PHIL SIMON

Probably the world's leading independent expert

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Simon’s Laws of Interorganizational Communication and Collaboration

Project charters are meaningless unless people, you know, actually follow them. Sadly, this isn't always the case.
Jan | 31 | 2022
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Awhile back, a respected publisher contracted me to write a white paper for one of its international clients. On the surface, the project wasn’t a stretch for me. After all, I’ve called myself a professional scribe for over a decade now. The topics also fell squarely in my wheelhouse: I had to fuse technology, analytics, productivity, and trends.

Still, it didn’t take a rocket surgeon to identify the potential red flags:

  • Different organizations.
  • Different personnel at each organization.
  • Different time zones.
  • Different preferences for communication and collaboration tools.
  • Different client visions for the content of the white paper.1

I expressed my reservations to the publisher and agent from the get-go. “No worries,” the publisher’s rep told me before I signed on. “We’ve got it taken care of.”

During the introductory conference call with the client, I again voiced my concerns. (Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.) The publisher had always used e-mail on these projects—not a proper communication hub. “Fine,” the publisher told me. “We’ll give it a shot.”

We all agreed that Microsoft Teams would serve this essential function. (In theory, this meant that no one would ever send an e-mail.) I would have preferred Slack, but I knew that I wasn’t going to win that battle. In hindsight, I should have also insisted that we follow a RACI Matrix. (#foreshadowing)

Falling Into Old Patterns

Fast-forward one month: Sadly and despite my best efforts, the short project had quickly devolved into a morass of misunderstandings, e-mail threads, scheduling snafus, and duplicate work. Not surprisingly, we were already well behind schedule. On the client-side, people weren’t staying in their lanes. I could read the room: people were starting to get testy.

I went old school, picked up the phone, and spoke with the publisher. In short, it was high time that everyone talked. Exchanging more asynchronous messages would only exacerbate our issues. I then created and shared a Doodle with different options to account for our time zones. (Calendly also does the trick, although plenty of folks believe that using it represents the acme of arrogance.)

Everyone responded. I thought that we were on our way to resolving our issues.

The day of the meeting, my primary client contact replied—via e-mail, of course—to everyone on the chain with, “No, that’s 4 a.m. local time here. I can’t meet then.” (Why that person selected that meeting slot is beyond me.)

If this scenario sounds frustrating, trust your judgment.

Brass tacks: The very problems I identified at the start of the project had nevertheless hindered it anyway. (#irony) This was not going to end well.

The more organizations involved in a project, the more difficult it is to successfully communicate and collaborate.

I started thinking of another one of Simon’s Laws: The more organizations involved in a project, the more difficult it is to communicate and collaborate. (I’ll add this one if and when I update Reimagining Collaboration.) Since I like graphs:

Of course, it doesn’t need to be this way. Early conversations like the one I had—and the ostensible buy-in they produce—can grease the communication wheels. There’s just one caveat, though: If people agree on a set of tools, then they need to actually use them. Mind-blowing, I know…

Reflections

Just to put a bow on the story, this straw broke the camel’s back. I had already put in far more work than expected on this flat-rate engagement.2 For example, the publisher had told me that the client had formally signed off on the white paper’s outline. It turned out that no one had even started it; there was nothing for anyone to approve.

At that point, I exited stage left.

As of this writing, that white paper hasn’t seen the light of day—and I would be astonished if it ever does. As I reflected, it was yet another example of how poor communication and collaboration derailed what could have been a promising project.

Simon Says: Project charters are meaningless unless people, you know, follow them.

As I write in the new book, the explosions of asynchronous and remote work have accentuated our existing differences in our work styles and preferences. To that end, it’s never been more essential to establish a proper project charter—one that codifies team processes and tools. When no one abides by that charter after repeated reminders, however, it’s only a matter of time before things break bad.

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Footnotes

  1. I have seen this movie more times than I can count.
  2. If I had been receiving my normal hourly rate, then I would have let them dilly-dally as much as they wanted.

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