CEOs need to shift from tools-first to teams-first thinking to improve collaboration

Forrester research finds that culture is just as important as tools for encouraging business and technical teams to work together.

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Research from Forrester found that open collaboration can boost revenue and customer satisfaction, although companies need to get better at fostering that kind of teamwork.

Image: Atlassian

What happens when you ask for feedback during a meeting? If silence is the only reply, that likely means collaboration is not one of your company's strengths. It might seem like "a nice to have" instead of "a must-have but new research contradicts that conventional wisdom.

Forrester analysts found in a study for Atlassian that open collaboration improves customer satisfaction and increases revenue as well. Suzie Prince, Atlassian's head of product for DevOps, said teams that collaborate well do a better job of both delivering software and driving business outcomes.

"The measure of success for software development is not just about delivering things on time, but delivering the right things on time," she said. "Understanding the business impacts of software development is so important and requires an interdepartmental approach." 

Forrester Consulting surveyed 750 IT and engineering leaders at enterprise-scale companies across a range of industries for Atlassian and analyzed the results in the new report, "Unlocking The Value Of Open Collaboration To Drive Enterprise Agility."

According to the research, a leadership strategy that encourages collaboration includes these priorities:

  1. The freedom to share information and ideas with colleagues
  2. Two-way feedback between people and their managers
  3. Opportunities to weigh in on decisions
  4. Strong interpersonal connections with teammates
  5. Technology that enables all of the above

SEE: Gartner: Bring shadow IT into the light and get really good at building partnerships

However, most organizations aren't very good at fostering this kind of team work. That ideal environment is hard to find, with only 11% of survey respondents saying they have the right combination of tools and culture. It takes the right tools and the right culture to get people to share honest feedback and make collaboration the default way of working. 

The research found that companies need to shift from "tool-first thinking to team-first thinking" to solve that problem. Atlassian's global head of innovation, Molly Hellerman, said leaders must provide people with the time, resources and tools to actually experiment with this new model, and figure out what works best for their teams. 

"Iterating over time and being open to change is critical, but fostering open collaboration will pay dividends in the future," she said. 

The connections between leadership, feedback and collaboration

Hellerman said open collaboration starts at the top. That means talking about what this means in practice and why it's important for the organization. 

"Enacting this new model can happen in small steps, for example, modeling it themselves and encouraging others to work more openly," she said.

The study asked about specific actions that support a culture of collaboration and found that only 11% of companies are doing a good job in each of these areas:

  • Giving employees a sense of belonging and respect: 72%
  • Making employees feel like they have a shared mission: 67%
  • Creating a culture that prioritizes innovation at all levels: 62%
  • Making employees feel comfortable sharing personal details and issues: 59%
  • Encouraging people to challenge the status quo: 54%
  • Being thoughtful about how to improve collaboration: 53%
  • Not penalizing employees for disagreeing or pushing back on leadership: 52%
  • Being transparent with the decision-making: 45%

Hellerman said the company encourages managers to find ways for employees to share feedback honestly and constructively. 

"We want to train managers to not just collect feedback, but to show they actually want it and are willing to do something with it," she said. "I always recommend having these constructive conversations face-to-face and digging deep to understand what's really behind the feedback."

Asking questions and listening with an open mind is a good way to start. She also suggests discussing both data and more subjective observations.

"Managers and employees should come up with a solution together, define how progress will be measured and continue to check in and refine over time," she said.

How the tech stack influences collaboration

Executives and managers have to lead by example to encourage collaboration but the tools each team uses are an important element as well. 

Because there's no universal tech stack to plan, build, deploy, operate and support digital products and services, these tools need to be open and integrated, according to Prince. 

"They need to be open so teams can use the tools of their choice, and integrated so collaboration doesn't come at the expense of shipping value fast," she said. 

Prince said developers focused on shipping products quickly will adopt the best tool for the job, regardless of the vendor. This leads to teams using a large amount of tools from a variety of vendors, and most times these tools aren't well integrated. This creates information silos and inhibits collaboration. 

"Teams need to either be connected on the same platform, or using tools that are well integrated with each other, making it easy to find what they need and work together," she said. 

Beyond deep integration, teams need tools that make it easy to collaborate rather than simply sharing status updates and meeting approval processes. 

"Features that enable automation, encourage visibility and streamline processes will foster the highest levels of collaboration," she said.

The study found that only 11% of respondents were successful with all of these technology components of collaboration: 

  • Linking shared workspaces within collaboration apps: 67%
  • Connecting work across multiple products: 60%
  • Inviting commentary from colleagues external to a particular team: 55%
  • Connecting data needed to drive decisions and improve outcomes: 47%
  • Sharing ideas in different forms/media: 46%
  • Providing collaboration technology that is fast and reliable: 45%
  • Automating manual, time-consuming work: 44%
  • Collaborating in real time: 42%

Prince lists the ability to connect work across multiple products as the most important item on this list. Atlassian's 2020 DevOps Trend Survey showed that developer teams use an average of 10 tools to move a project from idea to production. That doesn't count tools used by teams that collaborate with developers.  

"We think the problem is not the number of tools, but the way they're integrated," she said. "We know well-connected products are not only essential for breaking down the silos between development and IT, but also enabling them to collaborate with the rest of the business."

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By Veronica Combs

Veronica Combs is a senior writer at TechRepublic. For more than 10 years, she has covered technology, healthcare, and business strategy. In addition to her writing and editing expertise, she has managed small and large teams at startups and establis...