Why Planning Collaboration Is a Must: An Interview with Griffin Jones


Collaboration can bring chaos, but Griffin Jones explains in this insightful interview how proper planning can greatly reduce the chances of chaos while increasing the likelihood for success on many development projects.

Griffin Jones helps us see how collaboration can greatly increase the chance for success on a project, even where it might not be the best option. For those who may be skeptical of collaboration and fearful of the chaos that could come with it, Jones shows you how, in more situations than not, incorporating everyone’s opinions and strengths is the way to go.

Noel: What are some selling points for the benefits of collaboration that you would give someone who is perhaps having difficulty convincing others that it's the way to go on an upcoming project?

Griffin: For me, collaboration is a deep value that I was gifted from my father and other key mentors in my life. In my session I try to explain the value of collaboration using the TED talk “Lead Like the Great Conductors” by Itay Talgam. Collaboration is complex. I found that Talgam gave me a framework that allowed me to sort my own feelings and thoughts on the topic before I engaged others on the topic.

Let me illustrate via a story. Very early in my career, I thought I had all the smart answers. I wrote step-by-step instructions on how to do a particular set of complex tests. It took a lot of time to develop and I was very proud of it. When the twenty people in my lab started to use these procedures, they didn’t discover significant problems with the product to the degree of effort I had put in to them. That annoyed me given the sweat, effort, and cleverness I had put in to my creation. That annoyance was a lightning bolt moment for me. I realized that my creation’s effectiveness had collapsed, and I had to choose a different way. For me, it was that point of being open, in your heart of hearts, to recognize that you did good work at that moment in time, but the solution you produced all by yourself is not effective at this moment in time.

Often, you don’t fully understand the problem if you don’t take the time to sit in front of it and live with it. The people I worked with provided not just criticism, but interesting input and suggested other options I hadn’t thought of. My original creation was so clear. Like Riccardo Muti from the TED talk, too clear. When I allowed the individuals to contribute their thoughts and ideas to the skeleton of my testing procedure, it became much richer and effective.

Noel: Your upcoming session at STARCANADA is titled "Collaboration without Chaos." What are some of the warning signs that chaos may be on the horizon - in hopes that they may be spotted early enough to avoid/prevent them?

Griffin: One warning sign is when people or organizations have degraded their ability to self-heal - they can’t recognize problems, or consider many options, make choices, and then take action.

When I work with a team, I ask this question upfront - before a crisis occurs: “when things go bad, how will we know?” We set up bell systems – a series of warnings where, if a certain event happens, it’s an indication that we should pause and evaluate what’s going on. I also do this on a personal level: when I see a team member who is a runner suddenly not running for two weeks, I ask about it to determine how well that person is coping. I use the surface problem of poor coping as a trigger to dig for the deeper problem.

Healthy individuals examine their own situation, and recognize when the coping is no longer working. You can also do this for the project itself. If you see official status reports that are all positive but the team is expressing unhappiness in various ways, something is wrong. The words they say are not matching the music of their body. Also, when people express that they have few choices, or no choices at all—that’s an indicator that things are becoming chaotic. Your project is likely healthy if people are making intentional choices, even if the choices are not optimal.

Noel: You mention that "primarily prescriptive procedures" prohibit successful collaboration. How is this so?

Griffin: Prescriptive procedures can be so clear—too clear—that they exclude the thoughtful engagement of the person doing the task. You are then using a human being to do a machine’s work. For example, on an assembly line, the worker doesn’t choose which part or how to use it but instead knows the steps to take to complete the task, over and over, doing their small chunk, then passing it on. None of those actions takes thoughtful engagement.

Machines perform prescriptive procedures well because they don’t get bored, they don’t mind repetitive tasks, and they run at high speeds—all qualities that people don’t do very well. What human beings do well is applying judgment and values. In a highly prescriptive environment, people’s thoughts and spirit are intentionally excluded from the solution. I believe in Jerry Weinberg’s definition of quality that says, “quality is value to some person who matters,” so collaboration puts people in the center of the project doing the thinking, which can then be augmented by tools or machines.

Noel: With so many potential good ideas between collaboration teams, how does one manage these, and ensure that everyone feels that their input is being respected, without spending more than the allotted time a project is allowed?

Griffin: Often, teams are excited to get started, so they neglect to set up the ground rules of how they are going to interact and make decisions. A new team can feel pressure that the project is already late and that the “real work” needs to start immediately. They may feel that there isn’t time to discuss how they are going to interact with each other, so instead they will figure it out as they go along. Later, when there’s a crisis, the ugliness of a project in danger becomes entwined with the emotional hurt, which gets entangled with group dynamics, and that’s how you get chaos.

In my session, I refer to the adaptive team model, which describes the need to flex and adapt the team’s structure, team coordination process, and decision-making process. We should negotiate these needs and expectations upfront. . If we don’t take the time to do this, then when a crisis occurs, all the different expectations and misinterpretations and faulty assumptions emerge. You don’t need to be overly ceremonial or elaborate on the setup, and these ground rules can be renegotiated at any time, but you should at least recognize that issues will inevitably come up.

Noel: Are there any circumstances where you would argue against collaboration, and why or why not?

Griffin: Collaboration is not effective when there is an emergency or there is high tempo in the group. In that case, there needs to be someone in control who has both responsibility and authority, and who can be very prescriptive about what and how tasks need to be done. For example, at a major trade show, the company president is about to demo a new product but it’s gone blue-screen. The team knows what the solution is, so what is needed is for the team to work at a high tempo to resolve the issue. We don’t need more options; we need execution.

Collaboration also doesn’t work if there is a safety issue. People need to act, but only in certain ways. You don’t want to give them the freedom to act in ways that endanger themselves or others. In a high-risk regulated environment, like a chemical factory, there are boundaries around the freedom that people have to be creative because a solution that “sort of works most of the time” is not acceptable. The controller must put up fences regarding what teams can do, possibly creating an area inside in which they can work collaboratively, but definitely not beyond that scope to preserve the welfare of all.

But the interesting thing is that collaboration dynamic. It is not a zero sum game and there are different levels where collaboration can occur. The person with authority needs to recognize and manage this dynamic nature.

An agile tester, trainer, and coach, Griffin Jones provides consulting on context-driven software testing and regulatory compliance to companies in regulated and unregulated industries. Recently, he was the director of quality and regulatory compliance at iCardiac Technologies, which provides core lab services for the pharmaceutical industry to evaluate the safety of their potential new drugs.

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