Back in 2018, I presented at Nomensa’s annual design conference focused on collaboration, the aptly named Collaborate. My talk was called ‘The Art of Collaboration’ and you can find it on our YouTube channel or below.
But that was just the beginning. For this series, I’ll be taking a closer look at the granularities of good collaborative practice. I’ll cover some of the ways of thinking I’ve cultivated over the years, together with examples of how nurturing this skillset can help you, not only with clients, but also with your peers, your team and your wider organisation.
Why is collaboration important?
Working from the definition of collaboration being: “The action of working with someone to produce something,” it seems pretty simple. But, being good at collaboration requires more than just working alongside someone. Collaboration is much broader than the activities we do, it is also a way of thinking, acting and engaging with our work and with others.
Collaboration also introduces efficiencies in how people work together. The outcomes of such work can lead to the generation of greater commercial value as people, teams and organisations unite around objectives. This focus can often amplify commercial focus and in turn create competitive advantage. Whilst collaboration can amplify commercial focus and ultimately outcomes, we need to think of it as more than work. This is eloquently stated by Nilofer Merchant, who said: “We need to co-create, not just coordinate work.” But collaboration is more work.
Collaboration should be a kind of synergy that combines many elements. American architect and systems theorist, R. Buckminster Fuller called it: “a mutually supportive atmosphere of trust, where each individual element works towards its own goals, and where the goals may be quite varied; nevertheless, because all elements of a synergetic system support one another, they also support the whole.”
Collaboration is the foundation for building T-shaped individuals and skill sets. It also supports mastery, but like all skills, it must be rehearsed if we want to improve. Fortunately, this focus on constant practice also helps us to become more designerly. It enhances the way we approach design problems and poses new, and creative ways to solve them and shape customer experiences. Through listening, acknowledging and sharing ideas with other people, we can broaden our perspectives and understanding. And by appreciating other people, we can better recognise and reward their contributions and value.
Every organisation can improve their collaborative capacity. And in doing so, we can encourage our teams to build better relationships, and learn and grow from one another. This has the positive effect of increasing how much people care about each other, as well as the work they do individually and together. This focus on caring helps to set the foundation on which psychological safety is built.
Fostering a culture of psychological safety
We’ve all worked in environments where ideas are encouraged in theory but are often unwanted in practice. Or we’ve sat around a meeting table unsure of whether to contribute lest we say something that might be perceived as stupid. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Managers can promote a culture of psychological safety where everyone contributes without fear of judgement. People let their guards down. They become more playful, curious and open. Ideas are generated ” some good, some bad, but all welcome ” and most importantly, they feel safe. They know their ideas and their input are valued, even if they don’t always manifest when a project goes live.
Lots of organisations hint at this practice, how many actually nurture an environment where new ideas are celebrated and mistakes are taken as part of the creative process? One thing we know is that humans tend to get precious when they feel threatened. We can end up tightening around our practice when we’re uncertain, whereas what we (and the customer) really need are transparent, open working environments that make everyone want to bring their best self to the table.
Accumulating capability through collaboration
Google’s Project Aristotle is a programme of work geared at understanding collaboration in teams that cited psychological safety as the key ingredient for success. Google also offers a helpful explanation as to why some teams just work so much better than others. It does this by syphoning groups into two distinct categories.
The first, dubbed ‘work groups’ are those defined as having little independence and are governed by entrenched hierarchies. These groups will meet and talk every now and then, sharing progress and findings. But the managerial structure always remains, and each gives input from their own rung on the ladder.
Teams, meanwhile, are adaptive, egalitarian and highly independent. They work as a unit to schedule work, solve issues and decide collectively on what’s best for the project. All voices, regardless of hierarchy, have weight and value in these dynamics. They rely on one another and trust that any discrepancies in their skillsets will be covered by their teammates.
So, which group do you suppose creates better products, is more designerly and contains more scope for scalability? The teams, of course. This is because when we break down perceived barriers in teams, we create stronger bonds. These are built on genuine care, shared intention and mutual respect rather than obligation.
And in turn, this enthusiasm and capability ripples out across the organisation, improving and diversifying your commercial offering all the while. It also creates ripples that pass beyond the organisation, reaching the customer, and the markets they are part of. Revealing the close interplay and influence of employee-customer interaction.
Superminds with superpowers
Imagine this scenario. You’re buying a sandwich during your lunch break. It seems transactional at first. Limited effort is required past making your selection and paying. But even this simple act actually involves the input of a great many people. It’s a collective effort, on a massive scale.
**Figure 1:** The act of buying a sandwich actually requires a lot more effort than we might realise.
Someone has to grow the ingredients a shop owner purchases. Then there’s also the kitchen staff who turn the foodstuff into something substantial, a customer who buys the final product, and then a cashier who physically makes the sale. And that’s all before we consider factors like transportation, or the civic systems and communities that necessitate the sandwich shop’s existence in the first place.
This means that the act of buying a sandwich really requires a lot more effort than we might realise. All those supporting activities usually go unnoticed, yet they happen. This shows us how collaboration works like an invisible string that connects people.
“Great things in business are never done by one person, they are done by a team.”
The above quote is not only true for businesses, but it pretty much covers every aspect of human life. Why? Because we are social animals. We can and do work better together and in groups. It’s what helped Homo Sapiens triumph over other specifies of Hominin. We have adapted and developed these skills, and shaped them over hundreds of generations. From this evolutionary perspective, it’s clear collaboration is part of our nature that supports adaptation.
It’s a deeply embedded skill that only gets richer as we learn how to apply it. Collaboration helps us, amongst other things, to understand how we can achieve more than we could just by ourselves. And collaborative organisations deliver better products, services and experiences for their customers.
This is because diversity in thought translates into demonstratively better designs and ideas. And it is this accumulative delivered experience that is extremely difficult for competitors to emulate. Copying a feature is relatively straight forward. But by comparison, copying an experience comprised of a choreography of features and feelings, is not just complicated, but highly complex.
Organisations that focus on collaboration are often more open to change, moving and adapting with the dynamic pull of the market and changes in customer behaviour. And any organisation that delivers a superior customer experience over its competitors reaps a strategic competitive advantage that manifests in both improving reputation and increasing revenue outcomes. Those organisations that do this to the optimum level are known as unicorns, and you can learn all about them (as well as how to emulate them) in my whitepaper, Journeys with Unicorns.
Diversifying your perspective
To test the scale of collaboration involved with any task, try to imagine it being completed with little or no collaboration. It is difficult to picture such a perspective because we quickly realise how intentionally, and unintentionally, we are acting when collaborating. Collaboration is like an unseen hand guiding and supporting many collective actions.
Collaboration combines our expertise and transforms it in new and different but always exciting ways. This helps us to address problems, and therefore identify potential solutions, by thinking differently, and drawing upon varied perspectives and experiences.
The now design director at Twitter, Felicia Williams, gave a fascinating talk at Collaborate 2018 on this subject. Her talk, Why Machine Learning Needs Diversity To Make The Best Products, may have centred on a single technology, but her messaging applies to any and all disciplines, products and creations: we are all better off when we embrace diversity and work together.
Diversity enhances creativity and encourages innovation. The benefit of different perspectives may not seem obvious at first because even the best of us can become limited by our own confirmation biases. However, the value of collaboration is that one person’s lack of understanding can be compensated by another person’s understanding. It’s the ‘many minds’ approach.
Augmenting individuals and the groups we operate within
Collaboration takes our individual expertise and bolsters it with the shared perspective. And something additional happens when we collaborate, not just in the work we do, but more importantly, how we feel about it. We become a part of something bigger wherein the total output is greater than the sum of the parts. We’re proud of not only ourselves, but what the collective accomplished. When the group wins, we all win.
Whilst it’s in our nature to collaborate, having this inbuilt potential doesn’t mean we don’t need to practice. Sports teams have regular training sessions and orchestras, despite the intricate skill of every performer, they still need to gather to rehearse. Having the potential is not enough. We must be intentional and step out of our silos. Practice is mandatory, especially if you any ambition to be the best.
**Figure 2:** When a person’s competency combines with someone else’s, it creates something more. This gestalt effect (combining and augmenting) reveals collaboration in action.
Collaboration is a competency we must cultivate through continual work. When a person’s competency combines with someone else’s, it creates something more. This gestalt effect (combining and augmenting) reveals collaboration in action. It also represents something different, yet essential for teamwork: it’s a combined effort (output) that demonstrates organisational capability.
Put simply, people demonstrate their competency by how skillfully they complete activities. Whereas, organisations demonstrate their capability, which represents the total of all individual competencies. And the successful intermingling of both competency and capability is built on, and is only possible through, good collaboration.
Levels of collaboration
Collaboration can also help people improve their own competency. This could be a specialist who gains a better understanding of the wider team, thus becoming the kind of T-shaped individuals we’ll talk about in part three. By broadening everyone’s understanding as individuals with shared project goals, they consequently improve the wider capability of the organisations they are part of. Their organisation wins, their team wins, and they win.
Collaboration also requires organisational support in order to create an attitude of openness like that found in Project Aristotle. Organisations that foster this quality of openness will also support and benefit from spontaneous team formation. This means teams are able to combine around competences and skillsets, and solve different types of problems. Spontaneously forming teams allows the best people for the task to step up, dynamically, organically and with group consensus.
This is also characteristic of highly collaborative organisations that have put in place the conditions that allow the right teams for a task to emerge. Ultimately, collaboration is nothing without trust. And trust begets trust because it positively reinforces behaviour that encourages reciprocal action. Yet, trust can also represent a conundrum, as it is often easier to erode than build. This means that collaboration can build trust, however, anti-collaboration can also easily destroy it.
Creating scalability through collaboration
Collaboration shapes our work and thinking as designers, as it does the organisations we exist in. However, not every organisation practices collaboration. Interestingly, practising collaboration as a design team is different to practicing collaboration as an organisation. Collaboration can be slightly different for a team when compared to the whole organisation, yet the essence of how it works and its outcomes will be the same: group success, regardless of size.
**Figure 3:** Practicing collaboration means organisations are learning how to be successful at applying design at scale.
Practicing collaboration helps organisations learn how to be successful at scale. This success cascades across different levels of each organisation, and this in turns supports the scaling of the collaboration. That is, more people can be combined without diminishing the benefits and advantages of the collaboration.
Learn how to build your capability through collaboration
Collaboration demands intentional action and consistency to truly permeate your organisation. And this necessitates both top-down encouragement from management and bottom-up engagement from all individuals, which means collaboration is more tightly tied to your end-customer experience than you might imagine.
It’s not easy, but championing collaboration can transform your organisation’s capability and enhance all of the systems, processes and frameworks that shape your organisation’s design efforts. In the next article we’ll focus on becoming a more collaborative individual, the foundation of T-shaped behaviour and great teams.