Collaborative Project Management Explained

Everybody is familiar with the traditional project management method and how it works, but what is collaborative project management?

The short answer, there is no solid definition of collaborative project management yet.

People have different ideas and vision when it comes to this topic.  One reason for this is that it is a new method.

No rigorous academic work has been published on this subject as of this writing.

Another reason for lack of formalization for collaborative PM is the fact that this method was discovered due to new capabilities in technology which was brought to market by social media.

Social media apps like Facebook and Twitter has had a huge effect on how people engage and communicate with each other at home and at work.

The introduction of smartphones has only accelerated this phenomenon.   

The lessons learned from social media were integrated by some vendors to the business applications.

One area that has been on the forefront of this change is the project management software market.   

Unfortunately, organizations like PMI, have not yet defined what collaborative project management means and what are its requirements.

PMI has written about this subject in the past, like this article in 2002. But it was never considered as a new concept or method.

PMI considered Collaborative work as a work habit and not a new project management method.  

Many software vendors claim that their ware is collaborative, but no one is clear at what it means.

Nobody has defined the features that are absolutely needed in the collaborative project management.  

In this paper, we will define what the term collaborative project management means and how it is practiced in real-world projects.

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Collaborative project management Definition 

Collaboration means that a group of people work on a common goal to achieve an objective that all share.

There are people who define project collaboration as dividing a project into small pieces and then let each piece be done by a different group or team.

When all groups have finished their work, the results are integrated/combined and a new product or service is made.

This definition is only partially correct. There is more to collaborative work than dividing up a job between several groups.

By our definition, collaborative work means an open, transparent, and democratic work environment where all project’s participants have access to all the project’s information at any time and from anywhere. 

In Collaborative PM everybody is allowed to contribute. There are no boundaries and chiefdoms like the old work habits.  

Everybody’s ideas are respected and heard. It does not mean every idea or suggestion is accepted, just they are given proper time and attention.

This means there is no fear of failure and nobody feels his/her ideas will be discarded without proper evaluation and vetting.

I have summarized the elements of collaborative project management below:

1- The work is open and transparent to everyone in the project

2-The project scope and the goals are known to all project participants.  

3- Everyone in the project has access to the same data at any time from anywhere.

4- Everyone can contribute to every part of the project. There are no boundaries on contributing and discussing ideas.

5- The project has open communication channels for all. Managers and contributors communicate and collaborate freely.

6- All ideas are heard and discussed without the fear of ridicule or put down. 

7- No idea is deemed crazy, every idea is checked and discussed.

8- There is no fear of failure, people are encouraged to take risks and work on new ideas. 

9- Everybody is given credit for the success of the project. The success or failure is the team’s alone and not the individuals.

10- After a thorough discussion of the important issues, decisions are made in a timely manner, even if the team does not have all data at hand.

11- After a decision is made, everyone on the team accepts the decision and set it as his/her personal goal

12- Nonperforming or subpar performing team members are replaced as soon as the problem is known to the team.   

In such a project environment the role of the project manager is very different than in the traditional project management.


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Project Manager’s role in Collaborative PM

In a collaborative environment, very much like in the democratic societies, we don’t have rulers but leaders. 

A project manager in the collaborative work should know how to lead, plan, and communicate.

The qualifications of the project manager for collaborative work is as follow:

  • Has to be a leader
  • Has to be assertive when decisions are made
  • Has to be a great communicator, should be able to articulate the project’s goal and the management’s vision.
  • Needs to be able to listen and give feedback.
  • Should have some knowledge of the problem domain. This means the manager needs to have some background in the area the product or service is targeted for. 
  • Needs to be a good organizer and manage the time during the project right.
  • Needs to be able to plan and document everything important in the project.     

The requirements for team members

Not everyone is qualified or able to work in a collaborative work environment. This might sound strange, but this is absolutely true.

Some people prefer to work alone. Others have great difficulty communicating with others.  

The following is the list of qualities needed for each team member of a collaborative project.

  • Strong contributor with above average technical capability in the field the product is aimed at.
  • Able to collaborate and communicate with colleagues and higher-ups.
  • Self-starter and eager problem solver
  • No ego and willing to share and contribute    
  • Able to work with diverse people and cultures 


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Type of projects that are suitable for Collaborative work

Not all projects are suitable for collaborative work either. Some projects require absolute secrecy and the open work environment will be determinant to their outcome.

Below I have listed projects that could benefit from collaborative project management.  

  • Projects employing remote workers
  • Industrial projects which are done in multiple locations
  • Large software projects targeting consumers
  • Hardware projects requiring some level of programming like firmware and software.   
  • Marketing and PR projects
  • Web design and internet projects  
  • Projects requiring excessive research and discovery    

Although some projects should not use Collaborative PM, even projects which require secrecy can use some elements of collaborative project management.

For Example, a complex project involving many disciplines could be broken down into small pieces or components.

Each component is worked by a team which internally collaborate but is not aware of the other components being worked on in the project.

The teams working on each component don’t have access to other teams and don’t communicate with each other.

The team that integrates all components is called the control group. They write the specifications and establish the API between components.

The control group has total knowledge of the project and is the holder of all project’s secrets.   

The output from each team is sent to a control group which ultimately is responsible for the project.

This group gathers all components, assemble them and makes the final product or service.

This group is also responsible for information flow amongst all the teams.

In extreme cases, the people working on teams don’t know what the final product is. They get a requirement and API specification from the control group.

This abstract work condition protects the secrecy of the projects but allows multiple teams to work on the project. 

Most military and industrial projects are done this way to keep the project’s details unknown to people working on the project and the prying eyes of competition or foreign spies. 

Documentation requirements

Every project has documentation. A collaborative team needs to store and maintain files in a folder that is accessible to all members of the project.

Having a good document management system is critical for collaborative work.

If there is no proper document management system in place, due to freewheeling communication and collaboration between team members, a lot of important information and decisions may get lost and never seen by other team members.

This deprives the team of looking back at the history of decision making in the project and learn from their mistakes.

 It also keeps other teams members who were not present in the conversation, in the dark and not aligned with others. 

Both of these issues create huge problems and destroys team cohesiveness and focus that there has been present up to that point.  

That is why it is so critical to have an electronic message board similar to Slack for posting messages and updating everyone as what is going on in the project every day.

When documents are uploaded or changed, everybody in the team gets a notification.

This frees everyone from sending and receiving emails which are easily lost in the heap of mail we all get every day.

An additional benefit of the document management system in project management is the fact the most systems keep all versions of a file.

This means at any time it is possible to go back in time and retrieve old versions of any document. 

Final thoughts

Should you jump on collaborative project management bandwagon for your next projects? 

The short answer is a resounding yes. In our experience when  Agile project management or Hybrid project management is practiced collaboratively, the results are amazing and beyond anything, we have experienced before.

Before you start working on collaborative work, you need to make sure all tools and procedures you need for collaboration and communication are in place.

Collaborative project management is new. This document is just a starting point and not complete or comprehensive. We hope to add more details on this subject in the future.

We hope institutions like PMI and academic circles pay more attention to this new branch of project management science. 


David Robins


David Robins is the founder and CEO of Binfire. David studied at both Cornell and MIT, and was the Director of Software Engineering at Polaroid for 11 years.


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