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This Month's Featured Noggin' Floggin':

Kollaboration Is Killing Me

Brace Yourself for the Huge Adoption Hurdle for New Tools and Behaviors

Another noggin' floggin' by Kimberly M. Wiefling, M.S.

Each New Year's Day I choose a theme to guide and inspire me throughout the year, or at least distract me from whatever ills are plaguing the planet (most recently the "doom and gloom" economy). When January 1 rolled around last time, I was still swooning from the aftereffects of reading Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, Don Tapscott's spellbinding book. As a result, I chose "Wacky for Wikis and Crazy for Collaboration" as my theme for 2009. (If you've read my previous ProjectConnections article on this topic, you'll notice that my views in this article have become slightly more tarnished than last time, based on the past year's experience.)

My 2009 collaboration began with a vengeance! First, I spent over a hundred hours expanding an extensive wiki I'd created for the 25 or so geographically dispersed people who work together on the projects I do with Japanese companies. We're a loose collection of people and scattered between Tokyo and San Francisco, working across organizational boundaries and cultural barriers. Having a place where we could stash info that everyone could easily access seemed like just the thing we needed to take our venture to the next level. Visions of vastly reduced email flow, and the increased ease with which we'd all be able to leverage information from past projects for future similar projects, danced through my head.

Next I contributed heavily to the wiki for a professional association I co-chair, the SDForum Engineering Leadership Special Interest Group. We have a very successful operating model for this all-volunteer organization. Other groups were keen to copy some of our best practices, so I loaded up org charts, diagrams, processes, schedules, potential speaker lists, and meeting minutes to the previously lightly used wiki, so anyone who wanted to could have a look.

And, finally, I continued to contribute enthusiastically to a home wiki I'd started for sharing the status of various home repairs, shopping wish lists and party planning, and urged my housemates to do the same. I was most certainly wacky for wikis and crazy for collaboration!

Alas, after a year of what I'm now calling "the collective consciousness conspiracy experiment," I can honestly say, "Kollaboration is killing me!" If you are struggling to harness the hydra of the group genius in your project team, I'm sure you'll be able to relate to some of what I've experienced with these three wiki experiments. It's just a tad painful, but press on if you're curious.

The Japanese Connection

After sinking hundreds of hours and six months into the Japanese collaboration wiki, I was still having to beg people to make use of it. Here I'd built a treasure chest of information about our business processes, team members and projects—something a new competitor in the market would dearly love to get their hands on—and pretty much the only person reading it was me. The features of this wiki make most corporate intranet sites look shabby by comparison. During meetings, I'd double-dog-dare people to ask me a question, and then see if it could be answered by searching the wiki. Yes! Score! Time and again, I could answer any question by navigating to a wiki page. Among the many treasures, there's a list of all of our projects, detailed information on each, schedules on what's happening, logistics support, relevant industry reference material, and handy tips on travel to client locations and navigating the H1N1 pandemic.

Nevertheless, a good nine months after launching it, I continued to receive queries for information that could easily be found on the wiki. The phrase I most frequently found myself including on my replies to emails regarding the half dozen or so projects we're working on at any given time was, "Thanks for your message and the valuable information. I've added this to our team wiki, where it will be easy to find and access when anyone on our team needs it in the future. Here's the url for the location for your future reference." Over the months I continued to send such messages, while simultaneously any illusions I might have had that other people valued my time vanished. I'd become little more than a secretary, a title even administrative assistants with a shred of self-respect would scorn.

With my patience worn paper thin, around April 1st I sent a light-hearted threat out to the entire community of wiki users (and avoiders) saying that if, in the judgment of the team, the wiki wasn't useful, I'd be irreversibly deleting it at the end of the month. Then a miracle occurred. Of course I wasn't really going to delete the wiki, but . . . this email brought my thinly veiled frustration to the attention of the senior executive sponsoring this little experiment, and she wisely stepped in to make the wiki our official collaboration site. She even assigned a highly competent and enthusiastic person to be the Wiki Lead—more than I could have hoped for! Although not an immediate solution, hope bloomed once again.

The Volunteer Dilemma

Leading a team of volunteers is even trickier than leading paid employees. Their continued commitment and contributions depend on their continued enjoyment of, or at least satisfaction with, the volunteer experience. Although you can suggest, cajole, entice, and beg people to use a volunteer wiki to capture and exchange valuable information that would otherwise be rattling around in a dozen people's email systems, no executive can step in and effectively mandate it. It's true that some people have finally started to use the wiki to stash and share info, but I'm still sending those emails saying, "Thanks, and I put your stuff on the wiki." (With the implied "like you should have in the first place!") On bad days my finger hovers over the "Delete This Damn Wiki" button, but so far I've resisted the urge. Just when I'm about to give up hope, someone will update one of the pages and give me a reason to believe that we might yet get the whole team using this tool as "Communication Central."

There's No Place Like Home on the Wiki

After some early successes in raising the visibility of some long needed home repairs, it turns out that people living in the same house would rather just talk to one another than communicate using a wiki. Go figure. I keep saying, "The faintest font is mightier than the strongest memory," but the home wiki's been dormant for a couple of months now, and no one's elbowing me out of the way to get to the kitchen computer to update the shopping list these days. Maybe they're closet technophobes, but I tend to believe that they honestly do think it's more efficient just to yell to whoever's heading to the store, "Oh, can you pick up some mouse traps while you're out?"

Not So Wacky for Wikis, But Still Committed

As I survey the landscape of my past year's collaboration experiment, I see that there actually are signs of hope among the smoldering remains. The benefits of a shared computer space, where groups of people can collectively create, access, and edit information, are undeniable. There's no better way to get everyone on the same page than by having just one&mash;and only one—that everyone is looking at. The problem is getting them to look at that page! When we're working in the same building we can always call a meeting and force people to look at the same documents together. When we're spread all over tarnation, it's not so easy. Sending an email doesn't guarantee that the email is read, and creating a wiki doesn't guarantee that anyone bothers to visit it. But I'm not giving up, mind you! While it's been challenging to get people to adopt new tools and new ways of doing business, the alternative—returning to a blizzard of disorganized email and overstuffed computer folders—would be like giving up the my iPhone in favor of a landline.

Changing people's behavior is like trying to change your socks while a whole football team holds you down on the ground and tries to put on your shoes. But here are a few lessons I've learned (and continue to learn) that may help you get your team on board if you're determined to be a 21st century web-enabled collaborator.

What Worked Well

  1. Recruit a couple of supportive team members to do an initial "experiment" or "proof of concept." I sought out the two youngest members of our team because they seemed the most tech savvy and the least fearful of change, as well as a dedicated senior co-conspirator who likes me enough to struggle through these occasional adventures with me.
  2. Shake out the bugs in the tool and the process with this inner circle before inviting lots of other people to play along. We struggled with login quirks, we documented unexpected behavior on an FAQ page, and we set up a clear structure and layout for the site, before extending the use to the hoards.
  3. Make it valuable, fast and easy to use. If the information is useful, and the wiki is the easiest and fastest way to get it, people will use it. Put the juiciest stuff there and encourage people to bookmark the page. Include links to the wiki in your email to drive people there for answers to their questions. And make sure the wiki has a brilliant search function. You can't rely on your organizing taxonomy to make information easy to find. What's logical to one person won't necessarily be understood and followed by dozens of others. As the size of the wiki grows it's bound to get messy, and when that happens, search is going to be your best friend.
  4. Monitor who's using it and who's not, and check on why people aren't using the tool. If you notice someone's never logged in, assume it's because they are having trouble doing so, not because they're disinterested. If someone rarely accesses the tool, ask them for their reasons, and what kinds of information they'd find useful to share on the wiki. Then keep your eyes open for ways to be helpful to them by pointing them toward the wiki when appropriate.
  5. Coercion and mild threats of consequences for not adopting the tool. Much of my motivation for starting, and continuing, to use these various wikis is selfish. There's only one of me, and the increasingly administrative demands on my time are starting to interfere with my social life. And I greatly prefer referring people to the wiki over digging through my files to find the latest version of some document to attach to an email in answer to a query.
  6. Perseverance. As I've already mentioned, the alternative is unthinkable. I wake up every day with a strong feeling that eventually each and every one of these laggards will rejoice in the astonishing usefulness of this collaboration tool. Then all my work will be truly appreciated! Of course, it may turn out that I get my reward in heaven. Oh well. I still refuse to give up!

What Didn't Work

  1. Sending out an email message announcing the existence of an exciting new tool and expecting people to follow the instructions and start using it. (Yes, we foolishly tried this initially.)
  2. Failing to emphasize the "WIIFM" for the people you'd like to get to use the tool. People are busy. Answer the question "What In It For Me?" with a compelling benefit for each of the people you are getting involved and they'll be far more likely to battle the learning curve to at least explore your wiki. The invitation messages automatically generated by these tools aren't nearly enough to do that.
  3. Assuming that everyone can figure out how to get up to speed on new technology on their own. Sitting beside them, or calling them on the phone one by one, talking them through the first login experience, patiently helping them get started, was much more effective.

Getting people to adopt new tools requires getting them to change their behavior—no small task. (Ever try changing your spouse? Just try to get your husband to put the toilet seat down after every use, for example, and you'll see what I mean.) But, no worries, building on the valuable collaboration lessons of the past, our team is creating a much more promising future. Although I still sometimes feel like I'm collaborating all by myself, many more people are using the wiki much more frequently. Change, although seemingly glacial, is taking hold in the way we do business. Instead of receiving requests to update documents attached to email, I now get the occasional email from other people referring me to the wiki to share information that needs to be seen and updated by multiple people. Several people seem to have caught the wiki update bug, frequently adding to the substantial knowledge store there. Another person has volunteered to take the lead on cleaning up some organization and formatting problems for some pages that have gotten a bit too much of that patchwork quilt look. And yet another early adopter has vowed to use part of her Christmas vacation to create and populate a whole new branch of the wiki dedicated to a new project we're kicking off next year.

Wikis are not the only area of collaboration that brought me to my knees this past year, mind you. The leader of a group I'd been working with on a joint white paper for several months tired of the slow pace of the group collaboration and wrote it himself. A couple of perfectly legitimate opt-in group mailing lists stopped working mysteriously this past summer when internet providers changed their definition of what constituted spam. For months email sent to these opt-in lists failed to reach their intended recipients, without so much as a clue to alert me to this until I wondered why attendance had dropped at our events. And my office manager routinely reprioritizes my most strategically important business matters below those tasks that he considers more appealing to work on. Nevertheless, if we're going to play games that only a team can win, we have no choice but to figure out how to work together more effectively as a team.

January 1 is rolling around again pretty soon. What theme will I choose for the coming year? Who knows?! But, next year I just might decide to collaborate all by myself.

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Not all comments are posted. Posted comments are subject to editing for clarity and length.

Making the wiki the default home page of people's internet browsers can help. The key is making it relevant. Similar to web marketing, you need to give people a reason to go to the page in the first place, then give them a compelling reason to keep coming back, otherwise it gets relegated to being a quirky annoyance.

I've often shared your frustration. I have more success by finding ways to leverage the new tool within established process. For example, I leverage a team workspace on Novell Teaming for meeting agendas, decisions, notes, and even meeting logistics such as international dial-in numbers. The recurring appointment links to that work space. It is the only agenda and source for dial-in info; none is printed. So in the meeting, that online agenda goes on screen. Want something on the agenda? Put it there. Over time, it has softened resistant team members as they see the payoff little by little.

Yes, Thanks, Michael! This is exactly the advice I received from a marketing buddy of mine. The WIIFM (what's in it for me?) is key. Somehow using the wiki has to help the people using it, not just make the project leader's life easier.

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