Collaborative Grease

Mar 29, 2023 | Ryan J. Riker

Machines have many vital parts. If I asked you what an important part of a car is, you almost certainly just thought of something hard, maybe metal, maybe heavy, but you didn’t think about any of the many fluids that make a car function. The hard metal parts are cool, and strong, yet some are flexible. Their functions could be pulling tons of car uphill, forcing the large metal machine to a stop, or containing explosions. While it might be hard to envision a liquid being a vastly important “part,” as any mechanic will tell you, a machine’s fluids are vital. 

If I were to ask you what was an important part of an organization or business, you might have a similar reaction, naming something big, exciting, and buzz-worthy, or a notorious tool or methodology. You would similarly not pay attention to the collaborative gels that keep that organization going smoothly. That sort of gel and flow is just as vital to an organization as it is to a large metal machine.


The Breakdown of the Machine

There is no clunky engine to signal when you have burned through all your collaborative grease. No big orange check organization light that goes off when there is a problem. You have to keep an eye out for those yourself. Thankfully there are signs of trouble you can look for. 

Does your organization do a set of tasks that seems unnecessary, but people keep doing it because “that’s the job” or “we are not sure why but someone important must have decided we needed to do it this way”?

Has the job recently changed and the staff’s reaction was to just brute force it by hand or Excel?

Is it challenging to get other teams to tell you what they are working on, and perchance do they actively fight against you adding a team liaison to their working group? 

These are a few of the signs your organization is grinding itself to nubs due to friction, and you should apply some collaborative grease. Acting as collaborative grease is one of Silicon Mountain’s specialties.


Classic Grease: Allowing Things to Move Easier

There is that old-timey saying “the squeaky wheel gets the grease;” in our case, this takes the form of being an unyielding ally when it comes to removing roadblocks. When you attempt to remove a roadblock, predictably you should expect a good bit of resistance. The changes you ask for will temporarily increase someone else’s workload, either by shifting your normal work away from you so you can work on the change or directly creating work for them if they have to work on the change. Since doing nothing is easier and “works,” some will object purely due to the additional workload. 

Others will object due to the change offending their fiddler on the roof. Everyone has some limit to what level of changes in tradition they can handle. Change is risky, and they would rather wrap themselves in the warm and familiar glow of the word processor of yesteryear instead of learning a new skill. This is part of the human condition. Once you manage to get someone past the learning curve, it’s easy to convince them how much nicer a new more modern tool can be. Your job as the grease is to hold on and train the resistant folks to use the new tool. You can not give them any leeway, they are already grinding the machine down; if you give them an inch, they will also start grinding you down. 

Now that’s not to say you can’t grind them down some. After all, you shouldn’t ignore the good for the perfect. If you get a 75% solution, stop bullying and take it. Then share the success with those that were resisting so they help you get the remaining 25%. 


Exploratory Grease: Finding that Missing Part

Grease has to get everywhere and work its way into every edge and flat place. So doing a good job with collaborative grease means doing a lot of exploring and investigating. When you find a group with a friction problem, ask them a lot of questions. Figure out what’s the best area to work on unblocking or collaborating. Then to get things moving you might feel the knee-jerk reaction to custom build a tool for every problem. It will at first feel like everyone’s problems are unique. 

Often you will find that people use the wrong tool for the job because that tool is available and it’s the quickest, but also the most manual, path forward. So part of the investigation is looking for the right tool. It will not always be building a new tool; the right solution might be slightly bending an existing tool to your will rather than starting from re-inventing it.


Communicative Grease: Making Sure the Left Hand Knows What the Right Hand Is Doing

If an organization is big enough, it’s very likely that people will not have a full and accurate map of said organization in their mind. The same thing can happen if your organization is full of historical or current silos. If workers are unwilling to take the risk and innovate themselves, it’s normally because they are waiting for someone higher up the chain to tell them it’s fine. It’s a terrible but common problem often caused by traditions and embedded cultures. So when someone says they don’t know who makes the call about a subject, that’s your tip-off to go looking for the “right person” with the right “power.” When compared to finding a tool, locating the right people tends to be a little easier. You already work there, so you have contacts. Ask them for help, most of the time that works; people might not realize exactly how much of the puzzle they already have. If asking around doesn’t give you any good leads, lots of organizations have directories. 

When you track down the right person; what do you do with that information? I like to have a council of elders style meeting where we bring up the blocker and when the first person says “they don’t know who has the power to change things,” you introduce that special right person and let them take over. It is important to make sure as many product owners and leads get a copy of the info you found so they can unblock their own teams. 


Get Your Regularly Scheduled Oil Change: Keep the Collaborative Grease Going

It’s important for any machine to have all its parts freely moving. To do that you need some parts that act like a fluid. There is a reason why cars have those red impressive warning lights built into the dashboard.  Millions of dollars have gone into designing better ways to remind people that their oil needs to be changed.  A car’s oil’s job is never done. It’s the same with collaborative grease, I regularly like to say there is no done. There will always be another point of friction in any organization. It’s important to have a fluid-like team running through your organization constantly.  These fluid teams’ job should be to find hard stationary places and unstick them so the machine can get back to doing its good work. Get your regularly scheduled tune-ups, keep the fluids flowing, and your organization can keep running friction-free for years to come.

oil being poured into an engine

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