As you look to promote collaboration in your workplace, it can be helpful to draw on successful strategies that have helped other groups in the past.
I’ve put together a short list of collaboration examples that speak to some of the most complex issues teams face. How do you build trust, negotiate deep differences, and deliver something truly new?
Let’s take a closer look at 4 examples of collaboration at its finest, and some of the lessons we can draw.
1. Amazon’s internal press release
One area where Amazon excels is delivering services before customers have asked for them. Talking about Amazon Web Services (AWS) in his 2019 letter to shareholders, Bezos said:
“No one asked for AWS. No one. Turns out the world was in fact ready and hungry for an offering like AWS but didn’t know it.”
Now, organizations all over the world rely on AWS, including the U.S. Navy and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).
You may not have the resources of Amazon, but you can get your teams starting to think about customers in the same way by writing a press release you never intend to publish.
Ian McAllister, a longtime director at Amazon, recently updated his guidance for collaborative leaders about how to draft an internal press release as a means of deciding whether or not to pursue a new product. He calls it “Working Backwards.”
The gist is to draft a full-fledged press release and set of FAQ’s for products that haven’t been built yet. This is complete with quotes from customers and company spokespeople, as if it were actually being released.
McAllister posted an entire press release template example where you can see everything that goes into it.
This exercise forces people to think benefits from the customer’s perspective. “We try to work backwards from the customer,” McAllister explained, “rather than starting with an idea for a product and trying to bolt customers onto it.”
Keys to collaborating
As simple as it sounds, writing an effective press release and FAQ is extremely challenging. It requires the collaboration of people from across the company. Some of the pointers offered by McAllister include:
- Bring it early: When people are working on the release, they benefit from feedback at every stage. Some people will want to get it perfect before they share it. Others may want it to be perfected before they take a look. Both of those behaviors are problematic. “The earlier they bring it,” he says, “the earlier your chance to give feedback and encourage/guide the author.”
- Widen the audience: As you meet about the release, it can be very beneficial to invite people who are currently writing other releases. They offer additional feedback and they’ll benefit from being present for the questions and discussion. You can also send invites to people who may be good candidates as future authors.
- Teach instead of tell: McAllister advises leaders to avoid the temptation to simply correct the author of the press release. “Take the time to abstract your feedback by a degree or two and share your rationale/framework for making that type/class of decision.” This way, they will be learning a framework for future decisions, rather than leaving with adjustments they don’t fully understand.
2. SpaceX and NASA
There are few higher stakes situations than a rocket launch, and when the Crew Dragon took off successfully on May 30, it marked the successful collaboration of two organizations that could not be more different.
SpaceX, a commercial company, designed the spacecraft, and it was piloted by astronauts from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
SpaceX is the brainchild of Elon Musk, an unconventional entrepreneur who values risk-taking and quick decision making. NASA, on the other hand, is an independent agency of the US government, with all the attendant slow-moving bureaucracy.
And yet they were able to collaborate successfully over the course of several years to accomplish one of most dangerous missions known to man.
Build trust through testing
One of the potential strengths of collaboration among diverse partners are opportunities for internal feedback. Running tests is one thing, but making sure that they are interpreted by a wide range of perspectives is key for gleaning all possible insight.
Before the launch of Crew Dragon, NASA and SpaceX exhaustively tested the spacecraft’s capabilities. The two NASA astronauts who flew the Crew Dragon, Robert Behnken and Douglas Hurley, played leading roles in validating the systems that their lives would depend on.
According to NASA, the spacecraft’s touchscreens and control system, “has been thoroughly tested during the hundreds of hours of training,” and and joint simulations with the astronauts. They tested every feature to “demonstrate full functionality over the entire expected operating range of Crew Dragon.”
Simulation is not enough, and testing continued, at all phases, including after the launch.
As Hurley explained, they specifically planned their flight to allow for “time in the preflight phase as well as closer to the space station so we can test out actual manual flying capability of the vehicle, just to see and verify that it handles the way we expect it to and the way the simulator shows it to fly.”
Every test is an opportunity to learn and build trust among the team, a chance for different people to bring their knowledge and perspective to bear on problems.
Think of future collaborators
It’s easy to fixate on solving the problem at hand without giving enough thought to what happens next. This type of failure was not an option for the SpaceX and NASA collaboration, which was more than a decade in the making.
Designing a spacecraft takes billions, and SpaceX was extremely receptive to letting the NASA astronauts provide feedback that would help future pilots. As Behnken explained:
“We’ve tried very hard to not make it a vehicle that just Bob likes, or just Doug likes; this is a vehicle for everybody after us who’s going to fly it. You’re trying to make a vehicle that is easy to operate in space, easy to interpret what it’s telling you, easy to get in and get out of, all those things that you need to do that need to be well-oiled for a space vehicle.”
As your teams push their own products forward and refine the systems they use, it’s important to keep the future collaborators in mind.
What are the downstream effects of the decisions you make today?
3. The Agile Manifesto
The Agile Manifesto is a very short document, put together in a single weekend by a small group of people. It’s impact on corporate culture can hardly be overstated.
“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it,” the manifesto begins. In plain language, the authors lay out a series of four values and 12 principles of agile development.
Companies were practicing various agile frameworks long before the manifesto was published, but up to that point, few outside the world of software development understood what was at stake.
Today, agile methodologies are employed across businesses and around the world. As much as the field has evolved, the four values and 12 principles still provide valuable guidance for companies in 2020.
Find commonality through diversity
It’s easy to understand that having multiple perspectives allows for a greater range of ideas to be discussed. Putting this into practice is extremely hard.
How do you make space for conflicting views? What guides the compromise?
The signatories of the manifesto came from a range of software development methodologies, such as Scrum, DSDM, and Crystal. What united them, according to signatory Jim Highsmith, was that everyone was “sympathetic to the need for an alternative to documentation driven, heavyweight software development processes convened.”
They all recognized the same problem, even if they were approaching it from very different angles. It’s important to note that they did not agree on everything, nor did they march in lockstep in the years after.
They retained their diverse perspectives and built something new together that was simple and inclusive. Why did it work?
Create an environment of trust and respect
Being open to diverse perspectives means that people have to tolerate ideas and values they might not like. In order to collaborate, people have to really listen to one another, especially if their gut reaction is to disagree.
Highsmith talks about the “compatible values” of the group that signed the manifesto. They weren’t identical values, but they were focused on end goals that the group shared. He writes:
“We all felt privileged to work with a group of people who held a set of compatible values, a set of values based on trust and respect for each other and promoting organizational models based on people, collaboration, and building the types of organizational communities in which we would want to work.”
As you bring together different voices to build complex solutions, think of this collaboration example as a way to keep the group focused on the problem at hand, not problems they have with one another.
By starting from a place of trust and respect, people can speak freely and angle what they say in service of the shared goal.
What can you do to help your teams feel privileged to work together?
4. Amazon’s six page memo
One thing you can say for sure about Amazon’s success is that it doesn’t depend on PowerPoint presentations. CEO Jeff Bezos outlawed them from senior team meetings years ago, and what the company uses instead could prove valuable for any team.
Set up high quality discussion
In his 2019 letter to shareholders, Bezos talked about the importance of the six page memo that kicks off every meeting. Rather than slide-based presentations, he said, “we write narratively structured six-page memos. We silently read one at the beginning of each meeting in a kind of ‘study hall.’”
Each memo should define the following in detail:
- The objective or goal of the meeting
- Past attempts to meet reach this objective
- What makes the presenters ideas different compelling
- How this will benefit the company
Executed properly, the memo serves as a foundation for a productive meeting. Bezos’ complaint about PowerPoint is that slides make it easy on the presenter, hard on the listener, who is left with nothing but bullet points.
On the other hand, a well drafted memo can frame the problem and help the team get under way. “Some have the clarity of angels singing,” says Bezos. “They are brilliant and thoughtful and set up the meeting for high-quality discussion.”
Start out with a four page memo, if six is too daunting, but there is a lot of value in a clear, concise document that lays out the need for a new solution or build a new product.
If you’re having trouble drafting, that’s normal, but it also might be a sign that the idea is less feasible or valuable than you thought at the beginning.
Writing is always collaborative
Writing a six page memo requires you to articulate exactly what you mean. This is extremely hard, and probably impossible to do on your own. These memos may take a month to write, and should be the process of multiple iterations and rounds of feedback.
According to Bezos, “The great memos are written and re-written, shared with colleagues who are asked to improve the work, set aside for a couple of days, and then edited again with a fresh mind.”
Through collaboration, the document is the product of multiple perspectives, and likely many at the meeting have already contributed to the idea in question. People are invested, and the discussion can take place at a high level.
One takeaway here, even if you hate the six page memo idea, is that writing is always a social activity, even when it takes place in private spaces. The writer still has to imagine their audience, research information others have compiled, and so on.
If someone is really struggling with producing text, make collaborators available long before the deadline. Provide a low-stakes venue where people can seek feedback and benefit from the wisdom of their audience.