3 Common Obstacles to Writing as a Team (And How to Overcome Them)

Government agencies benefit from team writing for several different reasons. One is simply the sheer magnitude of certain government documents. Some projects are too large for one person to manage.

Another reason government agencies benefit from team writing is the expertise that the government has scattered across its departments and field offices. There’s only one way to take advantage of the powerhouse of experts that the government employs, and that’s by asking them to collaborate.

Still, if you’ve ever tried writing a document as a team, you know (probably all too well) that team writing presents a few challenges. Here are three of the most common, along with suggestions for how to manage them.

Infinite Time1) Time – there is a pervasive sense that collaborative writing takes longer than individual writing. The only sense in which this is true is the effort it takes to schedule all the team members to be in one place at one time. In reality, collaborative writing projects take about the same amount of time as individual writing projects.

Two reasons likely exist for this perception. One is that on a collaborative writing project, people are brought into the writing process much earlier than they would be if they were writing a document on their own. The team spends a lot of time planning; whereas an individual would do much of the planning work on the fly and would not consider such work to be part of the “writing process.”

The second reason is the perceived loss of control. In a team environment, consensus must be reached before the writing begins, while individuals are sometimes chomping at the bit to get started writing.

It is true that outside the constraints of a team, we have the freedom to write a document ourselves, the way we see fit, without waiting for consensus. However, in large organizations, an individual may write a document only to find it thoroughly revised or even vetoed by a superior. Once again, the decision-making is being front-loaded, which can make it seem that collaborative writing projects take longer than other documents to write.


Conference2) Group-think
– Our brains work differently in a crowd than they do when we are on our own. For some people, this can be exhilarating. For others, it can feel claustrophobic.

A good facilitator can help to overcome this problem by providing space for the team to reflect on problems individually and then regroup to discuss the problem together. It’s also a good idea for team members to keep journals recording their own thought processes and the ways in which they diverge from or are influenced by the group.

But remember that the value of a team is in its multiple perspectives, and these emerge through dialogue, which brings us to our next point.

Stubborn3) Single-mindedness – Sometimes one (or more) member of the team has one perspective that tends to dominate the discussion and that tends to shut down other productive modes of inquiry. Here are three strategies that a team can use to deal with the problem:

a) Probe – It may be useful to ask probing questions to determine why this issue is so prominent in the team member’s mind. In this way the team may be able to redirect the discussion into other, more productive areas of inquiry.

b) Purpose – Teams should constantly be evaluating their discussions in terms of the purposes they defined at the outset. Ask the group member which of the team’s purposes his or her issue addresses. The issue can thus be re-framed into an area of inquiry that is relevant to the entire team instead of the one team member.

c) Postpone – The team may need to carve out time to address the issue and request that discussion be tabled until that time.

Did you find this information useful? If so, please share it. And encourage your colleagues to subscribe!

Do you need a facilitator for your team writing project? Send me an email or give me a call: 304 283 4573.

Comments

  1. I had to do a collaborative project once. Emphasis on the “once”. Definitely an endeavour I will not undertake again unless under extreme duress. Perhaps it’s the Taurus in me, but it seems when it comes to writing, I do not play well with others. The group “think” portion, I really enjoy because it fosters my creativity, but I really struggle with trying to blend myself and my writing with others on a collaborative project.
    Excellent article, as always. I WILL keep this handy just in case!

    • As a true introvert, this can be a challenge. I think one of the biggest challenges is that even though you value the ideas and opinions of others, not everyone is a “good writer.” However, sometimes others get offended when I change their language, even if the content remains the same, but I reword to make it active voice and plain language.

      I like collaborating with others to get their input on topics through comment sessions, open forums, and webinars – but I do the writing. Then, I send drafts out for comment, for which others are welcome/encouraged to make suggested changes. This really isn’t “team writing” but it allows for an open exchange of ideas and active involvement.

      We have had some unsuccessful history with teams writing policy. It seems to take forever and the product comes in with many flaws – which seem to take more time to fix and then mend wounded egos than it would have been to just do it yourself. I would love to hear more about making true “team writing” work. Thanks for your tips above – I’m looking forward to hearing more.

      • Lisa, I am working last week and this with a team that is writing policy. We are spending LOTS of time having high level conversations about definitions and scope. And we also did a really good job on the first day establishing goals and objectives.

        We spent 3 days at the start of a 2-week session agreeing on the content for every session, and identifying the areas where we could not agree because we did not have sufficient information.

        We then spent day 4 running those areas by our lawyers and policy heads to get clarification.

        Now, as we’re into the second week the team is writing every day, and meeting for a couple of hours to touch base on topics that still seem questionable.

        I’ll be writing a lessons learned post in a few days. Be sure to also check out the Slideshare presentation at http://www.slideshare.net/LMichelleBakerPhD/untitled-presentation-44968552 with the accompanying video tutorial and handout (links available at Slideshare presentation).

  2. Tami – I’m sorry to hear that it was a tough experience, but I’m not surprised by that, especially given that you are a Taurus. Stay tuned, because I have lots more on this topic!

  3. Jeff Jorgenson says:

    Several years ago, I was the “keeper of the document” for a large collaborative writing project. The team involved about 10–12 people from two Federal agencies in separate departments scattered among several cities. My job as the junior staffer was to receive the draft texts from the several sub-teams, conduct an initial review of the content, and insert the harmonized texts into their proper locations in the document, as well as to ensure overall consistency (e.g, citations, abbreviations, office designations, and project names). Each sub-team prepared several sections, but team members rarely interacted with one another as the document was written. While we generally worked from the beginning of the document to the end, one major problem was that style, format, and content decisions made late in the process had to be applied to the earlier text as well. As the keeper of the document, that was my job. The other major problem, however, was that several people – unbeknown to the two team co-leaders — were working on different versions of the same document, including text that had been updated and tentatively approved by senior team members. As a result, on numerous occasions and requiring an extra 2–3 weeks of my time over the duration of the project, I had to repeat or modify many changes that had already been implemented. When I brought these issues to the attention of my supervisor, she agreed with my general observations and suggestions. She was unwilling, however, to institute specific protocols with the staff of the other agency that would have minimized most of these problems. From her perspective, it was easier to depend on me as the keeper of the document to resolve these issues than to institute corrective measures midway through the project. Despite these difficulties, we successfully completed the document (300+ pp.), but for some of us this was an extremely frustrating assignment. In the end, I probably was the only person to read the entire document. Lessons learned: (i) Ensure that project leaders are aware of and able to control the activities of their team members; weekly 15-minute updates are not enough to stay abreast of matters. (ii) Ensure that formal document standards are established, understood, agreed to (including necessary updates) by all team members, including those from other offices or agencies, and enforced by the project leader. (iii) Ensure that team members are working on the latest version of the document.

    • Jeff, the task that you describe has become easier with today’s cloud services. Our team is using Google Docs to maintain chapter drafts along with sample documents. These documents update and save real time, and multiple editors can work on the same document simultaneously. One of our first tasks was to ensure the online material was well organized, clearly labeled, and easy to access.

      I’m glad you identified consistency, and particularly the backwards-insertion of consistency, as a major challenge. We are working to establish and maintain consistency from the beginning of the process. We are defining our terms. We have agreed to a style manual. We are creating a style sheet. And we have brought in the final editor to discuss her process and concerns.

      The concerns you raise regarding coordination with other agencies are unavoidable when working on a large document. They are, however, manageable. Everyone has a part to play – the team leader, the team facilitator, agency leaders, and team members. Early coordination and constant communication are keys to success.

      Your lessons learned and mine share many similar features, and I’m looking forward to hearing your comments on the post I’m preparing now.

  4. Never having written in a team atmosphere, I have several questions in one sentence. Who writes the rules, who determines if the rules are followed, and is there any flexibility allowed in the ‘subject’ body, or is the subject “set in the stone of propriety”?

  5. Jeff Jorgenson says:

    Ron:
    Each project will have a team leader or co-leaders. That person ultimately is responsible for the final product. Style, format, and content rules can be developed by consensus or mandated by agency protocols. The point is that you need to know the standards that will apply. Flexibility is always a consideration, but changes must be agreed and implemented at the team level. Individual creativity in a large collaborative writing project should be kept on a leash in favor of producing a document with a single voice. Good luck.

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