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Becoming a more collaborative organisation | Nomensa

Part Four – Becoming a more collaborative organisation

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13 minutes, 42 seconds
Part Four – Becoming a more collaborative organisation

We’ll begin chapter four with a concept you’ll likely be familiar with: Gestalt. Synonymous and summarised by the famous maxim: “the whole is larger than the sum of its parts,” it’s a theory known and loved by designers and non-designers everywhere.

With waves of designers across time building upon its foundational theory and drawing out their own principles, we’ve witnessed gestalt become more than the sum of its own (original) parts. This transgenerational synergy is worth dwelling on. It demonstrates how the theory itself has become a system of collaboration, as each iteration improves and passes on an adapted theory that is then further augmented by accumulated learning.


Channeling the Gestalt

It follows then that behind every successful collaboration is a team of people working and operating within a system. A system that has been practiced, analysed, and enhanced. In fact, when it works best, it can be hard to tell where the team ends and the individual begins. The team acts like an orchestra unified in approach and desired outcome, but composed of separate parts.

Part-1_Figure 1_sandwich.jpg

Figure 1: The combined ingredients that make up a sandwich show the Gestalt Effect in action.

Luckily, we don’t need to know how to play every instrument, or even know how to read from the composer’s sheet. We need only perfect our section of the symphony. And this focus on specialisation is touched on by the famous economist Adam Smith.

Smith proposed that the accumulated actions of individuals can result in economic and social benefits that weren’t previously intended or considered. This is because they are operating collaboratively within a system. From here he then drew upon the metaphor of an invisible hand. Or rather, the idea of it first mentioned in Leonard E Read’s seminal essay, I, Pencil in 1958.

Read wrote that for all of the thousands of people involved in the production of a pencil, “some among them never saw one and would not know what it is for.” Each understood their role in the assembly line, but no one “involved in producing the pencil performed his task because he wanted a pencil.”

Some just wanted the services they could buy in exchange for the hours they spent on the factory line. Others just wanted to write something down. This shows we don’t need to comprehend the totality of what will be delivered, but rather we need to understand our role in its production (lifecycle). We need to understand our specialism and how it fits within the larger choreography of all associated activities.

That is to say, how all the specialisms combine to produce something bigger and greater – this highlights the importance of the ‘gestalt’. More specifically, the importance of emergence (a gestalt principle) and how we get even better results when people work with the intention of achieving better collaboration.

Scaling capability within a design system

Effective lifecycles must be underpinned by carefully curated systems that are tried, tested, and supported by frameworks tailored to build capability and support continual improvement. A typical structure should be made up of:

  • a framework that includes tools like the tone of voice documents that shape content production and potential engagement with an audience
  • a design system that dictates when and how you apply aesthetics, as well as, layout and interaction
  • governance processes that manage the quality of what’s designed and delivered
  • a strategy and roadmap a plan that includes a roadmap for improvement (change), measurement and objectives so performance can be monitored and aligned with the overarching business strategy.

Where these design and business management systems overlap at scale is what we call ‘integration’ within the capability model. The better the integration the greater coherence, collaboration and choreography between design and business management. We can break these down even further, showing their respective scales:

  • Design management: skills and activities that when coupled turn into expertise and competence
  • Business management: leadership, measurement and integration, or how well a design is represented inside a strategy.

To understand how well each of these scales function, we need to understand how they fit together and why. T-shaped individuals can help us here.

Design management - activities, skills, infrastructure. Business management - leadership, performance, integration

Figure 2: The Experience Capability Framework covers six scales represented in two management dimensions, design and business.

In part three, we discussed how they provide not only wider context though a broad and generalised perspective, but the rational behind the decisions made in a project. They can dispel confusion, be a signpost to support and solutions, and add a sense of cohesion to the team.

Meanwhile, collaboration is the glue that holds these teams together, because working together day after day improves our dependability, builds trust and disperses the skills that make us (and our teammates) T-shaped. Essentially, they build better combinations within teams.

The characteristics of a collaborative organisation

You may remember earlier we outlined the importance of team collaboration, and specifically how individual competency in collaboration supports and augments team interaction. The next level up is an organisation that supports collaboration comprehensively across the organisation through policy. Where collaborative teams can not only easily form, but also improve their collaboration skills through practicing.

In this way, we can see how thinking and acting collaboratively encourages even greater individual collaboration, as well as team collaboration. But organisational collaboration is a little trickier. In a nutshell, the management and leadership teams need “to walk the talk.”

People within the organisation will view this as open, authentic and transparent behaviour e.g., this what we do, and this is how it is done. This is how we can develop principles that can be copied easily by everyone, and provide a foundation on which we can frameworks – this is how we can successfully scale collaborative efforts.

We need to show people what they need to copy and emulate. So, the people responsible for leading and managing the organisation need to demonstrate the skills in their behaviour and interactions. This makes the process of learning the behaviour easier because people know what is expected of them.

You can build these characteristics in yourself by rereading part two where we talk about what makes a good collaborator and T-shaped individual. These attributes lay the groundwork for good leadership. So, what should you expect from a T-shaped team leader? Here’s just the start:

  • They demonstrate smart delegation
    They consider not only timelines and budgets, but how well problems, tasks or knowledge sharing happen between individuals in their team. They ensure members share the workload
  • They tend to lead teams with a flatter structure
    This means there will be less hierarchy and more collaborating, which reduces the decision points and allows their team to move more quickly
  • They know that respect is earned
    They lead with honesty, champion fairness and work to make sure that there is authentic listening and questioning. They make respect the standard and avoid messy issues like favouritism through feedback loops and mentoring
  • They want their studios to be noisy with debate
    They encourage different points of view and ensure that no matter how longstanding an idea, person or process is, they are always open to being challenged. This means teams are in a constant state of strategic analysis fuelling perpetual improvement, with the ultimate outcome improving collaboration in a virtuous circle
  • They consider mistakes a fundamental step in the learning process
    They know it’s human to make mistakes and one of the ways we build resilience and tolerance is through sharing them. Supposed failures are instead hypotheses for improvement, resulting in a type of micro-strategy that helps people to adapt and ultimately pivot when necessary
  • Silo-mentality is constantly challenged
    By stimulating across-silo working, they temper the effects of ‘specialisation’ and keep its influence in check. They encourage inclusive thinking, different points of view and varying perspectives, which is essential for building diversity.

But most importantly, these leaders place a profound importance on everyone within the organisation. They really care and root for their teammates. These leaders go on to write collaboration into their policies and not only articulate its importance, but embody it everyday. They know that no one wins unless everyone wins. This is the foundation of a supermind.

How open is your organisation?

There are number of ways you can begin to build and develop a policy of collaboration. You can find out by asking questions like:

  • Do employee voices and activities shape company culture?
  • Is collaboration between individuals supported?
  • Is team collaboration fostered?
  • Is diversity and inclusion championed?
  • Are people encouraged to consider the need of balancing potential rewards against the cost of inaction?
  • Do the executive and leadership teams exhibit the characteristics required for great collaboration?
  • Does the executive team have super collaborators in their group?
  • Have the benefits of collaboration been defined and formally communicated e.g. in a strategy and/or manifesto?

The work begins with each of us. We have to consciously decide to become more than just a group of individuals and act like a supermind. To do truly this, the whole organisation, and this includes the executive team, must demonstrate the need and desire to achieve great collaboration.

Integrating collaboration into your strategy

Work shouldn’t be a popularity contest, but personality traits do shape wider group dynamics. People can choose to consciously act collaboratively. Equally, people can also be influenced to act unconsciously in anti-collaborative ways. Collaboration requires awareness and this is one of the key factors that requires constant practice. Because it’s only in the augmenting of individual behaviours that something new can appear.

By forming self-defined teams within wider organisations, employees are given the freedom to gather around skillsets and characteristics that bring out the best in them. This flexibility encourages mastery, providing autonomy over the way people approach work and saves them from trying to squeeze into a neatly predetermined box.

Ideally, to rely on another musical metaphor, we want to aim for our organisations to mirror the qualities of a quartet. Or rather, a whole room of them. These self-governing teams can depend on other members and can trust that their input will be valued by the wider group. Leaders may not leave them entirely to their own devices but do trust them enough to let them determine for themselves the best way to assemble around a problem.

This provides a crucial competitive edge because organisational methods and thinking can constantly change and adapt. Each project is approached with fresh eyes, while new perspectives can be explored through the team’s unique collection of skills, experiences and ideas.

Leaders must be open to collaboration as well. Amazing collaboration requires amazing openness after all – and it has to be an ego-less activity. We have to rid ourselves of the hierarchies we hide behind and instead lay ourselves open to both compliments and criticism. We must remember that when we ‘plus’ a colleague’s idea, this is collaborative, which is different to simply waiting for our turn to speak.

Scale and choreography are key benefits of great collaboration

Collaboration has to be a continual conversation that happens between management and team members. Business leaders need to show, rather than tell, their employees how to collaborate efficiently. Otherwise, there may come a cognitive dissonance that will surely lead to trouble if the open collaboration promised by a company’s culture is not embodied by its leaders. Just like in the orchestra pit, everybody needs to act and operate ‘in-time’.

Another unexpected benefit that comes with T-shaped individuals and collaborative teams is scalability. Capability and scalability are tightly coupled. Capability supports scalability and scalability encourages greater capability.

We all become bigger when we pool our resources, talents, and time. Our individual competency increases which has the the knock-on effect of increasing capability. This combination can result from a couple of people or a much larger gathering of hundreds or even thousands of people.

Collaboration allows us to organise at scale. It establishes a common language and pathway forward. This unity in both practicalities and strategy pose a clear advantage when we are designing complex products and services that can span multiple teams, locations and organisations. Essentially, collaboration supports choreography, and this means we can learn to become more synchronised, agile and harmonious.

Context provides the bigger picture

To assemble at such a scale requires a shared mythology that comes in the form of a company’s culture, ethos or strategy. Like all societies and civilisations, organisations prosper when they have a shared mythos or hymn sheet. Human beings don’t exist in a vacuum. And willingly or not, we are changed by the people we interact with. There’s a responsibility there, but there’s also a promise.

Returning to the orchestra pit, we begin with the action of a single cellist playing in a stringed quartet and build outwards, accumulating more players and more instruments, the conductors, the audience and then the theatre. Each must be synchronised for the symphony to achieve its intended end: a beautiful choreography of sound.

This symphony represents a kind of strategy. It comes from the top down and is reverberated back by the players. That is to say, there is a plan about how the music is played and that is a vision shared by the whole orchestral, even if, it is orchestrated by the conductor – there is purpose (value): beautiful music.

And in the osmosis that occurs between musicians and disciplines, the individual improves. When multiple people work together, the resulting outputs and activities benefit from Gestalt’s effect. That is to say, the total of everyone’s efforts significantly exceeds the sum of their individual efforts. And just like the orchestra that needs a new opera house, it is only when our skills are situated in the context of a team that they are fully realised.

Building a framework for collaboration

But how do you track the intangible? How can you assess the effectiveness of something we can’t easily quantify? We could turn to a strictly output-driven metric, like counting lines of coding or how many tickets we’ve pushed through our backlog. But as we all know by now, statistics and KPIs only tell half the story (and even that may be a little too generous).

You may have reduced cart abandonment rates or increased organic page views, but these stats won’t tell you how well the team worked together to get there. It can be tempting to think that good results can only come from good teams, but efficiency doesn’t necessarily involve collaboration. And to capture the success of the quantifiable aspects of your collaborative practice, you’ll need a framework, ensuring that you can copy and practice the right behaviours.

Design management can and should support collaboration through the materials we use to define and underpin an organisation. It should permeate up through the ranks via technology choices, skills sought, and roles hired. Collaboration then becomes business practice through policy and strategy, which trickles down.

These frameworks eventually become self-sustaining – thus driving continual improvement – while building capability across the organisation through integration. At Nomensa, our own design framework involves more than just designing, building and testing. We aim to begin with research that results in insight, then we specialise and hone in on strategies and activities that shape design, and ultimately customer experience.

Unlock your organisation’s collaborative potential

Breaking out the ‘why’ allows us to conduct strategic analysis and research, and it also gives us a greater perspective on what we are designing and most importantly, our purpose, our contribution. It creates a feedback loop that connects strategy with implementation, framing our work in the bigger perspectives and commercial ambitions that often drive organisational initiatives and ambitions.

We know that data is integral to this process, finding ways to uncover data can provide understanding for the mechanics and potential shortfalls in business management frameworks and design systems. Our free Experience Assessment tool puts these processes under the microscope and reveals opportunities to improve them, to understand and build organisational capability.

If you already have a plan of action in mind, our team is on hand to help turn your ambitions into a reality. Simply get in touch to get started.


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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