September 25, 2018

Workplace Collaboration

Rowing team race representing collaboration in the workplace

By: Rich P., Sr Systems Analyst

The future of work has been on my mind lately. It makes me think about how we work together, and how collaboration in the workplace, wherever that might be, is more important than ever.

At Cengage, collaboration is enabled by tools, and for some groups, a variation of the agile scrum framework. Cross-functional teams build solutions iteratively, with support from a technical product manager who, as product owner, works with the business to prioritize features. Combinations of staff are encouraged to take Scrum Master responsibilities to help enhance team performance.

Enter my recent experience.

Agile Training

I attended training delivered by a group of agile coaches who were piloting a new course focused on the Scrum Master role. There were just six of us from technology and other groups. The training was based on industry standards. I was impressed by the collaborative way in which the coaches presented the materials and engaged us to understand concepts. Also, the idea of “being agile” was intriguing. I would describe it as a mindset in which business agility occurs naturally within an organizational culture that values and believes in adaptation and innovation.

Aside from interest in agile methodologies, my intention in taking the course was to get a handle on best practices with the aim of sharing and implementing them. This was especially important to me after offering to facilitate the daily standup for the team that I support.

Although our agile journey is ongoing, there is an active spirit of collaboration at Cengage. I saw that collaboration in action during training, and see it in my daily interactions with colleagues at work.

Collaboration Tools

The choice of tools reflects that spirit.

Slack instant messaging for individuals and groups has practically replaced email in the technology space. I had not used Slack before coming to Cengage. At one point during my transition, it started to feel like a game changer, much like when I started to use a standing desk some years ago. Slack injects a kind of urgency that serves to accelerate the pace of working. Keeping up with multiple discussions has been a persistent challenge. Recently, I noticed the sudden appearance of bots to help monitor those discussions. Nice. Bots also make me wonder what else is possible as artificial intelligence enters the workplace.

Video conferencing is a must, particularly for distributed teams and remote workers to collaborate effectively. Although I had familiarity with a variety of video tools, none of them were as intuitive as Zoom. I first used this tool during the Cengage hiring process, and dove right into it — downloading the free version, practicing, and positioning the camera to include paintings, plants by a bay window, and part of a retro-looking couch. It provided a friendly and comfortable way in which to have conversations. I feel the same way in the workplace. Zoom serves to reduce the distance between the Boston and San Francisco offices, and other offices in the U.S., Canada and overseas.

Among the suite of collaboration tools, Google docs and sheets are prominent.

Positive Psychology + Flow

Some days ago, agile coach Dave Berke introduced me to “positive psychology”, a separate domain of knowledge that focuses on the behaviors and conditions that cause people to flourish. Dr. Martin Seligman, the founder of this domain, created the PERMA model to capture those facets: positive emotion, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.

The parallels with agile theory interested Dave. Consider the team dynamic, which at its best is self-forming and positively engaged to achieve real value for the end-user. For team members, this kind of intrinsic “flow” gives meaning to their collaboration beyond simply completing the work.

You might already know that “flow” was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. In his theory, he proposed that people can reach a state in which they are so fully absorbed in an activity that it brings them total satisfaction, while producing optimal results with seemingly minimal effort.

My Takeaways

During my Scrum Master training, I kept a journal to record takeaways, to remind me of my initial intent. I highlighted items that resonated most. Subsequently, I discussed them with the agile coach assigned as my mentor for a period of time after the training. To date, I have shared training materials, drafted strawman checklists to define when a ticket is ready to be worked and when that work is complete, and plan to present an aspect of my agile training at an October offsite.

Dave Thomas, a signatory of the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, in recent years has talked about the essence of agility in two parts: (1) Understand the current state, step toward your goal, revise based on your learnings, and repeat; (2) Faced with equivalent options, select the option that is easiest to change. For me, this call to action reflects “being agile” in the spirit of the four values outlined in the manifesto.

It makes me think how agility combined with positive psychology could be leveraged to build on the spirit of collaboration that already exists here at Cengage.