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Becoming a more collaborative individual | Nomensa

Part Two – Becoming a more collaborative individual

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14 minutes, 49 seconds
Part Two – Becoming a more collaborative individual

In part one, the Art of Collaboration, I provided a broad overview of the importance of collaboration and the different guises it assumes across individuals, teams and organisations. We saw how practicing it can generate more designerly ways of thinking, acting and therefore creating, across all stages of the design lifecycle. And, when partnered with through tools like those in the McKinsey Design Index, it highlights that better design delivers ever-heightening consumer value and commercial returns.

Great collaboration empowers you to transcend the limitations of your own expertise and gain a broader perspective. Through this shift in optics, we can begin to develop a set of skills and a way of thinking that augments both the individual and the group they’re a part of. And this all begins with us. So, for this article, I’ll focus on the benefits of becoming a more collaborative individual, and the skills you’ll need to get there.

(Re)introducing the updated Double Diamond

Nomensa triple diamond - Strategy, Designing, Developing

Figure 4: Nomensa Triple Diamond. The extended Double Diamond includes diamond zero. This additional diamond ensures strategic integration between the design work being conducted and how it ties in with corporate strategy.

Most designers have heard of the Design Council’s Double Diamond, or at least, they should have. Anyway, a few years ago, we extended it by an additional diamond that we call ‘diamond zero.’ In diamond zero, we conduct activities that shape later work within the traditional double-diamond approach. This ensures strategic integration between the design work being conducted and how it ties in with business strategy.

Back in the days of the double diamond, we used the model to connect the various design and development activities that occur in a project, as well as better support team collaboration throughout. However since 2010, our work increasingly became more strategic and we knew we needed to consider other factors. The key one being how better customer experience support the organisation through business design. And these elements didn’t always fit neatly into the original model’s research activities.

Typically, when starting research and design activities in the first diamond, it was expected that strategy had already been set out, or it would be worked out as part of the design phase. This turned out to be a false position. We often found there was little in the way of an overarching strategy that focused on customer value and customer experience, and companies with defined experience strategies were even rarer.

Capturing the right strategic framing

At Nomensa, we appreciated the importance of strategically framing activities. So, rather than trying to squeeze these factors into the double diamond, we simply added another diamond that focused exclusively on it. Essentially, we were taking a first principles approach, and commonly known as “the first basis from which is a thing is known,” as our friend Aristotle once said.

The first principle of a designed experience is the value that it provides to customers – this is communicated, and designed, as a value proposition. When we think about the value proposition of Spotify, it is not the user interface, or even its content. Obviously, both are critical factors, but what makes Spotify superior to music services but is essentially tied into the feeling of discovery it delivers.

The ability to discover new music based on your listening history is a delightfully simple idea wrapped up in a myriad of complex algorithms. Machine learning collapses a process that may previously involve a lot of steps, by making how we search for music part of discovery.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, it turns out that we really like discovering new music. Therefore, discovery is the kernel of the experience that the user interface and content supports. In our diamond zero, working out the value proposition is a key activity that sets the stage for the later activities that follow in the designing and development diamonds. We believe this focus helps to design and deliver better customer experience.

Applying the triple diamond

The triple diamond is also a model that allows us to map activities and skills within a project. These activities tend to be vast and varying, but fortunately, not all of them fall on us as individuals to complete. We don’t need to have the specialist intel necessary to carry out every activity within each diamond. After all, we have our talented teammates for that.

But we need to know more than just our small corner of a project if we want to collaborate effectively. We may know our portion by heart, but we collaborate best when we have a solid understanding of how the whole works together.

Seeing beyond our own specialisms allows us to recognise and appreciate other people’s work. And it helps us to become even more generalist and understand the activities and skills other practitioners in the design lifecycle contribute to. Through the broadening of our perspectives, we expand our skill set by understanding other’s skill sets, and valuable contributions – we can see the golden thread that connects our work with theirs.

Think of the comment made by a janitor to President Kennedy in 1961, who when asked what he was doing, said: “I am helping put a man of the moon, Mr. President.” The janitor understands that their actions are part of the bigger picture, which was putting a person on the moon.

Collaboration is a type of design language. If we think like a musician playing in an orchestra, what are the key factors? What is the language of the orchestra? How do the performers know how to collaborate so well? What can we extrapolate and bring to our own practice so that we in turn can become better collaborators?

Collaboration in this way works a lot like non-verbal communication. By filling in the gaps and adding meaning and perspective to what is said, or in this case, what is designed, we create a language within a language; or rather, a design behind the design.

Becoming a specialist generalist

So, where do we start? We can begin by plotting out the skills we do have and skills we should be developing. From here, we can spy opportunities to deepen our own specialist skills and broaden our understanding across the lifecycle. This latter activity is what drives us to become more generalist. This idea is fundamental to becoming a more collaborative person and is absolutely essential for great teamwork.

Experience design requires a multidisciplinary mindset. There are many skills and activities that need to be combined. One of the skills that supports improving other skills is collaboration. Individuals who exhibit these behaviours are known as ‘T-shaped.’

T-shaped individuals are experts and generalists rolled into one. They may not be a specialist in every area of experience design, but they have a working awareness of what each activity within a project comprises of. They don’t know everything, but they don’t need to. And they’re familiar with their own strengths and shortcomings and know when to call on their team mates to get things done.

T-shaped individuals: breadth of knowledge and depth of expertise

Figure 5: T-shaped individuals build T-shaped thinking and practice

T-shaped people demonstrate a breadth of skills (the top horizontal line of the T) with a deeper specialism (the vertical line of the T). The idea of T-shaped people or skills was proposed in the 90s and then popularised, before being adopted by a number of organisations looking to build teams of people that could collaborate more effectively because of their broader set of shared skills.

Upskilling through collaboration

Crucially, T-shaped individuals are also able to translate their multidisciplinary knowledge to other members of the team. For instance, they may not know the nuances of coding in Python, but they know enough to talk to novices and non-technical stakeholders about it.

They understand what the implications are, what the developer is talking about and what the team needs to accomplish. Not having this understanding will not only reduce knowledge, but it will also limit the skill of how to act, and act well, consequently hampering collaborative efforts.

T-shaped individuals lead by example. They pay attention to the team’s feelings in relation to the group and encourage all of us, regardless of hierarchical standing, to reflect, improve and leave helpful writing on the wall for the next one along. This manifests in happier teams, but also better products and services.

We need to continually expand our understanding and challenge our assumptions. We must cultivate a very open way of thinking about our work, and our contributions. This should make you question: how can we help people to do their best work? Do our processes support collaboration so teammates can become more collaborative?

The characteristics of a good collaborator

The work begins with us. We want to become more than just a group of individuals. We want to be a supermind, like an orchestra (I’ll talk more about that in the next article). And to do that, we also need to nurture soft skills alongside the more technical.

The accumulative effect of this levelling up begins with specialities and reaches out to organisational understanding. We can see what we do, and can do, as part of the bigger organisation. So, it’s important to question, what behaviours should we embrace and what should we abandon in our pursuit to become better team players?

The most important skills are the ones that strengthen bonds and improve communication. These include:

  • Listening
  • Giving and receiving authentic feedback
  • Acknowledging the achievements of others
  • Expanding on peoples’ ideas (plussing)
  • Sharing and working as a team
  • Celebrating everyone’s successes
  • Adaptability
  • Ability to see the bigger picture
  • Problem solving
  • Onsite/remote working with external teams (critical now given COVID-19)
  • Commercial thinking.

Strengthening these skills in ourselves helps us to build a feeling of openness into the teams we’re a part of. Having done the hard work of becoming an expert in our own disciplines, we can champion other people’s ideas and individuality, without fearing their strengths may expose our own limitations.

Looking back at the skills listed, ask yourself:

  • How good are you at them?
  • Can you (and do you) listen without interrupting or wanting to speak?
  • Can you compromise?
  • Are you tactful or critical when delivering feedback?
  • Do you know when to be decisive and when to be considered?
  • Do you step away and say: ‘I’ll think about that’, or do you rush to answer?
  • Do you think about how people will feel?
  • Do you think about how your work links in with others and what they need?
  • Do you consider how it fits within the wider organisation?
  • Do you understand the positive organisational outcomes that will be achieved if you succeed?

Collaboration requires taking the bigger view. It’s an attitude and an outlook. We need to think bigger than the work we do, or just what the team does.

Changing your perspective

To think of this in another way, consider the analogy of Rubin’s vase or Ludwig Wittgenstein’s duck-rabbit illusion. Both are well-known examples of multi-stable perception, which occurs when we switch between a broad and narrow view. For Rubin’s vase, we can only see the face or the vases, but never both at the same time.

Rubin's Vase and the Necker Cube illusions

Figure 6: In the image we can see two famous illusions, Rubin’s vase and the Necker cube which show how our perception switches, also known as a ‘Gestalt shift’.

This sudden change in perception is known as a ‘gestalt shift’, wherein the brain recognises components before actively altering to see both the metaphorical and literal bigger picture. Some people find it hard to intentionally make this cognitive shift, but through practice, we can train our brains to alternate between focusing on the granular details and activities of our individual work, and the more expansive team and organisational perspectives.

There’s also a much grander parallel we can draw here to a perceptual phenomenon known as the Overview Effect. It occurs in astronauts who, while sat gazing back at earth from a window in a space shuttle, are suddenly struck by the fragility and unity of all life on this planet. They are gifted with a broad understanding of the interconnectedness of all things and return to earth with a rare insight into how the seemingly separate roles we all play all fit together. They can see the ‘whole’, which more often than not hits them like a life-changing epiphany.

Figure 7: The overview effect – ‘seeing the bigger picture’

Practicing collaboration

Most of us may never be lucky enough to witness our blue dot dangling in the darkness first-hand. But back on earth, we can bring this expansive perspective into our work. We can do this by working better together, or taking a step back from a problem to try and approach it from a new angle, consequently allowing ourselves to see the bigger picture.

Collaboration is key to all this and it should feel natural, but it can be difficult. And just like musicians in an orchestra, it’s a skill that requires practice. We all have different levels of understanding that can either support or inhibit collaboration. Some of us are at different levels of capability and delivery. Or maybe we’re less experienced at team working. Either way, we need to practice.

And some people are just natural collaborators. While rarer, these individuals aren’t only fruitful for the organisations they work for, they’re a delight to be around. We call them super-collaborators. They lead by example and inspire their teammates to improve and deepen their own practice. They upskill others by being transparent about their work, figuratively pulling back the curtain so that less experienced collaborators can understand and learn from their process.

If you’re not quite there yet yourself, how do you spot them? Well, you look for people with both a specialised skillset and a broad understanding that spans the triple diamond. And if they’re good with internal staff, senior stakeholders and clients. Expert collaborators will come in all shapes and sizes – such is the rich diversity of people – so keep your eyes open.

Collaboration produces better design

Understanding the role you play within your team, and the broader design process, is a sure-fire way of enhancing your own work. But it’s applying that knowledge to both your team’s aims and organisational outcomes that will make you a more effective collaborator. This widened perspective helps you to become designerly, and consequently, better at delivering great customer experiences.

We should all, regardless of our level of expertise or experience, work towards diversifying our skillsets. This doesn’t mean designers need to be able to code, but designers who understand coding are invaluable in highly collaborative teams. This is because T-shaped individuals are able to translate their practice into the context of other disciplines.

Similarly, the best accessibility consultants are the ones who have an expansive understanding of other disciplines, like UX, development or content strategy. They understand not only what’s required from them on an individual level, but also how each practice relates differently to the wider design. They unpick the ‘why’ behind their teammate’s decisions and can gently nudge them back in the right direction, if necessary.

The Gestalt Effect: An individual has competency, an organisation has capability

Figure 8: The gestalt effect: how combining individual competency manifests into organisational capability – the total is greater and more capable than the sum of the individual parts.

An atomic perspective

Behind every great example of collaboration are collaborative people. While obvious, it’s crucial we examine how collaborative we are when it comes to our own work. And could we be even more collaborative? Yes: unequivocally. We can become more collaborative, and T-shaped by practising collaboration.

This is important because great collaborators are not only a piece in the puzzle that forms Gestalt. They can step back and view the team in its totality. By seeing this bigger picture, we can heighten our competency as individuals and augment ourselves into teams. These teams then scale up an organisation’s capability. Collaboration then is arguably the most important factor in any type of digital design. This is also one of secrets to becoming more designerly.

But it’s not always easy to loosen up and pull back our egos. Often without even realising it, we adopt anti-collaborative practices or close rank when we should be making space at the table. We’ll talk more about maintaining openness and accountability within in teams next time. So, tune in for part three, becoming a more collaborative team, next week. And if you’re only just joining us, you can read part one, the Art of Collaboration, right now.

Measuring your capability provides insights into collaboration

An organisation is only as good as the people who work there. And success requires more than just gathering the right minds and T-shaped individuals. You’ll need to partner the best practitioners with policies and processes that allow collaboration to flourish, as well as create an environment that encourages the diversification of skillsets.

And it’s in that diversification that we begin to see individual team members build their personal and collective capacity. This collaborative expertise then ripples out across your teams and wider organisation, generating better customer experiences and resulting in better products.

In the next article, we’ll build on the characteristics of collaborative individuals through better understanding how we can embed collaboration at a team level. If you have any questions before then or would like to talk to one of our customer experience experts, you can find us at hello@nomensa or on +44 (0) 117 929 7333.


The series:

Part One: The art of collaboration

Part Two: Becoming a more collaborative individual

Part Three: Becoming a more collaborative team

Part Four: Becoming a more collaborative organisation

Part Five: The art of collaboration

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