Talking Collaboration with Bill
This post is part of an ongoing series about collaboration in the workplace. We talk to individuals about their challenges, successes, and advice on how to collaborate more effectively.
Bill is an Application Support Specialist at Compass Learning, a software company in Austin, Texas. He's provided customer service and training for large corporate retailers including Jones Apparel Group, Woolrich, and Aeropostale.
We talk to Bill about queen bees, team diversity, and techniques for ensuring an inclusive collaborative culture.
Tell us about Compass Learning and what you do there.
I'm the Application Support Specialist. Compass Learning designs learning software for K-12 school districts. They develop all their own content and deliver it through proprietary software. The company is around 200 people and about 80% are based out of the Austin location.
I'm on the tech services team. I configure servers and conduct troubleshooting and installations for large enterprise customers. "Enterprise" meaning large districts that have their own servers. Very different from my previous work in training, but still very support-oriented.
What tools do you use to collaborate?
We're a huge Salesforce company. Everyone in the company uses Salesforce in one way or another. I don't use it for client-facing communications but our on-boarding team does.
In the office, we use Microsoft Lync extensively. I actually prefer it to email. That way you can see if someone is on the phone, pop them a quick message, and they can get to it when they get to it.
How does your team share ideas?
It's very open and informal. During daily stand ups, our manager will give us the low-down and ask if there are any issues or fires. If nobody is offering, he'll go around the room, so everyone gets the chance to speak.
A lot gets hashed out there. Someone will say, "I had an issue working with the import file for this customer." Then someone else will say, "Did you try doing this?" Then one of our developers will overhear us from his office and say, "Oh, it's probably something here." It's a very collaborative environment.
Sometimes it gets a little too collaborative, and things get lost. I think that's just the nature of the informal structure. But it is definitely more beneficial than not.
Have you experienced any downsides to being in such a highly collaborative environment?
There are downsides to it. When you don't have somebody steering the ship, you don't have a moderator and things get lost. You can have two people talking about this thing, three people talking about something else, and all of a sudden you have this big cloud of information and nothing is getting captured. I would say that happens 25% of the time. Not enough to be a serious issue, but enough where it's noticeable.
How does your team deal with that?
Our team dynamics are interesting. It's like a beehive. A beehive is an orderly place, until something disturbs the hive and the bees start a swarm. The queen bee can't get everyone back together. Everyone has to settle down by themselves. It's a self-policing situation.
Do you prefer to collaborate with diverse or like-minded teams?
I'll always err on the side of diversity for the new ideas. A diverse team just needs a stronger leader. It needs that queen bee who's going to keep everyone on track.
The benefit of working with people of a similar mind is that you can get the answers a little quicker, because everyone is already going through the same problem-solving steps.
But with a more diverse team, you're going to get ideas from different places. If the solution requires out-of-the-box thinking, then a diverse team is crucial. Then you can get another perspective.
Do you consider yourself a collaborative person by nature?
My first reaction is "absolutely." Ideas are what I do, especially in my other life as a writer. Ideas are everything. Good ideas can be born in the box, but they can't be bred there. They need to grow out in the open. They need to be bounced around and given room to sprout.
Can you tell us about a recent successful collaboration?
Creating a vendor portal at a previous job. A bit of background: in fashion, you have an internal team at a brand who design the garment specifications. They put together "tech packs," which are all of the technical construction of the garment: this button goes here, this stitch goes here, this sleeve is this length. It's a set of instructions to generate a sample garment. That process is lengthy. It takes around two months, and even longer to get to the final version. The sample garment is made and sent to China, China takes a couple of weeks to develop the garment, and they send it back. We fit it, test it, and make corrections. It's an iterative process.
The problem was our team in China would physically send delivery dates to our product development team in New York. We would get a spec saying, "We'll have this delivered by this date." But with holidays and time differences, there's a big time sink in getting that information.
To solve the problem, we created a vendor portal. It was a very simple interface for our China team to plug in numbers. Not only could the team update our PLM system — the actual database — but they could get sign-off on tasks. In the product lifecycle, every data point has a task that needs to be signed off. This was a huge effort. I designed the UI and detailed the process, which required input from technical design, the China team, and a lot of other groups.
It all came together when the China team came to New York for a demonstration. All of the prep work came together. They got it, they were practicing on it, and it made sense. Like a band that's been practicing for years and years. They finally get to play the big gig, and everything falls into place. It was that kind of feeling.
How do you think a company can encourage a culture of collaboration?
What advice would you give to others who want to collaborate more effectively?
Learn to actively listen. When you're in a situation where you need to be collaborative, giving someone a chance to speak will help them bring more to the table. When I say actively listen, really key in to what they're saying. Pay attention to your body language. Lean in and keep your arms to the side or open.
Offering up a new idea is a scary and brave thing to do. There's a lot of risk involved. It only takes one person to react with, "Oh... yeah, ok, sure." The other person will never say anything in a meeting again.
If you're facilitating, you need to squash that. You need to be receptive to every idea, even if it's no good. A bad idea can lead to a great idea. That's why actively listening is a big thing for me. As a facilitator, you can get that in your brain and say, "Ok, that's not quite it. But what's good there? Let's explore it a bit." Let it live and let it be heard.