Time and the pace of business cycles play an important role in collaboration. However, we are so accustomed to our own time cycles we don’t often reflect on them. Designing the rhythm of collaboration in your organisation for effectiveness is one of the key untapped opportunities for organisations.
Time Flowing Fast as Water
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” – David Foster Wallace Kenyon College commencement speech
Time is ever a concern in business. We worry about wasting it. We worry about how it can be better used. However, despite all our concerns time tends like water in the story above to flow past us unnoticed if not for the regular milestones that bring it back to our attention. Techniques like sprints, project planning and other productivity disciplines can also help focus our attention on time.
When I wrote about the role of transition in discussion Microsoft’s explanation of how their products support an inner and outer loop’s of collaboration, I threw into a table a row that discussed time. At the time I had a query about it and I intended to write more on the topic. That thought flowed away too quickly to turn into action. A recent conversation with Steve Nguyen of the Yammer Product Team reminded me to return to the topic.
Why did I include time? The time cycles of a business are one of the biggest barriers to effective collaboration. We can often assume that everyone in the business perceives time the same way we do. Our perception of time is directly influenced by the normal operational business cycles within which we work. This cycle is usually determined by the length of the core process we manage each day.
This difference of perception can be a barrier to sustaining effective collaboration. If my definition of ‘fast’ is in the next hour and another business defines fast as by the end of the month, there is likely to be conflict. Let’s look at an example: an organisation with retail stores is experiencing an issue with a recently implemented IT project.
- Retail stores live and die by the day. Everyone in the retail part of the business will be focused on having an issue addressed by no later than the end of the day. Tomorrow’s trading needs to be secured.
- Depending on whether the IT project is waterfall or agile the natural time scale of that project could be weeks or months. They might be working ‘fast’ to fix an issue (i.e. fixing it within their shortest operational timescale), but still disappoint the retail store for days until the issue is resolved.
- Head Office might work to its logical planning time scale, the quarter. When the dispute is escalated to head office there will be yet another definition of ‘fast’ to manage.
Managing the Rhythm of Collaboration
One reason the inner and outer loops approach works well in organisations is that it accommodates the differences between work that happens in immediate teams that is often on the shortest cycles of time and collaborative work that happens more slowly. A fast flowing operational feed will bury messages that invite reflection, discovery, serendipity, co-creation and the longer cycles of innovation.
In Cultivating Communities of Practice by Wenger, McDermott and Snyder, their research into effective communities of practice highlighted that the rhythm of a community was an important part of effective communities. These communities had predictable and routine cycles that helped foster connection, sharing and working together to solve problems and innovate. Community members could adapt to the collaboration activities of the communities because they were predictable and because they aligned to the time cycles of the wider work going on across the organisations. If collaboration needs to be pushed against the grain of the organisation or the cycles of teams, then it will have an unsustainable overhead of community management and the collaborative community will not be sustainable.
When facilitating adoption of collaboration in an organisation, community managers need to consider the time cycles of the use cases that they want to see to deliver the organisations strategy. In doing this community managers need to consider:
- Change takes time. Have we allowed enough time & support for behaviours to change and for activity to mature into something self-generating?
- Is this use case relating to the time cycles of inner loop or outer loop collaboration? Which approach will best support the use cases we are looking to see sustained?
- What is the natural cycle of activity in the business? How can we align this collaboration activity to a natural and self-sustaining cycle in the business?
- Are there any time cycle differences between fast moving and slow moving teams that we need to allow for or manage in this collaboration? How do we manage these transitions to enable effective collaboration?
- What is the aggregate impact of all the various cycles of activity in the collaboration community? Can we engender more effective communication by adjusting the cycles or managing the calendar of activities to reduce conflicts and periods of high demand on users?