When collaboration becomes a chore

Main illustration: Ally Jaye Reeves

As companies grow, the modes of collaboration shift from natural conversation to more organised meetings, but how do you keep a healthy balance between allowing for focused, deep work, and the need to foster collaboration between colleagues and teams?

We all love collaborating. It can be incredibly fun and rewarding to work with your peers to explore what’s possible and gather feedback. It allows you to work through problems faster, helps formulate your opinion more clearly and opens your eyes to new possibilities.

When we were a small company and everyone knew what everyone else was doing, we always optimized for face to face communication as that allowed us to move incredibly fast. But in the time I’ve been at Intercom, we’ve scaled from 30 people to almost 400 people. We’ve also significantly increased the amount of product we build. There’s many more people to involve and many more dependencies to consider. What was once easy has become challenging.

It’s easy to make the mistake of staying in the same mindset where everyone is involved in every decision. That allows you to feel more confident you’re making the right call and keeps the company aligned on the same values and keep the bar for quality consistent.

But people are busy, so decisions get delayed. Something that previously could’ve taken just a few minutes ends up being delayed for multiple days to find a time that suits everyone. Your best collaborators end up being pulled into many discussions and eventually become bottlenecks. Their own days get chopped into tiny pieces which makes it impossible for them to do deep work.

So how do you find the right balance as you scale? Here are a few things that have helped us stay collaborative while also being nimble.

Learn to let go and trust others

When we were a small team we knew what everyone else was doing so it was easy to stay connected and weigh in with our feedback at any point. But as we scaled we reached a point where it became impractical to follow everything. You need to learn to let go and trust that the people you work with are competent and can do an excellent job. Even if you disagree with an individual decision, trust that there are many ways to achieve the same goal.

This has helped us avoid deadlock situations where multiple different people disagree.

To keep the company aligned, set clear and actionable team values to help teams make decisions.

Be deliberate about how you involve people

When we’re working on a big project like our live chat solution where many people are involved, we use the DACI decision making framework. DACI stands for driver, approver, contributor and informed. It makes it clear upfront who will be responsible for driving the decision to a conclusion, who’s going to be the final approver, who’s going to influence the decision and who just needs to be informed when a decision has been made.

This has helped us avoid deadlock situations where multiple different people disagree, can’t reach a decision and kill the momentum. It also helps to ensure the right people are looped in in an appropriate way.

Just don’t take it to an extreme where you pick the most senior person as the approver and have the rest of the team bring them options to choose from (this is also known as the HiPPO problem, or the “highest paid person’s opinion”). Pick the most informed person and make it a team effort where the best argument wins. Use the approver as a way to bring conflicts to a resolution.

Choose the right medium for collaboration

When meetings are well run they allow you to make progress quickly, they’re more rich than any other medium, you can pick up on verbal, vocal and visual cues and engage in a conversation in real time. They’re great for working through tough problems together. But they’re also expensive and often unnecessary.

Meetings for status updates, coordination and gathering feedback on your work can often be replaced with a thoughtful email or a post on your project management tool. This allows people to review them on their own time. It’s also helpful for allowing people to take their time to formulate their opinions more clearly. Especially if you follow good writing practices.

Decide and move on

Real-life decisions often involve compromise. There’s no perfect solution. When you’re facing a difficult decision it’s human nature to loop more people in or have everyone “sleep on it”. There’s a sense of shared responsibility in a group that makes you feel less exposed to failure.

What new information do we need in order to be able to make the decision?

In cases where you think you’re not able to make a decision right away, ask yourself: what new information do we need in order to be able to make the decision or resolve a disagreement? If you can’t identify it, you’re just postponing the inevitable. Decide and move on.

If a decision has been made that you don’t agree with, learn how to disagree and commit. Acknowledge you might have different objectives or opinions, or that you might be lacking information. Ultimately momentum, not perfect decisions, make companies successful.

You don’t need to collaborate on everything

Showing your work to others can often generate interesting insights. But if you run all of your decisions past someone, be aware it will slow you down. When it’s a small impact decision and you’re the domain expert, just make the call and move on.

Protect your time and respect others

Lastly, we all need continuous uninterrupted time to do focused work. Be sure to have dedicated makers’ time. We do focus days on Tuesdays and Thursday, when we don’t have any pre-scheduled meetings to allow us to get significant chunks of focused time without distractions.

I love collaborating with my colleagues. Everything we’ve built has come out of close collaboration between many people on different disciplines. But you have to be thoughtful about how you do it, especially as you scale. Knowledge workers need time to do deep, focused work. And at a time when constant collaboration is the norm you have to be especially considered about how you use your time.

We haven’t nailed this either. As we continue to change and continue to grow we have to keep evaluating and iterating on how we work. It’s reductive to say meetings are terrible or email is broken or asynchronous communication is better than synchronous. Only through mature balancing can we tackle these problems.