• Simon Collins, Leadership |
5 min read

I was talking to a colleague earlier this week about the trials and tribulations he’s faced during the pandemic balancing work with home schooling. To relieve pressure, he’s been collaborating with other parents, taking it in turns to run virtual lessons for the children.

It got me thinking about how COVID-19 has forced us all to look at new ways of doing things – and how collaboration remains as critically important as ever. Take how major pharmaceuticals companies are working together to identify a vaccine at speed. Look at how organisations worked together to realise Project Nightingale.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a lightbulb moment. For years, collaboration has been held aloft as a potential cure for all manner of organisational challenges, including project performance. The Project Management Institute (PMI) says that both experienced and new project managers can improve their effectiveness and results by becoming more collaborative.

But while that’s great in theory, how can you make sure collaboration is happening in practice? Collaboration is rarely distilled into tangible steps in traditional project management methodologies – these tend to focus far more on the process and governance.

At KPMG, we’ve developed our own approach based on our experience working with organisations across every sector. Here are our five steps for how project, programme and portfolio management professionals can help ensure successful collaboration.

Don’t just build a team, build a collaboration network

The strongest teams are diverse and include people with differing skill sets and experiences. That’s how you identify new ideas. Build a team of likeminded people, from the same department and same background and no one is going to challenge your thinking and spot that great idea. A diverse team enables the project manager to draw out new and different ideas; to innovate.

To really get the most from your team though, you should seek to embrace crowdsourcing and gather ideas from beyond your core team. That means not just seeking input from team members but tasking them with going out to their varied connections across the business and getting truly diverse feedback from the best and brightest. In our experience, that can lead to crucial interventions at the right moments.

It also pays to think about project teams as dynamic rather than static. To get the best results, the members of the team are likely to change throughout the project’s lifecycle. Don’t see that as a negative, resulting in a lack of consistency or taking the project away from its original purpose. Instead, it should be welcomed for the potential to bring new ideas to the table at critical times.

Embrace new perspectives

To get the best results from your collaboration network, you need to be ready to embrace the input you receive. Today’s project manager needs to be open to creativity, intelligence and strategies from within the team. The ability to embrace new angles and positions to evaluate the path to success is a critical differentiator. Taking an open-minded approach, allowing project team members the capacity to explore their ideas and perspectives, also improves morale and attachment to a successful outcome.

Empower team members and foster collective ownership

Defining the roles and responsibilities of team members is a wholly sensible way of achieving deliverables and project outcomes. But fostering truly collaborative behaviours requires a little more wiggle room. If team members are given fixed roles it’s going to be hard to build that collaboration network or draw out their full value. That’s why we always seek to allow a bit of flexibility within roles and encourage team members to pursue new ideas.

Of course, allowing this flexibility can be challenging, not least for you as a project manager. If you’ve spent a long time putting together a project plan, it can be hard to find that someone’s come up with a better approach. But by developing a plan collaboratively as a team, and continuing this behaviour throughout delivery, you build in collective ownership of any future obstacles. That can really help relieve the pressure you may feel as the project manager.

Yes, some people may need greater scrutiny, but avoid it wherever possible or you’ll stifle creativity. Try to foster an environment where team members feel empowered to contribute and lead on ideas; and where they’re equally comfortable when their ideas are not followed through.

Rewrite your role description

Your overall objective as a project manager is still the same as before: deliver the project successfully. But to drive the best results, a big part of your role should now involve facilitating collaboration. That does not mean enabling decision making by committee, resulting in slower progress.

To retain control and ensure chaos doesn’t reign, you’ll need to continuously draw and redraw the framework for idea generation and exploration, communicating this to the team regularly. Setting the parameters for this collaborative dialogue will mean using the best of agile methodologies – for example, daily stand-ups and Kanban boards – where ideas fail fast and can be quickly discounted. You’re seeking to establish a living, breathing process that can adapt to change, but which still has a structure that targets incremental progress.

It’s your role to identify when a discussion has hit its peak, consolidate ideas and draw out answers. When decisions cannot be reached within set parameters, it’s up to you to absorb the collective mind and define outputs. And that’s something you’ll need to do from day 1 of planning right up until the final handover to BAU.

We shouldn’t, however, confuse the project manager role with that of a scrum master, say. Using agile ways of working within an overall waterfall approach simply brings us closer to the skills today’s project managers need. As a side benefit, it can also give you a valuable insight into how agile teams, such as those dedicated to software and development, operate. That’s increasingly valuable on complex transformation programmes within enterprise change portfolios, when project managers may rely on these outputs to deliver their wider projects.

Think like a conductor

One way to think about your role in facilitating collaboration is as the conductor of an orchestra. You should still have your own ideas based on best practice and experience and provide leadership to deliver the project’s targets. But instead of enforcing your views, your role is now to coax the best from your team.

Think of your project as a set score of music that must be played. The requirements are written out, but the depth of tonality and dynamics that can be introduced and removed are in your hands. The added value in the process comes from successfully co-ordinating and managing the diverse inputs – the string section, percussion and so on. Practise is key.

These are highly changeable times, but hopefully these five steps will help you build high functioning teams that can respond quickly, even intuitively, to the environment through togetherness.