab a cheap video camera and use Skype video phone calls to improve their communications with remotely-located colleagues, they exclaim “Oh, they won’t let us use that here.”
Hey, it’s a telephone with a camera, fer cryin’ out loud! Do you really think your wireless mobile phone is any more secure? Now, I’m sure some IT people are paid entirely to prevent any cooperation-enabling technology from forcing its way into the corporate computer systems, but most IT people are reasonable corporate citizens who want to do the right thing for us and our projects. Surely they can understand why you’d want to use a telephone with a camera in this day and age.
And plenty of CFOs would be thrilled to know that they don’t need to spend thousands of dollars for you to fly around the world to see the face of your colleagues, or install and support the relatively more expensive equipment required to make it look like you’re in the same room as the other people on your team. (I’ve used some of these pricier solutions, and they’re terrific mind you, but most of the scrappy companies I work with can’t afford them.) And here’s the big bonus for video phone calls.
- A Tell report / Writer Kimberly Wiefling is the President of Wiefling Consulting, co-founder of Silicon Valley Alliances, and author of Scrappy Project Management, a global business leadership consultant, and a force of nature – the good kind! She specializes in global team effectiveness – helping teams achieve what seems impossible but is merely difficult. Her latest book is bilingual (English & Japanese), Inspired Organizational Cultures, and has a foreword written by her mentor, Dr Edgar Schein, the father of organizational cultures.