The value of effective ‘one-team’ collaboration

Collaboration - the act of several people or organisations working together to achieve a common goal - is clearly an important aspect of business in today’s world.

Whether we are talking about collaboration between teams and specialists within one organisation or across several organisations, the principles of breaking down siloes, sharing knowledge and encouraging cross-skilled work yield demonstrable benefits in quality and speed of delivery.

Good collaboration allows a team’s performance to exceed the sum of its parts and 'the art of collaboration' was the subject of our Founder and CEO, Simon Norris's, presentation at our recent Collaborate Bristol event

For us at Nomensa, collaboration with our clients and partners is essential to the way we work. It's key to ensuring successful delivery of specific projects and to building mutually beneficial long-term relationships.

But, how can you ensure you adopt the right collaboration strategy that will work for your project and team while maximising the benefits? In this article, I look at a few aspects to consider and demonstrate how we applied a collaborative approach in recent project work with NHS Digital.

Collaboration takes effort

The first step is to acknowledge that collaboration does not often happen organically. It requires time, planning, effort and leadership to make it effective.

In many cases, collaboration between specialists of differing skillsets does not always come naturally so a level of leadership is required to help get the team thinking in the right way and appreciating the value that a highly collaborative approach brings.

Collaborative leadership requires a soft, social approach rather than a dictatorial manner. One of the key tenets of collaboration is that all points of view are valued and all individuals are able to put forward their ideas and opinions for consideration.

With NHS Digital, we worked together with the client team to establish an open, honest team culture based around a framework of communication channels and ceremonies. By working very closely together in the early stages and adopting a flexible approach to processes, we quickly began to operate as a cohesive unit eliminating the client/agency boundary.

That investment of time upfront quickly resulted in efficiency benefits as we shared a clear understanding of expectations and responsibilities while being able to support each other as project demands changed.

Secondly, we must recognise that collaboration exists at different levels within projects and organisations. Day-to-day collaboration within a project team is only part of the approach. Enabling visibility, knowledge sharing and openness across projects, programmes and organisations is an essential step in achieving buy-in and advocacy from senior and broader stakeholders.

To enable this wider collaboration with NHS Digital stakeholders, we facilitated a structured workshop early-on in the project to share our plans and allow stakeholders to have their say and help direct the team’s activities.

Throughout the project, we used sprint ‘Show and Tell’ sessions as a forum to allow people outside the immediate project team to keep in touch with our activities, ask questions and make suggestions.

At the end of the project we presented back the outcomes and recommendations through formal documentation and face-to-face presentations to the wider stakeholders. By adopting transparency and accessibility throughout, we made sure that everyone was on board and there were no nasty surprises at the end of the process.

Does co-location equal collaboration?

As more and more organisations adopt agile principles in their approach, co-located teams are often seen as a necessity for collaboration. The value of co-location is that it acts as a facilitator for communication. My colleague Robin Nash has written about the value of communication strategies in large UX projects.

While co-location is certainly desirable, it should not be seen in itself as a universal solution for a team’s collaboration needs. It can be easy to fall into the trap of believing that a co-located team will be naturally collaborative. One of the 12 principles of the Agile Manifesto states that a face-to-face conversation is the most effective way to convey information.

However, co-location is not automatically the answer. For example, a team can be officially co-located but find themselves split up in a large open-plan office, on different floors of a building, or even in different buildings on a site.

While many organisations are adopting hot desking and flexible workspaces, the idea that a project team has their own dedicated space where they can all work together every day is becoming increasingly rare. As soon as it becomes easier to send an email or a Slack message then the value of co-location is severely diminished.

A drawback of co-location is that its requirement can sometimes limit the talent pool available to a project. While co-location can aid communication within a given team, enabling distributed collaboration can open opportunities to include a wider range of specialist team members. In addition, some team members such as user researchers or product owners may need to be frequently mobile to fulfil their role.

Obliging team members to undertake increased travel simply to fulfil a notion of co-location can be counterproductive as individuals quickly feel the effects of that additional burden.

Our NHS Digital team was split across four locations (Leeds, Exeter, Bristol and Cardiff). We made use of co-location at key times within the project such as sprint ceremonies and team analysis of research outcomes, but we adopted a more flexible approach with day-to-day communication. Making use of digital tools such as WebEx, Confluence, JIRA and Slack allowed us to work together efficiently in a distributed team.

Small touches like ensuring we always used cameras for WebEx meetings made a big difference, enhancing the feeling of unity within the team and enabling a higher quality of non-verbal communication. We also made use of specialist tools to enable cloud—based recording and analysis of research insight. This approach meant that we could work together effectively while minimising the amount of time team members spent physically travelling.

Sharing knowledge and experience

A key aspect of good collaboration is building a healthy understanding of what each specialism within the team does, recognising the value each brings and working out how those different specialisms can work together to best achieve the objectives.

In our work with NHS Digital, the team used a number of approaches to make this happen.

For example, when conducting usability testing, we made sure that members of the development team were always invited to observe, not only giving them a good insight into the UX methods but also allowing them to see first-hand the problems users were facing and how their work was helping to address those needs. Understanding how we were testing the designs with users ensured that the development team knew how they could best support that activity and thus we were able to work together to evolve a streamlined process.

Collaboration is an attitude

The key thing to remember when it comes to collaboration is that it is not achieved through organisational measures such as co-location or even through the provision of a suite of digital tools. Those things are just facilitators. Establishing the right attitude and culture within your team or organisation is critical. Creating an environment where all team members are valued and appreciated while supported by an effective communication strategy will lay the foundations for the openness, idea sharing and mutually supportive approach that are characteristic of great collaboration.

At Nomensa we work closely with our clients to establish and evolve a collaborative approach that really works for the project team. This ensures that collectively we can adopt a ‘one team’ approach maximising value and delivering the best project outomes. At our recent Colaborate Bristol event, our Founder and CEO, Simon Norris, presented on the art of collaboration

If you'd like to learn more about how Nomensa can work with you to create groundbreaking experiences, please drop us a line at hello@nomensa.com, call us on +44 (0)117 929 7333 or send us a message.