United Fates

Collaboration Isn't Optional; Project Teams Must Navigate A Maze Of Differences To Bring The Team Together



By Karen Smits, PhD

Collaboration is at the core of project management. The project workplace is a maze of national, organizational and professional cultures—all interacting with team members’ distinct personalities and perspectives. To align around project goals and achieve them, project participants have to combine ideas, bridge gaps between cultural values and create a joint understanding of what organizational behavior is (and isn't) acceptable. Often, it's the project manager who needs to figure out how to capture everyone's desires so they're willing to adjust practices to produce fruitful collaboration.

Often, it's the project manager who needs to figure out how to capture everyone's desires so they're willing to adjust practices to produce fruitful collaboration.

I imagine the journey toward this ideal relationship as a “collabyrinth.” The portmanteau of “collaboration” and “labyrinth” reflects the complexity of project collaboration. At first, team members might feel disoriented, but eventually they realize that working together is the only way to deal with obstacles encountered. The collabyrinth comprises six modes of collaboration that people and projects may pass through (although not necessarily sequentially).

Conflicting conditions: Team members become aware of different cultures on the team and have difficult discussions of roles and responsibilities.

Seeking consent: Members look to establish common ground across cultural groups; this can result in an “us” versus “them” dynamic.

Crafting reciprocal relations: People show a willingness to build working relationships across cultural divides.

Submarining: They recur to traditional behavior and habits.

Storytelling: They begin building cross-cultural connections.

Synergizing: Project participants are open to learning from each other and building a new project culture together.

Together, these modes highlight the range of how people deal with cultural complexity in the workplace. On a daily basis, processes of translation, negotiation and power struggles are present in team members’ actions and activities.

Too often, project partners start off as a homogeneous group sharing ideologies about the project's goal, values and principles. Once execution begins, however, team members fail to apply these values to their everyday practices. Levels of authority, position in hierarchy, identity and ways of working are challenged, and friction arises among project participants.

When this happens, it's the project manager's job to re-establish team members’ sense of togetherness and personal commitment. The collabyrinth model can help illuminate the team's current cultural state and a course of action for building a more collaborative environment. For example, a project manager might try to bridge cultural gaps by both discussing how to deal with differences and highlighting common ground. The end goal is always a cohesive project culture driving collaboration. Because without collaboration, nothing can get done. PM

img Karen Smits, PhD, is an organizational anthropologist working at Practical Thinking Group in Singapore. She can be reached at karen.smits@practical-thinking.com.



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