Collaboration – A Top Ten List of Tips

In this modern, technology-driven age, there are arguably two general types of folks: technical and non-technical. If we ask around, the average bear with little or no technical knowledge may feel that technical folks use esoteric language, are too exacting or insensitive. Meanwhile, the average bear with technical skills stereotypically feels non-technical folks are dishonest, resistant and oversensitive when it comes to matters of technology.

If these perceptions have any validity, how can the two overcome their differences and work together better? Our culture has changed so quickly that we have to find strategies to communicate with each other more effectively in general but especially where building fluency in working together around technology is concerned.

We may not be able to change how anyone else operates, however, we can change our own attitudes and approaches to optimize how we interact and find a way to meet each other half way. What follows are some tried and true suggestions that can help us break through stereotypes on both sides of the coin. Well, mostly. There are no silver bullets. Sometimes the challenge may be bigger than any tip or suggestion, but these are a great place to begin :

1. Number one applies to everyone: When approaching anyone for anything, start with good manners. When walking into a technical person’s office, for example, a brief “good morning” or “sorry to interrupt you” goes a very long way in getting off to a great start. Whenever we bulldoze into a space where someone may be working without first a proper and kind greeting, we can often expect the same result. Jarring anyone out of their train of thought does not work in our favor to inspire empathy in our plight. If we are nice off the bat, people will be grateful because most of our lives are usually a constant barrage of interruptions. Setting ourselves up for success in this way may garner more than just in-kind greeting. It might even begin to foster real rapport.

2. On self-deprecation: when we begin conversations by insulting ourselves (e.g. “I’m such an idiot”), we are not funny or amusing. We typically do not come across as humble that way but rather helpless. For example, calling ourselves “Luddites” may have been acceptable 15-20 years ago but by now it only reveals that we have not taken any initiative to gain fluency in a world that is changing whether we like it or not. Starting out in this way does not do much for us in the eyes of smart technical people who value a solutions-oriented approach to life. If we wish to sound friendly and self-deprecating, a better way to express this is something like, “I am not sure what I did to break it this time but…” and then start in with our question and/or plea for help (remember item #1).

3. Most technical people are okay with the concept of making mistakes. It is how we learn. If machines and technologies worked the way they are supposed to they would not have jobs. Fixing problems and solving puzzles is their job and a vast majority of them genuinely enjoy it. They are not, however, okay with us lying about our mistakes. They appreciate it when we are honest about what we may have done to create a situation where something is no longer working. For example, if we spilled something on the keyboard, we should say something. Otherwise, our technical brethren will be off on a wild goose chase before ultimately figuring it out on their own. Not being forthcoming does two things to add to the problem: It makes more work to resolve and thereby makes the job more difficult. They will find out the truth, anyway, so we might as well be honest up front. We will foster a friend who will be pleasantly surprised by our brave honesty. Who knows? We may even find a special rapport that gains us better attention in the future for being refreshingly easy to work with.

4. We must face facts, there may be no magical way to fix some of our issues. Problems simple and complex both require some amount of time and work to solve. With this in mind, it is important for us to try and determine whether or not our issue is worth fixing. We may ask ourselves, for example, “Is this an issue or just an inconvenience in the way the software works?” If it is not affecting our productivity, it is probably not a big deal. The average technical person can fix things in a general way but cannot re-write the way an application or an operating system works. Sometimes it is helpful for us to ask if it is an issue or just a challenge in perception. Can they help us understand a better way to use the software? Technical folks call these kinds of challenges workflow-related and are usually excited to help out in this way if they can.

5. In any context, it is usually not our best choice to make everything an emergency. Not wanting to be perceived as the girl or boy who cried wolf will work wonders for us when we do indeed have a genuine emergency. When we consistently approach people as if our every problem is an emergency, they will eventually treat us as if they are not.

technical_vs_non-technical6. Which leads us to #6: we are never the only ones who need help. Also, we can usually safely bet that we don’t have the most urgent issue. When we give folks some time to address our problem with their full attention it will get fixed and in the best way but only if we treat them like we respect and trust them to do their best (revisit #1 and #5).

7. Contacting our technical folks multiple times over email, tele, chat, etc. about the same issue is not necessary and does not work well for our cause. Technical folks record each issue they encounter and each problem they solve in a database so that they can prioritize in order to keep things equitable for everyone needing help. It also helps ensure they don’t lose track of them (that’s why they typically ask us to email them whenever possible, to help them do so). Depending on the seriousness of our issue, we can expect them to respond as soon as there is a useful update. If our problem is urgent, we should definitely let them know while being mindful of #5.

8. Non-technical folks prefer communicating in person or over the phone. The reasons for this should be self-evident to technical folks. We illustrated why they prefer email to telephone calls in #7. It has nothing to do with their being friendly or not. For them it is about efficiency and prioritization. It is much faster and easier for them to list out a set of questions that they need answers to than it is for them to call and ask one-by-one. We can find the answers at our leisure that way and, for future issues, can refer to them to perhaps even solve it for ourselves. Some technical folks should consider becoming more adaptable. Crafting an approach to each person’s strengths finds solutions faster and friendlier. Face-to-face communication is irreplaceable as a tool to build such confidence and rapport. Being open to this more often is a solution everyone can understand and work with. After all, it’s all about people, people.

9. The two types of people have historically had misunderstandings. Non-technical folks say technical folks are insensitive and technical folks say non-technical folks are oversensitive. Both sides are almost always genuinely trying to help get to a solution. It is important to check ourselves, especially if we become frustrated as we are working to solve a technology-related challenge. If we find we are not moving in a productive direction and mis-communicating, perhaps it is wise to reconvene at another time, once emotions have had a chance to settle. Pushing a situation where one or both parties cannot communicate respectfully only makes finding the answer more work than it needs to be.

10. Finally, perhaps most importantly, be ourselves. We should not try to act as though we know more than we do. If we are honest and clear, we are doing our part. The most gifted technical folks do not use much technical talk at all. Instead, they bend their level of detail as needed, as understood, to each person they work with. Likewise, as non-technical folks, we owe it to ourselves to be honest about what we do not know. As humans, we are generally not good at revealing what we do not know. If we are honest about what we do not know, however, we open ourselves up to a world of knowledge and understanding. If both technical and non-technical folks are genuine and approach each collaboration in this manner, to learn together, we can only expect to gain authentic information and experience.

As we each craft our own approach with these suggestions in mind, we may find ourselves happier in general about learning how to use and fix all of this stuff and enjoy working with each other in the process. Our culture has changed so rapidly, seemingly overnight. Accepting that is no small challenge. Working together to adapt and embrace these changes is our best choice for finding value and purpose in the work into the future. Who knows? We might even offer ourselves a chance to learn something cool.