November 26, 2014

Sweat the Small Stuff

Collaboration is the essential ingredient for intelligent “workplace” teams, as studies have told us for decades -- yet for many enterprise organizations even today, working together easily still remains elusive.

I can point to a few reasons historically for this failure, but more hopefully, I see multiple trends that will change our future.

Turn Quadrants Upside Down
First, for the past twenty years or more, the team collaboration topic has often been approached with the classic 1970 Boston Consulting mindset: solve the largest problem for the largest gain. In fact, coming at “working together” from an individual user-based perspective is a better strategy in today’s product-as-a-service world.

I would argue that IT apps should eliminate small, frustrating, and painful tasks to create instant user gratification. Doing this repeatedly over time, I believe, earns loyalists who are thrilled to use your collaboration tools and are then highly productive.

Take the common collaboration roadblock of trying to share a file. Fixing this alone might dislodge the majority of pain holding back teamwork in your enterprise.

In a typical scenario, a team working together wants to share a large PowerPoint file, but IT blocks large file sends through email. Instead, IT could enable shared folders with a smart phone app, then allow easily copy/pasted folder links sent in email. Work teams would gain immediate file access, even while traveling, to keep collaboration going.

All it takes is prioritizing the user pain.
Focusing on improving one small productivity task increases the likelihood of it getting solved. Choosing the most frustrating or inhibiting user problems to solve generates rampant user engagement -- the number one criteria for enterprise software success in a cloud future.

Similarly, using apps that do one thing well can drive productivity through the roof. Sweating the small stuff that holds users back will pay off in team motivation and their day-to-day ability to work together productively.

Respect Muscle Memory
Second, old yet productive working habits have been outright forsaken for the new. If colleagues are adept with email and use it fluently, incorporate that habit into the newest services you deliver.

Allow teams to continue using email as a sharing mechanism while taking away its inefficiencies. Better yet, give them improvements, such as protection from malicious email attachments.

Habits are embedded in muscle memory. The fewer you have to change, the better. How much are your collaboration apps undoing productivity for the sake of productivity?

Adapt to Users, Not to Initiatives
Finally, rethink what’s causing frustration or creating inefficiencies in your teams in the first place. Does solving the root cause of working together really require a complete technical rearchitecture?

Considering that the tenure of corporate leaders continues to drop, fitting collaboration projects into smaller 1-2 year efforts with rapid iteration cycles is critical. Look for creative and innovative solutions that keeps users productive first.

My favorite example is that you don’t have to reconfigure SAP and change your invoice processing workflow, just to solve getting SOWs signed. We simply incorporated electronic signatures into our file sharing app. If an executive is on the road, no need to print, sign, fax and return a document. Just fingertip sign and click to share, all in one place.

Enterprises have enough company-wide initiatives to drive, and coming at collaboration as an entire reconfiguration can lose steam before it ever delights a single user. Adapt your collaboration services to users first, so approved apps are immediately desirable at the grass roots level. And rethink functionality from the user level to uncover potentially simple, shorter-term solutions.

Why the Future Looks Brighter
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, and there have been valiant attempts to make collaboration better. Recent studies are looking at how to design the smartest teams possible in the first place so they’re predestined to collaborate, for example.

But from a technology perspective, I see several trends that were not pervasive decades ago. These have changed behaviors and laid the groundwork for us to come at collaboration differently. This is why I’m hopeful things will change for the better.

For IT, for example, the ease of delivering incremental software changes to users has greatly improved. Users know how to self-procure apps. They are on the lookout for, and willing to try, better ways of working. IT can take advantage of this new mindset by delivering the best user-loved solutions. IT can lead impactful changes that address strategic organizational needs, like productivity and global collaboration.

Vendors have changed as well, amidst the popularity of smart devices. The constraints of small screen sizes have forced the quality of software to improve. Only the most essential functions can be presented to today’s users, who are constantly swiping and mobile. This mobile design discipline has made it a requirement to do less things very well, rather than delivering distracting or unused feature sets that might slow users down.

These future trends and an understanding of past failures can help us, as leaders, navigate to gain incredible team efficiencies in the present. Start by solving the painful annoyances that hold teamwork back; carry forward learned productivity habits that work; and focus on users, not initiatives.

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