I’m a member of the Office of the CTO at Google, where I work with companies to make sure the technology they have in place meets their employees’ needs. And here’s the most common question I hear from business leaders: How can I help people become more collaborative?
The answer is simple (though not always easy to execute). It starts by fostering an environment that encourages people to speak up and share their ideas.
The words “productivity” and “collaboration” have been thrown around so aimlessly that they’ve almost lost their meaning, but they remain very important to current and prospective employees. Here are three common missteps leaders make that prevent collaboration, and the best ways to avoid them:
Problem #1: Not actually encouraging ideas and input
You might tell your employees that you value all views and time spent on brainstorms. A recent Harvard Business Review and Google Cloud survey found that 89% of global executives say that for a business to be successful, they need new ideas from everyone, regardless of company stature. If you want these ideas, you need to have a culture where people feel comfortable sharing them.
For example, a company has built a culture where unpolished work is unprofessional. As a result, employees wait to share work with colleagues until it’s near-perfect. Because it’s so far along, your colleagues may provide frivolous platitudes instead of feedback on the core idea. The initial idea keeps steamrolling ahead, irrespective of quality.
It’s much better if you encourage employees to share work that’s in progress and a little rough. At Google, we understand that work should be polished according to its level of completeness.
- A document labeled [DRAFT] might just be abstract bullets on a page. When someone receives this document, they know that they are welcome to give feedback. They also know to provide big-picture feedback, and that now’s not the time to talk about the smaller points.
- A document labeled [WIP] (work in progress) means that the team still needs input on the core ideas, but also on some finer points. Usually, there is a section of concerns raised from the DRAFT phase that’s helpful to read through to make sure you aren’t repeating a point. But any feedback is still welcome.
- A document labeled [FINAL] is complete. Reviewers focus on edge cases that the team might have skipped.
Waiting too long on “polish” can slow down the process of getting to the best idea. Encouraging the sharing of unfinished work creates a new social norm. It’s crucial for employees to feel like they can share their best and brightest ideas. After all, that’s what you’re paying them to do.
Problem #2: Allowing mundane tasks to take up too much time
When people are bogged down in day-to-day tasks, they have less time to tackle the big projects. Furthermore, the frustration of tedious tasks drains energy from creative thinking.
At Google, employees are always finding creative ways to automate the boring stuff. For example, finding a document for a meeting shouldn’t be a task. It’s a lot of mental energy to remember precisely where files are saved, and going through the motion of double-clicking repetitively is annoying. At Google, we use search the majority of the time. But even better, in Google Drive, we automatically surface relevant files using artificial intelligence and machine learning. This has helped Drive users find the files they need up to 50 percent faster.
Replying to email can be viewed as a chore. It can be hard to figure out the right words to say. At Google, we leverage Smart Compose in Gmail, which anticipates your next word or phrase. In addition to saving keystrokes, it’s doing so much more by being a writing partner. You don’t have to take the suggestion provided, but it’s showing an alternative that can help you to brainstorm your response.
Problem #3: Tech that blocks instead of surfaces ideas
With the right technology, you can build a project with input from the entire team at all stages of development. On the flip side, the wrong technology runs the risk of shutting out voices and ideas.
Let’s talk about meetings. Using videoconferencing is a huge leap forward in improving collaboration, but it doesn’t resolve all collaboration gaps. There’s an opportunity to layer on the ways we work together. For an employer, leveraging technology to get the most out of meetings should be a top priority, even when we’re all in the same physical space.
The following two examples from meetings will feel familiar. At Google, we solve these questions by working together directly on the content in real time.
For the presentation we are discussing, I have an idea to improve the image on slide 5. How can I share it without interrupting the whole meeting?
I add a comment to the image on slide 5, suggesting we change it, which is visible to everyone. These comments are tied to specific items and can be addressed immediately in the meeting, or asynchronously later on. We can also use comments to track the next steps.
Based on the meeting’s conversation, I have a new item for the agenda. How can I get that topic in the queue?
At Google, we use an ongoing, live document where everyone can see the agenda in real time (hint: link out from the calendar invite, so it’s easy to find); we take the meeting notes here as well. I add my new agenda item to the document, and when the team scrolls to the next topic, it’s already there.
It’s silly to give people the same tools and technologies and expect them to work differently. When you use the same legacy tools, you’re not going to inspire a new way of thinking. But when you’re intentional about choosing tools that foster communication and collaboration, you’re enabling your employees to talk to one another and come up with the next great idea.
Diane Chaleff is a member of the Office of the CTO at Google Cloud.