Manage Collaborative Writing Teams Effectively

 In the last few posts, I’ve been encouraging writers to work together in a collaborative environment. I’ve been honest about the pros and cons of such a strategy. I’ve offered some reasons why I think it’s not only practical but vital for organizations in the current professional climate. And I’ve given a few suggestions for how such a project could proceed smoothly.

Now it’s time to address the team leaders—the managers who are considering implementing these strategies in their own organizations. First let me say congratulations! You’ve chosen wisely. A collaborative writing project is going to be more streamlined, more efficient, and more rewarding than a traditional decision document. And the finished product will be more sound.

Next let me say, proceed with caution. The leader on such a team must be a diplomat, not a bureaucrat; a coordinator, not an agitator; a facilitator rather than a dictator.

It is likely that you will organizing the schedules and opinions of upper level reviewers as well as lower. That means you will have to plan meetings around their schedules, allow their voices to be heard, and keep them in the loop without being perceived as a pest. This is a skill you have likely already negotiated.

Ironically, at the same time that higher level executives are being tapped for the project, lower level staff tend to resent what they see as a drain on their personal time. This is especially true when they are too low on the chain to see the relevance of upper managements’ comments. You can resolve this problem by allowing staff sufficient time to devote to the project and rewarding them for their efforts with positive performance evaluations.

Most importantly for both high and low level team members to remain invested in the project, managers should associate each meeting with a clearly defined written product. Even before a simple conference call, circulate an agenda including the topic, the person speaking, and the estimated time. Include handouts and responsibilities for each person on the call, like “read attached agenda. Prepare questions to be addressed at next week’s call.”

Make one person responsible for producing something in writing that will make a meaningful contribution to the final document. This might be an amended research schedule based upon newly discovered information. Or it could be an outline for one segment of the document addressing the concerns of a specific department or agency.

If you have trouble identifying this product, then ask yourself and your team what the meeting’s purpose is. Remember, your goal is to produce a written document, not to talk about producing a written document. Meetings can be an effective way of avoiding real work. Good managers do not allow that to happen.

Good managers also understand when to lead and when to follow.  As a manager, you may be facilitating the team’s overall progress, but that does not mean you are or should be “in charge”.

Be aware that leaders will emerge at different times and for different reasons throughout the course of the project. At some stage, this will be due to a subject matter expertise. Perhaps Bill is the office guru on search engine optimization, for example. Then again, when it comes time to prepare the document for press, Cindy has a Master’s in English, and her editing skills become invaluable. And Jim is simply charismatic. His cheerleading motivates everyone to stay focused on the project.

Don’t feel that you need to lead in any traditional fashion. So long as these leaders are moving the team forward, it’s okay for you to remain in the shadows. But do remember that creative conflict and minority views are part of the strength of a collaborative writing project. So do not allow any one personality or even a majority to overwhelm what could be a valid or important idea. As manager, you need to protect those voices and make sure they don’t get lost in the shuffle.

In addition to facilitating the project, a good manager will organize the collaborative writing project into an organic training experience to benefit every member of the team. Obviously, you will want to pair newer staff who often bring technological and research skills to the table with senior employees who understand policy, procedure, and the subject matter. This is also an opportunity to match poor writers with those who are more gifted. As you do so, consider balancing those partnerships by finding people with subject matter or technological expertise to balance their deficiencies in grammar or mechanics.

Finally, if you intend to continue writing collaboratively within your organization (which I would strongly encourage!), during and after the process, ask team members to evaluate themselves both individually and as a group. Especially ask the team to reflect on the processes they used to work effectively together. And be sure to consider the processes that didn’t work, since we all know how much we can learn from our mistakes.

I’d love for you to share your results here.  Let me know what’s working, and what’s not.  Leave comments, questions, and feedback.  And in this space, we can create a collaborative writing community of our very own.

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