Nov 05 2021

Empower the People to Enable Efficient Collaboration

Technical problems aren’t always the most difficult to solve.

Federal agencies ask us at 18F to address many different technical problems. As a technology consultancy within the General Services Administration, we get requests from agencies to help improve their logistics, modernize their systems or implement new laws.

We use a discovery phase we call Path Analysis to make sure we understand the nature of the problem to solve. When we can solve it in a user-centered way, we work with the agency in a loose scrum model, checking in with the experts — the users — to make sure we’re on the right track.

We deploy our applications to government-supported platforms such as cloud.gov or common cloud providers using tools such as Infrastructure as Code. If our partners need a vendor to continue the work, we help in the hiring process.

But in most of our projects, the technological problem is not the biggest challenge we face. We often uncover nontechnical problems that 18F and the partners need to solve collaboratively to ensure the project will be successful. 

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Address Nontechnical Issues via Collaboration and with Empathy

We must become both familiar with and empathetic to our partners’ operational constraints. We need to understand and process resistance to change. And we often have to reset our expectations as project directions change.

We work to resolve these challenges by relying on inclusive communication and agility, and by modeling cross-­functional collaboration.

As conflicts arise, we try to address them through true collaboration, not merely begrudging compromise. People bring different technical abilities to a project, and we are careful to respect the value each team member brings, identify how those values align with their roles and check for understanding when speaking.

Even amid challenging conversations, we want our team and our partners to feel that their voices are heard. We speak up when we have experience to share. We seek to help our partners understand, address their concerns and identify ways to encourage underrepresented voices to hold power.

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In these conversations, we try to recognize and repair our own assumptions or biases, especially where our own privilege may overvalue our opinions. We also recognize that asking our partners to work in a new way may be challenging for them.

When we uncover reasons to shift project directions, we need to stay nimble in our project scope, staffing and task tracking. We must also clearly communicate expectations of how the project will unfold and how we will make progress with our partners.

In addressing these problems, we advocate for upfront communication about expectations. In the course of navigating these pivots, we must balance advising on a new technical direction using our software expertise, collaborating to solve emerging problems and being a hands-on coder or security expert. Across these roles, we try to bring technical integrity and follow-through to build trust with our partners.

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Flexibility and Communication Can Help Drive Innovation

As a geographically distributed organization designed to work remotely, we use a combination of videoconferencing, instant messaging and longer written communication. We also recognize the value of in-person workshops, even if those meetings aren’t always possible.

Within and across our disciplines, we recognize that our teams bring diverse experiences and may embody multiple representations of diversity. We try to be “T-shaped” engineers — experts who can collaborate outside our specialties — and embrace the different skills and strengths of those on our team.

In our engagements, 18F and our partners form joint project teams. Our partners are the experts in how they work, the mission they need to accomplish and their operational constraints.

We learn from them about how they approach their work, and we teach them what we know about developing software, leading cross-functional teams with design and product representation while incorporating agile practices.

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