by Hailey Cooperrider
This framework was created in collaboration with the RMIT School of Media and Communications, to help address the challenge of rapidly forming student project groups in the context of a university course. Read more about the unique challenges of this context in this story.
Like any collaboration design challenge, collaborative group formation should be approached consciously. Participants would be unwise to assume that effective collaboration will just happen.
This framework provides a list of considerations that groups should consider at the outset of group formation, and throughout the project. It can be applied more broadly to any situation in which groups must form rapidly.
To use the framework, talk through each of the following aspects with your team as you are forming. Throughout the project, check back in on these aspects, especially when collaboration is feeling difficult.
1. Why are we collaborating?
Understanding the value of collaboration - why you are doing it at all - will help you decide the approaches and processes that best fit your group. It is important to move past “we are collaborating because we have to” and try instead to understand the real value of collaboration in this context.
Discuss with your group:
What do we mean by collaboration?
Why is collaboration valuable, in general?
How might collaboration help us achieve our individual and collective goals for this project?
Here are some additional resources that could support and deepen this discussion:
Level Up Handbook - Chapter 1 - Includes a section on reasons why people collaborate
“The 3 C’s” - A definition of collaboration that breaks it down into smaller parts
Collaborative Consonance Framework - Helps analyse the components of a healthy collaboration, so you can find where the “dissonance” is and resolve it
2. How is our collaboration evolving?
Recognise that group formation happens in stages, and try to assess which stage your group is in right now.
One tried and true framework for understanding the stages of group formation is “Tuckman's stages of group development”, often referred to as “forming, norming, storming”.
A related concept is the idea of mental seasons, developed as part of Waterfield’s Rapid ConsensusTM methodology. In groups, some people will be at the concept definition stage, while others are way ahead in the solution stage. Everyone in a group should take time to go back to the first mental season, so that they can proceed through the seasons together. This increases shared understanding and vision within the group, and prevents misunderstandings.
3. How is our group composed?
When forming a group pay attention to the composition of the group. Does this collection of individuals bring all of the components needed to realise the project goal?
Consider the following aspects:
Background: Members from diverse cultural, social and economic backgrounds provide better insights than a demographically homogenous group.
Capability: What are the skills and experience required for the project? Does your team have any gaps? Are you too strong in one area, and weak in another? How can you address gaps and imbalances?
Working style: Do you have a variety of working styles in your group? Do some tend to be more critical, and others more creative? Do you have someone with a head for process? One helpful framework for thinking about working styles is Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats.
4. What our roles and responsibilities within the group?
The ongoing collaboration of the group can be streamlined by defining some structural elements up front, and revisiting these throughout:
Roles: Will the group benefit by giving members defined positions, making it easier to know who decides what? Or is a more fluid approach preferred?
Responsibilities: Does it make sense to carve up the work to be done into specific chunks that can be doled out? Is the nature of the project such that it suggests standard approaches to dividing the work?
Examples of roles include:
A group leader who is responsible for setting strategic direction (either by consulting the group, or otherwise)
A project manager, who keeps track of assigned responsibilities, and follows up members to help them deliver on time
Consider whether the work mode will be primarily collaborative (everyone working on the same content, making decisions at the highest level) or cooperative (work is divided into smaller chunks, which is aggregated by one or two members within the group). The Roles in Collaboration framework may provide more insight here.
Another point to consider is whether there is an industry standard for how the work is structured in a project like yours. Are the roles you are setting for yourself mimicking the way industry currently works?
5. How are we communicating and coordinating?
There are many ways in which a group can stay in communication, and organise their meetings. Whatever you choose, explicitly agree on it, and keep calling attention to what is and isn’t working.
What does the group already feel comfortable with? Is it more of a phone call culture, or is SMS or email preferred? Have you exchanged contact details?
Will you be generating a lot of documents? Do you need to set up a shared online folder? Or physical folder? How will the folders be named? How will you keep track of changes being made to key documents (version control)?
Keeping a regular rhythm of meetings is critical to keeping a collaboration moving. How often will you meet? For how long? Is everyone required at every meeting?
What is your process for each meeting? How do you ensure clarity of purpose at the start of the session? Will you take minutes and distribute them at the end? The Unmeeting framework may assist in designing your meeting process.
Resourcing your collaboration adequately is important. Commit to an amount of time that is sufficient to get the job done. If a member cannot attend a meeting, they are expected to alert the group in advance, and make every effort to catch up on what happened (e.g. by reading the minutes).
6. How do we resolve conflict?
Conflict is natural in collaboration. Just like making music, some dissonance is expected on the way to achieving a beautiful harmony. It’s what makes the piece interesting. A difference of opinion or ways of looking at the problem should be viewed as a strength, not a weakness. In many ways, the quality of what you create is a factor of how effectively you resolve the natural dissonance within your group.
Resolving conflict begins with being aware of the conflict in the first place. Mature collaborators have already taken time to be clear about their own mental states, their own interests and drivers, and how those are influencing the way they interact with the group. As a result, they are able to clearly communicate those mental states to the group, so that discussion about dissonance can begin.
Try to resolve the conflict among your group first. If this cannot be achieved, consider carefully how you can work with an outside party to assist in the resolution. In many cases, this outside party is already clearly defined. For example, in a student project context, the first port of call is your lecturer. Take time to consider how best to present the dilemma to the outside party in a clear way, with all group members participating in the definition of the dilemma.
7. How do we evaluate our collaboration?
If you don’t measure it, you can’t improve it. Project groups often focus primarily on evaluating the work they produce, which is important and natural. Effective collaborative groups also evaluate their own collaboration. They try to assess how well they are working together, so that they can change course if things aren’t going so well.
At the outset of your collaboration, set your “evaluation framework”. What are the aspects you will look at when you review your work? Important areas of evaluation include:
Individual goals: Establish why each individual is here, and what they want out of the project. When evaluating, ask the individual to report on progress towards their goal. Then ask the rest of the group to give their perspective on that individual’s progress.
Group goals: Decide group goals. Try to move beyond a single reductive goal like ‘getting a good grade’. Tease out the many dimensions of success, and evaluate them separately through discussion.
Group formation: After goals, look at each of the above 6 aspects. How is the group doing on each of these? Are the current approaches working or do we need to change?
Evaluating your collaboration is most effective if you do it before the project is over, so that you can adjust. Decide at the outset how often you will undertake evaluation, and include dedicated time for evaluation in your planning.
A framework this long may seem paradoxical for “rapid” group formation. But when you consider how much group effort can be wasted on not working together well, it is a small investment to make.
Furthermore, the more you build up these practices, the more they will become an unconscious part of your capability. In an increasingly collaborative professional world, these are baseline practices that you’ll be expected to bring to every project.
Invest the time to get your group collaborating well, and it will pay off now and in the future.