Collaboration Loops: More on Making the Leap

If you’ve read some of the other articles on this site, you may know that I established it primarily to change the nature of the “which tool when” conversation from one focused on tools to one focused on principles that we can apply across present and future tools. It’s my belief that people don’t need to understand which tool to use so much as they should understand why they use the tools they do and what could be different if they approached their work differently.

My colleague Simon Terry has written a terrific post that’s bridging this gap between a conversation about tools and one about how we should work. The post focuses on the transitions between modes of working, represented primarily by working with your “inner loop” vs. your “outer loop.” These loops have been used to differentiate between when a group should use a chat collaboration tool, such as Microsoft Teams, or a feed-based community tool, such as Yammer.

James Spader transitions between loops. If you’re not a Stargate fan, you won’t get it.

What Simon has done here is illustrate that the inner/outer loop model may not be as clear-cut as it appears. Not only do I want to bring my focused work to my outer loop for feedback and learning, but when working with my broad network, I also need my inner loop in order to improve my focused execution. We see this behavior regardless of the tool. Authors bring their work to a writing circle. The vintage car community has a working group organizing their next rally. What we need to better translate this behavior into our digital workplace are affordances that make shifting from one mode to another more seamless, while retaining the advantages of purpose-made work environments.

Knowing when to switch is important, but many don’t know there’s another place that’s better suited to each of these loops. They’re still stuck in the uber-loop of email. People like Simon and myself get puzzled looks from these people because they’re well aware of their people loops and have made that tool work for both. It’s working for them. However, I propose that they’re living beneath their privileges, like a passenger on a cruise ship eating beans and crackers in his stateroom when all the banquets come with the ticket price.

Let’s switch to another tool choice to further illustrate that it’s not about tools themselves, as much as teaching transitions: look at the introduction of IM. At first, there was resistance to being more available for instant questions from anyone. In fact, there are still many people, myself included, that will turn off their availability in order to focus.

However, with the introduction of presence indicators in email clients, we taught ourselves how & when to make the transition from asynchronous to synchronous communication. We no longer have “which tool when” conversations about email vs. IM. We know what the value of each is, and we know why and how to transition. The inner loop vs. outer loop methods of work need a simple integration point like IM’s presence indicator.

Here’s an idea to illustrate: what if Outlook prompted you whenever you added more than 10 people to an email? It might use nudges such as “Consider sharing to the XYZ group. 8 of the 10 people on your To line are already in that group, and a wider audience should yield richer interaction. Click here to move this conversation there.” or “You’ve emailed these 6 people frequently about the same topics. Have you considered creating a Team with them to provide more agility, transparent status, & organized work artifacts? Click here to auto-generate that Team.”

“The better we are able to explain to users the value of a way of working and when we transition to another mode of working, the better we will support their work. That goal is far more important to individuals and organizations than advocacy or adoption of a platform.” – Simon Terry

What is it that prompts a user to look for a different way of working? I’m left with the impression that Simon is encouraging team leaders and community managers to bear the bulk of the burden, using frequent nudges and prompts that he lays out nicely in some tables. However, I fear this kind of intervention may not be enough. We’re too distributed, often solitary, for over-the-shoulder coaching to be frequent enough to change behavior.

My thoughts turned to bots. Now, I’ve yet to interact with a bot that was truly useful. Admittedly, the AI behind them may not have been sophisticated enough to impress me. I tend to come away thinking I would’ve rather clicked a tab to a purposeful UI designed to get me to the end result much more efficiently.

However, I think this scenario of *intelligently* inserting prompts, either to the individual or the team, nudging them into a different loop for more effective work and/or learning is worth exploring with a bot. It could start simply with regular prompts to share work from the inner to the outer loop if nothing’s been shared recently. Outer loops that haven’t seen much interaction could message the group admins: “Your community needs more purpose, more urgency. Consider starting a small project with these 5 people, as they’re your most active and closely tied. Then share your work with the larger group.” As the bot grew more sophisticated, it could look at team velocity against their backlog and suggest outer-loop behaviors at critical times where higher performing teams have reached out for broader input.

Simon wraps up by claiming that a true master of all modes of working will demonstrate all the behaviors in his Value Maturity Model, regardless of which loop they’re in. In other words, masters are those people connecting and sharing in the broader org context just as easily as in the immediate team, and those that can solve and innovate in their team before taking it to the broader org.

The tools for working in new ways are rapidly maturing, perhaps faster than our own mental models of collaboration, and certainly faster than we require to change long ingrained habits. Some careful attention to the “edges” of our tools and processes might help us make the small daily transitions we need to make in order to navigate the larger cultural shift that will look like a new world of work.