Group of four people collaborating

Collaboration comes naturally to humans. It’s one of our oldest and most intrinsic skills. And indeed, it was our ability to work together that enabled our ancient ancestors to hunt large animals and survive over other rival groups of early hominins. However, that’s not to say that collaboration comes easily, it still requires practice.

Even now, after some 200,000 years of finessing this skill, egos and emotions still occasionally complicate our efforts. We may cooperate, but instead of combining our shared expertise to reach a common goal, we fall back into hierarchies or get precious about our input. This is not just unproductive, it’s actively anti-collaborative, and results in less effective teamwork.

Worst still, we may not even recognise when we are being anti-collaborative. Sometimes, we can actually make things worse by mistaking collaboration with micromanaging. We need to be vigilant and recognise when this happens, or at the very least, be open to feedback when it’s pointed out to us. Essentially, the greater the trust between team members the greater the collaboration, and this has a positive effect of reducing the occurrence of micromanaging: trust builds psychological safety and confidence in ‘teamwork’. It also supports our individual need to achieve mastery.


In chapter two, I stated that we want to become more than just a group of individuals. We want to be a supermind. I also spoke about how the best teams are made up of talented individuals, all clear on the role they play, what’s expected of them and how they fit in the wider system. Essentially, how our work fits into the broader work. Importantly, when the team wins, they win (and we win). The collective after all, as I’m sure you know by now, is more than the sum of its parts.

“Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.” - Henry Ford

Henry Ford was right that cooperation may yield good results, but the best organisations see individuals work as one. And in part one I outlined that there’s an art to collaborating. Not to mention, rich rewards to reap when it’s done properly. But to illustrate how you can bring it into your own work and teams, I’d like you to imagine listening to a symphony.

What can playing in unison teach us?

Conductor, lead musicians and musicians

Figure 1: When a group of individuals working together effectively become more, they become a supermind. A great example of a supermind in action is that of a playing orchestra.

We can’t all play instruments. And even if you can, you still may not have the unique skills required to make it into an orchestra. That’s because even the most talented musicians among us - while able to read from the same sheet of music may lack the required and necessary ability to play in time with others.

Symphonies are so impressive not only because of the quality of music being played, but because of how we feel when witnessing a collection of disparate musicians playing in complete synchrony. And what’s most remarkable is that the people playing make it look effortless.

There is a harmony we experience as the listener as well as a harmony that the musicians feel while playing. This feeling expands and becomes part of the total experience - in other words, something new emerges. Just as a single individual can achieve what Mihly Cskszentmihlyi calls a flow state - also known as being in the zone - a group can also achieve flow. A state of hyperfocus, which they experience, and the audience experiences as listeners. Eventually, though synchronicity, something new emerges, the audience and orchestra become one.

Interestingly, the conductor acts as a kind of a messenger. A literal conduit. They facilitate and guide the performance (‘the flow’) but are only able to do so by trusting that each musician will play their part. And this collaboration goes beyond just the orchestra. Both the audience and environment have a vital role, too. The accumulative value of the shared harmony of the orchestra, the audience and the amphitheatre become the total experience - a gestalt.

In Figure 1 we can see an orchestra in action. To achieve this level of harmony requires an equally deep level of expertise acquired through years of diligent rehearsal and focused attention. Every note is intentional and only attainable through continual dedication and commitment to working and playing as one.

Transcendent symphonies do not happen by accident, and neither does great collaboration in any team operating at the highest level. We can see and understand their harmony because we are part of the experience - we can feel it. We become a part of a bigger ‘group flow’.

So, how can we reach this level of collaboration? What efforts can we take to begin collaborating more intelligently and efficiently? And beyond implementing aspects of it in silo, how can we cement it in all of our processes, work habits and thinking?

Becoming a more collaborative team

Collaboration can’t be treated as transactional. Instead of a mechanical you scratch-my-back approach, we should foster environments that are defined by honesty, communication and feedback, as well as acknowledgement.

Regardless of sector or strategic intention, teams that collaborate well will encourage a feeling of psychological safety. This is when mistakes are not viewed as mistakes, but as learning opportunities. Everyone feels like they’re an active part of the organisation’s progress. And this work begins with you.

In part two, becoming a more collaborative individual, we outlined how every improvement begins with an individual’s actions. So, how do we encourage collaboration from a team perspective? People may have different ideas about collaboration, what it is and how well they do it.

But from a team perspective, any individual is part of the team, and a collaborative team augments individual collaboration competency, whilst supporting the wider benefit and value of collaboration. So, what are the characteristics to look out for or improve upon? These include but are not limited to:

  • Psychological safety
    Do people trust each other? Do people trust how other people will respond to mistakes or difficult problems? Does the team take responsibility together, opposed to individuals pointing the finger of blame?
  • Smart delegation
    How well does problem or task or sharing happen between individuals? Do team members share the workload?
  • Well defined roles and responsibilities
    Are team members’ roles and responsibilities clear? Are shared responsibilities defined?
  • Taking responsibility
    Does everyone understand what is expected of them individually? Do you have adequate measures for supporting, sharing and delegation? Do teammates feel comfortable taking responsibility? Do you have a blameless culture that celebrates personal and collective success?
  • Mutual responsibility
    Are roles, responsibilities, and shared goals clearly defined? Do they encourage people within a team to ‘act as one’?
  • Common goals
    Do you have common goals that sit above any personal goals or agendas? Is achieving common goals is perceived as more important than individual goals?
  • Encourage different points of view and perspective
    Do teams embrace diversity and harness the experience and skills of everyone in the team?
  • Fair contribution
    Is positive and honest contribution encouraged? Does it feel as though no permission is required?
  • Synergy in action
    Are individuals strengths understood to actively bring out the best in people?
  • Individual development
    Do teams recognise that growing skill sets (competency) leads to increased capability and capacity?

However, these collaborative teams cannot be functional without these factors:

  • Positivity is encouraged
    Happy teams are teams that act more efficiently and effectively. They also increase their potential for creating group flow - thinking and acting like one: a supermind.
  • Interesting combinations are sought after
    There are skills mixing, activity mixing, tool mixing that encourages learning and understanding. Interesting things happen when we work with people with different skillsets or are proficient in different types of specialist activities, and this can lead to innovation (and often does).
  • Good leadership is expected
    A collaborative team will have strong leadership that combines all the above factors, encouraging and acknowledging others. They will typically be seen as more egalitarian, and less authoritarian. Yet, you will know who the leader is, not by their title but by the responsibility they take and encourage.
Design management and business management

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

Design management:

  • Activities: the range of experience activities that are part of a best-practice approach to a project
  • Skills: the necessary skillsets to apply the full range of experience activities to every project
  • Infrastructure: the reuse and templating of proven digital assets, resources and insights

Business management:

  • Leadership: senior management’s understanding of experience importance, and the role of experience in company strategy
  • Performance: the measurement of customer-centric impact, including performance targets and actionable insights
  • Integration: the governance, cross-team alignment and championing of experience-focused activities and mindsets

Graduating from cooperating

So how do we graduate from cooperating to collaborating? When can we categorise an activity as a collaboration instead of just a conversation, a lecture, or worse, an order?

Begin by asking yourself (and your team):

  • What kind of dynamic is encouraged?
  • Is there a feeling of open communication?
  • Are ideas shared freely?
  • Are mistakes penalised or encouraged?
  • Can teams self-organise around skills/project needs?
  • Are individual goals routinely set and revisited?
  • Are team members given a chance to progress?
  • Are roles clearly defined while allowing for flexibility?
  • Is the environment suited to both extraverts and introverts?
  • Are team members all held accountable?
  • Does everyone find meaning in their role?

These questions may seem abstract, but as Google’s Project Aristotle found, it’s really a team’s sense of “ownership, vision and goals” over a project that has the most impact. Predictably, team leaders were most preoccupied with results, while team members cared most about culture, both in terms of their personal input and the organisation’s wider strategy.

Creating meaningful workplaces

It’s no secret - people need to feel their lives and jobs have meaning. This is in line with self-determination theory (SDT), which first emerged in the 1970s but was formalised by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan in 1980. SDT posits that humans need three things to feel contented:

  • Autonomy: they need to feel that they are authentic in their lives and in their work
  • Competency: they need to feel that they are good at what they do, and other people recognise that
  • Psychological relatedness: that need to feel they belong where they are.

In short, we need purpose, and we need community. In our evolutionary history, our ancestors would have had these feelings in abundance. Certainly, life was commonplace with trials and dangers, but their reasoning was clear. As would have been their feeling of situatedness and security within their group.

As time wore on, we have grown ever more distant from the final product of our labour. Far from consuming the foodstuff foraged during the day, there is now a disconnect many of us feel. Like those producing a pencil in Leonard E Read’s famous essay, we may not understand the wider implications of the work we do. T-shaped individuals can help us, here. But before we get to them, let’s return to the triple diamond.

As mentioned in part two, we expanded the classic double diamond methodology, making it into a triple diamond. This was so we could include strategic framing at the beginning of the process that helped to better frame the activities within the design and development stages.

The best collaborators are those T-shaped individuals who have an understanding that traverses each slope of the diamond. And their awareness exceeds the practicalities of a project, and the specific tasks or activities they are expected to perform. They’re the ones who endeavour to understand the ‘why’ and incorporate client concerns and motivations into their wider commercial positioning. In short, they have a strategic perspective that aligns with the broader team and organisational vision.

Image showing double diamond and triple diamond

Figure 3: The Triple Diamond revisited

The advantage of non-competitiveness

This shift in thinking can create a culture of non-competitiveness. But that’s not to suggest that competition is a bad thing. Rather, we should create teams wherein we encourage every individual to be their best and most creative self, while ensuring that the prize is one that we can all claim a stake in. We can hijack our biological impulse to compete and use it to reach shared, collaborative ends.

Returning to the example of our prehistoric ancestors, we can imagine this kind of fruitful competitiveness as a collection of hunters chasing a mammoth. A final, single spear may have bought the animal down and gained accolades for an individual, but their throw would not have been possible without the combined efforts of all the hunters. The group creates the conditions for success, and once it’s obtained, the group eats and shares in the bounty.

We are all still those communal creatures and group dynamics help with our optics. We’re all solipsists by nature and our consciousness, for all its smarts, is largely trapped in its perspective. Relating to others in a group provides invaluable feedback as it broadens our perspective and gives us an important outside view. It may not always be what we want to hear, but existing with other people forces us to be accountable to each other, and most importantly, ourselves.

Introducing ‘plussing’

An easy and effective way to foster a culture of recognition and feedback is through a tactic called ‘plussing.’ Originally coined by Pixar, plussing is the act of adding to another person’s idea. It is criticism with a twist. Rather than just shooting down someone’s input, you offer positives and state a ‘plus’ - suggesting alternatives or improvements in a productive way.

It’s constructive criticism that ushers in better collaboration and grants us the kind of overview effect mentioned in ‘How to become a more collaborative individual’. The organisation benefits because the more minds an idea moves through, the bigger and better it becomes.

Collaboration is more than co-operation, and there are characteristics we embody in our work that transfer to, and augments, the teams we are part of. Great teams act in collaborative ways that in turn enhance individual collaboration, creating a win-win scenario. So it turns out, that practices collaboration produces superior team engagement and interaction.

Teamwork makes the dream work

Through this lens, we can begin to see how far from being an abstract management concept, the ability to collaborate is actually a key signal of your experience capability. But it’s not enough to create a collaborative team – you need to track their success so that you can create a scalable framework that will grow alongside your business.

In the midst of all this talk about ‘digital transformation’, we’ve overlooked the human element. Your organisation can only ever be as good as the people who work within it, and if your collaboration skills are lacking, your digital experiences will inevitably falter, too.

In the next chapter, will dive into factors that shape collaborative teams and the commercial benefits that follow from improved collaborative efforts, such as greater scalability and operational efficiencies, and how they directly impact commercial advantages.

If you’d like to talk about how Nomensa’s collaborative approach can transform your current customer experience offering, get in touch with our team today.

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We believe that creating groundbreaking experiences that make measurable differences in the way people live takes a special type of collaboration. Our team designs impactful experiences by leaning on the variety of capabilities and expertise within Nomensa to ensure our solution is bespoke to your needs. We believe collaboration is key, let’s work together.

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