The rapid growth of social sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, and the soaring valuation of stock offerings in the social media category, has caused a new Internet frenzy that’s being compared to the high-tech bubble of the late 1990s. The idea of social networking is well entrenched in our personal lives, and, with the burgeoning popularity of corporate social sites like Yammer, and open development environments like OpenSocial, social collaboration and innovation models are changing the nature of team interaction. On the development side, the community model that underlies open source development has evolved into a set of social coding environments, such as GitHub and SourceForge, that provide tools and distribution networks to make social coding possible.

It seems obvious that, as product development and innovation migrate from “smart folks in a room” to a worldwide virtual community, project managers (PMs) will need to transition from managing tasks to managing interactions and collaboration. When the development team is in Chicago, Bangalore, and London, and implementations are going on in New York and Sydney, the skills and activities of PMs will need to adapt. Are PMs navigating these changes without a guide, or are there practices and ideas that we can reference to point us in the right direction?

Morten Hansen, a management professor at UC Berkeley, has some ideas, based on research he’s done into collaboration that are pertinent to the concept of social project management. In his book Collaboration, he pioneered much of the common wisdom regarding the connection between collaboration and innovation. By sidestepping barriers such as “not-invented-here” syndrome and the “lone genius” myth, Hansen argues that collaboration, beyond enabling innovation, enhances sales results by enabling cross-selling, and enhances operational processes by accelerating adoption of best practices. In a new Harvard Business Review article that builds on these ideas, Hansen and his collaborator Herminia Ibarra of INSEAD expands and updates these ideas into a series of practices that PMs can apply to their new role as social facilitators.

To set the context, collaborative management is compared to the hierarchical, command-and-control style of management that many project managers (and general managers) still apply. Rather than proceeding as if all intelligence flows from the top of the organization or project team, collaborative managers look at the dispersed network as the source of innovation and creativity. According to the research done by Hansen and Ibarra for their studies of collaboration, the key success factors for collaborative managers are:

  • Become a global connector: Using the “connector” terminology popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point to describe people with outsized influence based on their social reach, Hansen recommends that collaborative leaders help their teams by linking ideas from disparate worlds to enhance creativity and relevance. PMs can apply this advice by engaging beyond the project management or technical world to the worlds of arts, sports, medicine, or finance, for example, and bridging those universes for their teams. Delivery teams, especially in high-urgency projects, can often get so focused on the tasks at hand that they miss the chance to expand their horizons, or that of their team. By seeking inspiration outside the normal channels, PMs can enlighten the team about new approaches that can stimulate innovation.
  • Engage peripheral talent: Geographically distributed and cross-cultural teams are the norm in the business world, and this trend is sure to explode as emerging markets become mainstream. This is not to say that every manager is equally skilled at tapping the resource of diversity. Conflict-averse managers can be uncomfortable with the disagreement and ferment that can come with differing perspectives. PMs who haven’t had the opportunity to travel and experience varied cultures may misunderstand and misinterpret unfamiliar modes of expression. By engaging diverse participants, with differing gender, geographic, ethnic, and demographic backgrounds, PMs can unleash previously untapped talent and expand the team’s perspective.
  • Collaborate at the top: The drive for collaboration needs to start at the top, with the executive sponsors of projects and with the PM herself. Most of us know that organizations still reward employees based on individual rather than team performance, and that politics and competing agendas can derail collaboration. PMs must work to encourage their sponsors to remove barriers to collaboration, and to explicitly discourage silos and fiefdoms from sabotaging the collaborative effort. Rewarding teams rather than individuals is a challenge to “the way we’ve always done things,” but organizations and project teams that make the effort find that the team can achieve things no individual, even the “lone genius,” can deliver.
  • Show a strong hand: Don’t let collaboration become an obsessive drive to consensus; eventually, decisions need to be made and activities need to be performed rather than debated. The role of the PM in a collaborative environment is not to make decisions for the team, but to facilitate them to arrive at their own conclusions. Like a good facilitated work session, however, collaboration need to drive to a conclusion, and, like a good facilitator, collaborative project managers must distinguish between fruitful debate and eternal nit-picking. As I’ve noted previously in my series on conflict in facilitation, collaborative project managers must be prepared to lead the team to concession, compromise, and, most importantly, to joint action.

It’s not just the Internet that has changed the nature of team interaction. Tools like Yammer and SourceForge have enabled new methods of collaboration, but it’s people’s expectations that are driving these changes. As open source and agile development techniques demonstrate, new generations of teams disdain top-down directives, and expect to be involved in decisions that affect their work. Project leaders who can master the challenges of dispersed, distributed, and diverse teams, and can create an environment for constructive conflict and creative ferment, will harness the power of the team mind and drive innovation to new peaks.