The Little Word that Impedes Collaboration

Collaboration is a key principle of Agile. Yet, I believe that most Agile teams don’t collaborate nearly as much as they could, and as a result, their performance falls far short of its potential.

Collaboration means working together with shared ownership of the results. There are many ways to implement it, such as whiteboard discussions, inclusive decision-making, and pair programming. In most teams I’ve observed, there’s no shortage of professionalism, friendliness, and helpfulness, yet there’s only occasional collaboration.

The Agile literature describes several reasons for this phenomenon:

  • Traditional hiring and planning practices emphasize individual accountabilities.
  • Individual rewards and performance management get in the way.
  • People don’t have enough reference experiences for collaboration from pre-Agile environments.
  • People have bad experiences from collaboration (e.g., they felt tested or criticized).

Since the way we speak reflects how we think, I’ll add a linguistic reason: the word “help.”

In coaching and training conversations, my clients will often use that word when we discuss teamwork, collaboration, and getting to ’Done’. For example:

  • “If someone’s working on a large task, a colleague can jump in and help.”
  • “If a teammate looks stuck, I’ll go over and ask whether I can help.”
  • “Testers can help developers figure out what they missed.”
  • “As a BA, I can help the Product Owner with acceptance testing.”

If someone needs help and is open to receiving it, this type of camaraderie is fantastic. After all, working together can be fun, productive, and a personal growth opportunity. But here’s the kicker: What if that person would agree to working with someone else, but doesn’t want help?

People get sensitive around the word “help,” particularly in business settings. It implies need; admitting the need is an expression of vulnerability. The more senior the person, the riskier the need for help. Organizations hire professionals who should be able to carry out tasks on their own, so getting help may cast doubt on their abilities. Help across a functional divide (e.g., developer helping tester) may be seen as impossible or unwelcome. Sometimes, people interpret another’s help as a favour in need of reciprocation. These are all perceptions, not fact, but they affect behaviour.

The word “help” often creates this tension even when the speaker means it in the best possible way. So here’s a suggestion: don’t use it. Expunge it from your lexicon. As a coach — someone who is expected and paid to help — I don’t use it anymore.

What to do instead? Use words and expressions that truly convey collaboration and partnership. For example:

  • If I see someone taking a long time on a task: “Would you like us to work together so we may finish the task sooner?”
  • If a team mate looks stuck: “Would you like to bounce ideas off me?”
  • A tester to a developer: “Let’s pair up to make sure we cover all the bases.”
  • A BA to a PO: “If you’d like, I can share the load of acceptance testing with you.”
  • “Hey, let’s do this together.”

Verbiage like this shifts attention from personal obligations to team results. It doesn’t have the negative connotations of “help,” even if that’s what working together turns out to be like.

Of course, you can turn this concept around so you’re asking for collaboration, not only offering it. That’s leading by example.

Replacing the little word “help” with an offer of collaboration makes it easier for the receiver to say yes… and safer to say no. Do this a few times, and you’ll find that more people are saying yes, collaboration increases, and your team is happier; you’ve moved closer to a collaborative culture.

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