Poor collaboration in tech project teams is not down to a skills deficit

 Photo by Jan Strecha on Unsplash

Photo by Jan Strecha on Unsplash

 

I’ll come straight out and say it to save wasting time. Poor communication and collaboration in your tech project teams is probably down to unhelpful team norms – the way people work together – rather than a communications or any other skills deficit.

If I’m right then sending your people on training courses won’t make any difference to how well they communicate. Sorry if that makes you feel queasy but better to know than not.

If you think about it, most people learn to communicate pretty effectively at a very early age, plus, in any case, your organisation puts a lot of time and effort into recruiting good communicators. So why would poor team communication be down to a skills deficit?

It doesn’t make sense.

What makes more sense to me is that unhelpful team norms create barriers to communication that mean team members can’t or choose not to use the communication skills they have, leading to low productivity, under performance, wasted resources, demotivated staff, unhappy customers, the usual stuff.

A tech consultant’s story

To demonstrate the point I want to tell you a story about a consultant who turned round the performance of the team he was part of, delighted the client and won the company more business. And it was all down to changing team norms, not skills training.

Navid is a consultant with a big data analytics company. He decided to try out some of what he’d learned from working with us with a disgruntled client who was ready to pull the plug on the contract with his company. He met the client and asked her what was wrong with the service she had been getting.

Navid sat back and listened to what the client had to say.

He didn’t interrupt, he didn’t make suggestions, he didn’t defend himself, other members of the service team or the company.

He just listened.

Having let the client get everything off her chest, he then asked her what she wanted from him and the company.

Again, He didn’t interrupt, he didn’t make suggestions, he didn’t defend himself or others, he just listened.

It turns out, what the client wanted most of all was someone to listen to her, and communicate with her more effectively as the project moved forward, particularly over any problems encountered.

Who knew?

She also had some very specific technical requirements that Navid was able to tell her the company could meet straight away, or would be able to meet following conversations with the right people and involving himself and the client.

The client was so impressed by this single conversation with Navid that she stuck with the contract and, after a few more meetings with him and others on the team, actually committed to £1m worth of additional services.

The reasons for poor communication

Navid realised this turnaround was down to better communication, firstly between himself and the client, and subsequently between himself, the client and others in the team. This got Navid wondering why nobody else had tried this before and he realised it was probably for the same reasons he hadn’t:

  • He hadn’t thought it was his job to take the lead with the client
  • He had been scared to ask the client what she thought of the service because he suspected her response would be very negative
  • Even if he had found out what her problems were, he would have been scared to share what he learned with his manager or others on the team because … well, he wasn’t sure why he was scared by this, it just felt like sticking his neck out further than necessary
  • He had assumed the difficulties the project team were experiencing were because the client was a being awkward and didn’t really understand tech, rather than anything he or the team could control
  • He had got used to accepting client complaints as an unavoidable part of the job

As soon as he’d identified these assumptions, Navid realised they were plainly ridiculous, as well as being extremely unhelpful. After all, by everyone adopting these assumptions, they had nearly lost the company a valued client, their business and any opportunities for further business. Plus, the team were fed up with the constant complaints and seemingly never being able to do anything right, the client was fed up because she was paying for a service she just wasn’t getting and everybody was wasting a lot of time they could have spent doing something useful.

A powerful insight

A lot of useful insights for Navid then.

However, perhaps his most powerful insight was that up until then he had thought ineffective communication was down to a skills deficit on the part of the people involved, which had confused him in this instance, as he knew that he, the client and all team members were very good communicators.

It then dawned on him, the poor communication wasn’t down to a skills deficit at all, it was down to the assumptions he and the team made and the working norms they had unconsciously established based on those assumptions. He, the team, even the client weren’t using the communication skills they had because the working norms of the team somehow prohibited them in doing so – don’t ask the client for input, don’t share your concerns with the team, don’t check for understanding, don’t ...

By challenging those norms and daring to ask the client what the problems were, and then listening to what she said, Navid had started the redrawing of team norms. Now everyone is more questioning, listens more attentively, shares information more readily and, basically, communicates and collaborates better. For no other reason than because they removed the invisible barriers preventing them from doing so.

So, not a skills deficit!

It was down to working norms.

Doh!

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