What does collaboration mean to you? Has it changed since you began reading the Art of Collaboration? When I first started ruminating over the idea that would become this series, I liked to work from the definition I stated in part one, where collaboration meant: “the action of working with someone to produce something.” The bones of this haven’t changed, but it’s really much more than that.
Yet, thanks to its frequently touted status in boardrooms and across managerial structures, collaboration could still seem more like a buzzword than a revolutionary component in your commercial strategy. We may take for granted that collaboration is just naturally what we do, so why even think about it?
However, in the process of analysing the mechanics of ‘collaboration’, we realise that far from it being a simple matter of people working together, there’s a broader psychology occurring here. When we collaborate, something new emerges as the idea passes through each of our minds and collects experiences and insights along the way. Collaboration isn’t just a method for working, it’s a way of being, behaving and interacting with the world.
And it’s important we pay attention to the words we use. Far from being static beads that fit neatly into a string of sentences, language is flexible. It contorts and changes depending on its context. Similar to the atoms that wed together to make molecules, what’s intrinsic doesn’t change, but the way that they are structured alters their expression.
Collaboration isn’t just a method for working, it’s a way of being, behaving and interacting with the world. - Simon Norris
The cascading levels of collaboration
Alongside collaboration’s ambiguity comes two more surprisingly confounding words: capacity and capability. Now, you wouldn’t be remiss to occasionally use them interchangeably, but when taken out of their colloquial context, these two words take on drastically different meanings.
Capacity becomes the sum of an individual’s output, both predicted and actualised. Meanwhile, capability refers to the systems, processes and frameworks that underpin an organisation’s design efforts. Collaboration then is both a golden thread that interacts with every level of design and a key performance metric. Our collaborative capacity builds our capability, which in turn enhances our customer experiences.
This level of linguistic attention may seem pedantic but being precise grants us both intention and clear direction. And what I’m talking about here is a business or design language. I don’t mean that we should go back to hiding behind industry jargon, but rather by establishing shared meanings, we can maintain the group’s cohesion and consistency as it scales and gathers more members.
This commonality in expression also carries a commitment from leadership teams. Most people are just waiting for permission. And so good leaders are those who embody that same collaborative spirit of curiosity and transparency, whilst providing their staff opportunities to do the same. They plus ideas, encourage learning and foster a feeling of psychological safety. This foundation of trust helps to generate fresh ideas and novel solutions because everyone is free to bring their best self, and best thinking to the table.
Figure 1: The Golden Thread. The orchestration of activities across a whole design lifecycle (and beyond), starts before diamond zero.
Collaboration can be the lingua franca when designing for products or services that span the globe, or if you’re in a project team spread across various locations and organisations. And it works just as well if it’s just you and another human toiling away. It requires less ‘I’ and more ‘us’, and in this sense can be considered an egoless activity that shows we’re all on the same team, working to the same goals. And when done well, this team also extends to and includes the customer (but that’s an article for another day).
Great teams make great products
Excellent leaders will nurture the T-shaped individuals in their teams, who in time, will then upskill their co-workers and build capability. Get enough T-shaped people scattered across a business and you’re rewarded with an organisation that is fundamentally more designerly and efficient. But more importantly, this type of outlook cultivates a real feeling of being in it together and creates a shared perspective.
The greatest products and services are not necessarily produced by simply gathering all the most brilliant minds in a specific area. But rather, they are created by teams who are united by shared aims, autonomy, and a genuine commitment to work towards the proverbial ‘common good’.
What makes these teams so much more effective than the ‘work groups’ cited in Google’s Project Aristotle, is that they are egalitarian in the truest sense. Everyone has a stake, and everyone makes a contribution. This team effort results in a gestalt effect where people’s actions are augmented - better work, and ultimately outcomes are realised.
We can’t treat collaboration like we’re on Ford’s assembly line. It’s not factory mentality, driven by the capitalistic need to specialise and create efficiencies and economies of scale. It’s about allowing social capital to emerge and flourish.
Collaboration is creative. This is what Read highlights as lacking within the pencil analogy. That is, people were unaware of their contribution to the whole. This means, if we want people to collaborate and understand the importance of collaboration, we have to encourage them to see the bigger picture. It is more than what a single person does, but rather what they do with other people. We have to encourage the gestalt perspective, seeing the bigger picture, and this is the heart of collaborative thinking and action.
Mastering the bigger picture
Let’s go back to our faithful orchestra metaphor, as we know by now that collaboration requires orchestration. Every player in the orchestra must be able to read music and play in-time. And they need to have those skills in abundance. To achieve such abundance requires relentless dedication and constant practice. The same is true for collaboration.
Collaboration requires us to think and practice the skills we need to perform to complete our duties well, as well as, all the skills we need to help our teammates do the same. By helping, complementing and augmenting the people around us, we strengthen teams and encourage a supermind approach.
What’s crucial back in the studio isn’t necessarily knowing the minutia of each stage in development, but rather how we situate our skills in the context of the project’s commercial goals. This isn’t just a matter of KPIs and driving up conversions in the checkout. Tapping into the ‘why’ requires shifting your perspective and mastering that tricky bigger picture. But once we’ve grappled with the strategic framing of the first diamond, we can then turn to perfecting our own skills within the project’s choreography.
Creating a team of collaborators
What one individual lacks, the wider team provides. Just like our ancient ancestors, we’re able to go further by going together. But this doesn’t mean minimising the individual into a homogenous mass with neither distinction nor autonomous thought. Instead, my philosophy of collaboration is one that throws the door open. It invites everyone in.
Every collaboration manifests differently. And it’s in the unique augmentation of those skills that we find the long-awaited diversity in thought so essential for ground-breaking design. Gestalt isn’t only about the sum of the parts. It is the parts. And the relationships between the parts, as well!
The British writer Alan Watts famously said, “Every individual is a unique manifestation of the whole, as every branch is a particular outreaching of the tree.” Watts is stating the interconnectivity of everything, we included. We are all part of the tree and the tree is part of the world. This shows us that collaboration is an activity with potentially unlimited capacity that we can tap into and benefit from, as individuals and teams and whole organisations.
So, how do you tap into your collaborative capacity? If you’re unsure of where to start, you can find a list of questions over in part three that should begin to knock loose some of the ideal attributes we see in T-shaped individuals.