Communication is Good, Collaboration is Better

I often hear that the key to better project performance is better communication. While I can appreciate this philosophical perspective, I have worked on a number of “troubled” projects where there was no shortage of communication. One might even describe it as quite effective communication in that messages were being delivered loud and clear. However, I believe that the more important enabler of improved performance is effective collaboration – working relationships that result in the desired output or product. Effective collaboration yields strategies that are aimed at providing holistic value to the project. It results in actionable and executable plans. It is the source operational improvements that increase efficiency.


It has been proposed that collaboration begins with communication. Although I might agree that effective communication skills are a powerful attribute for a collaborative team environment, I believe that collaboration is a product of 1) the level of alignment on what represents value for the project (the subject of my 2 previous posts) and 2) the manner in which the team is structured and operationalised. This latter point is what I refer to as Team Effectiveness.

Collaboration is a much used term and is often discussed as if it is a mystical nirvana that we are striving to reach. However, if we go back to the definition – working jointly with another or others to produce something – we can see that collaboration occurs on every project. Otherwise, nothing would ever get built. The more important point is how can collaboration be made more effective so that we maximise performance.

Team Effectiveness

Corporate anthropologist, Michael Henderson, in his TEDxAuckland presentation talks about the difference between the modern business organisation and a tribal organisational model – the former having been around for about 400 years and the latter closer to 40,000. He says that if you ask most people in a business environment to describe their organisation as a geometric shape, most will respond that it is like a triangle sitting on its base with the leader at the apex. On the other hand, if you ask the same thing about a tribal culture, it will most often be described as circular with the leader in the centre. This distinction is important when we begin to consider the structural and operational attributes of an effective team (not simply how you draw your org chart).

Traditionally on projects, we have a very hierarchical or “triangular” operational model – the person at the apex of the triangle directing those below them. Furthermore, like a set of Russian Matryoshka Dolls, there are usually triangles within triangles with ever-smaller work groups being directed by the role at the apex. For example, a Project Director may have overarching project/program responsibility. Under him there may be Project Managers who have responsibility for a specific project or portion of the overall program. Under the PM there may be a number of Senior Project Engineers who have responsibility for directing the disciplines works within her area of accountability. Each of these SPEs might then have a Superintendent that directs a group of supervisors/foreman.

This centralised command and control operational approach has a number of issues that can adversely impact performance:

  • Strategic direction is often disconnected from where work gets done because it has passed through many hands (i.e., perspectives) before reaching the working level.
  • The silos that are formed from this approach mean that the work tends to be sub-optimised for the work groups’ objectives and not optimised as a project whole.
  • Coordination communication between work groups tends go up through the “triangle” and then back down again – how far up the chain of command depends on the magnitude of the issue being coordinated.
  • As direction tends to flow “down” and status tends to flow “up” there is little opportunity to take advantage of the collective experience and expertise at the edge of the organisation – it is not part of the flow of information and knowledge.
  • There is also a tendency for direction to be in response to status – reacting to negative variance rather than proactively seeking to create opportunity. This means you are constantly working below the line rather actively seeking to be above it.
  • Most importantly, each one of the above issues is an impediment to effective collaboration because they strip away the power of much of the team to work together on behalf of the project’s greater good.

A much more effective team operational model is one where the planning and control of the work is the responsibility of the people most responsible for doing the work – what are often referred to as the “last planners”. The delivery leadership of the project is then responsible for enabling the last planners with what they need to be successful – strategic direction, business processes and enabling systems, resources and a reliable supply chain. In other words, this distributed planning and control approach is an operational structure where the leadership is situated at the centre of the team providing support and direction while the people responsible for doing the work are situated at the edge of the organisation adding value to the project. Support and direction flows outward to the edge of the organisation – empowering the team. Ideas, expertise and requests for the things that will sustain the work flows inwards – enabling the project’s leadership to enhance the quality of their support and direction.

So how might this translate into practical application on your projects and with your project teams?

  1. Create work teams that are cross-functional and organisationally-integrated so that they encompass all the disciplines required to perform the work.
  2. Populate these teams with the people most responsible for performing the work on a day-to-day basis; i.e., the Last Planners. Make these work teams responsible for planning and controlling the execution of work – in a systematic, structured way not an ad hoc one – so that it is in service of the overall delivery strategy and overarching project objectives.
  3. Make the project delivery leadership responsible for establishing a structured approach for managing work execution and then ensuring discipline and commitment to that approach. They are also responsible for driving continuous improvement – but done through a process of co-creation with the team.

These deliberate steps can be taken to enhance the effectiveness of your project teams through a shift in the way that team roles and responsibilities are defined and operationalised. By moving from a centralised command and control team structure to a distributed planning and control operational model you can move to a culture where effective collaboration is the driver behind your performance results.

Questions for consideration:

  • Are your teams simply communicating or are they effectively collaborating?
  • Have your teams been operationalised in a way that allows the project to benefit from the full expertise and experience at the edge of your organisation?
  • Does the leadership on your project see the power of possibility starting with them or with the team?

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences. Please share them in the comments area below.

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