Thomas Essl — Senior UX Consultant, QuantumBlack
Fostering and facilitating collaboration can prove to be one of the most effective ways to engineer better performance across an organisation. There are limits to how much an individual can achieve, even if they are a domain expert surrounded by other skilled personnel. Conversely, when separate staff are carefully orchestrated to put their interdisciplinary skills to best use — and learn from both successes and mistakes — the output of the entire team benefits.
At QuantumBlack, we continually seek to improve the ways in which we work together and learn from each other, while reducing the risk of miscommunication.
Our CEO summarises this strategy in two words: ‘Collaborate, relentlessly’. As a designer, this organisational mindset has been tremendously valuable in supporting work across teams of eminently qualified individuals where rapid, iterative and high quality delivery is key. I’ve included a selection of lessons this approach has taught me below — while many are highly specific to the world of AGILE software development, they can also be adopted to inform a variety of contexts and skillsets.
Embrace messy collaboration
As a designer, I readily admit that most of my drawings are ugly. They are primarily used to facilitate thought and group ideation, deploying sketches to help talk through a challenge and spark discussion. Creating high quality visual collateral often requires large amounts of time and resource — at QuantumBlack, we usually do not produce these finalised visual assets until they need to be presented to the client.
As a guiding principle of collaboration, consider the following: anything that does not help your team achieve its goal must have a very good reason to exist. Quick sketches will help us progress conversations and focus on final output, but in themselves have very little value. Use your tools to help solve a challenge — rather than investing time in refining your assets, continually hone the processes that help you collaborate — and watch your results improve.
Collaboration ≠ Documentation
While reporting across an internal team is a crucial component of working on any project, opportunities for closer collaboration and idea sharing is often missed when the process simply involves producing various editions of shareable decks. These documents invariably become a way to ‘bring the team up to speed’ via a one-way conversation — a PowerPoint file or an excessively lengthy email — when it can be far more beneficial to discuss progress directly as a team, sketching ideas out on paper together and sharing smaller pieces of information more frequently.
Ideally organisations should go beyond merely fostering a collaborative atmosphere and instead focus on building a framework that demands and enhances collaboration — and this requires a reporting process which extends beyond updating team members with one-way traffic. Incorporating a procedure that compels colleagues to not just update but discuss progress and potential challenges will provide even more opportunities to share expertise and ideas. It also ensures visions for the project are aligned early on, avoiding unexpected conflict later.
Communication is important — but action is key
Not all documentation is wasteful. Logging tasks and user stories in Jira provides our teams with an overview on where a project stands, what needs fixing and which actions to take next. That being said, it is worth considering the scale of a task item or bug report and questioning whether it will take longer to document a required change than enact it.
The world of business today is dominated by electronic exchanges — email, logged reports, online action grids. Rather than add to the increasingly large pile of documentation that every project accrues, consider liaising with colleagues face-to-face or via a call to address an issue quickly.
Few things give me more joy than quickly turning to a colleague to rapidly action a number of smaller jobs. Whether live editing code or evaluating each other’s changes, putting a stop on the tracking and simply actioning it instead — as a team — often produces a more significant impact at a faster pace.
Even when working on larger tasks, it is often more efficient to talk though an issue via a video conference rather than noting down every detail first. Many points can be self-evident and it often takes less time to confirm when this is not the case than it does to document everything.
Present from where you do the work
Ultimately it is people that drive collaboration, but also consider how technology can encourage and facilitate teams to work better together. This goes beyond video conferencing — project framework tools can promote effective collaboration as long as documentation does not become a burden. Moreover, many organisations today are developing their own technology to support efficient interdisciplinary teams.
QuantumBlack Labs was launched to develop software that accelerates our artificial intelligence and machine learning projects. Many of the applications and features we build are created with the explicit goal of improving collaboration and communication as well as enhancing the client experience in the process. Many of the applications developed by QuantumBlack Labs help our designers tell compelling and insightful data stories, applying the work of our data engineering and programming colleagues without requiring them to step away from their ongoing technical tasks. These tools have been created with the express purpose of helping our team function better together, and we have already enjoyed great success, combining the visualisation element of the recently open-sourced Kedro with plots in Jupyter Notebooks to deliver engaging, compelling client presentations.
Upskill to enhance results
People can often be a project’s most useful asset — and collaborating to hone this asset should never be considered wasted time.
When developing a QuantumBlack Labs internal product, our interdisciplinary team invested a significant amount of time sharing out our different expertise — for example, coaching coding-proficient colleagues in design, user testing sessions in unbiased ways, and demonstrating how to map findings on a service blueprint.
This exercise provided each person with a perspective on how others in the group worked, what they required to complete their tasks and how we could function better as a team.
Sharing insight and upskilling helps a project team reduces an overreliance on one specific expert and makes a previously complex process coding more transparent — or, to borrow a phrase from data science, explainable. When a wider team better understands how a process works, there are far more opportunities to identify areas that can be refined, leading to a cycle of continuous improvement with each project.
There is no one-size-fits-all model when it comes to collaboration, and rightly so. Each team will bring different skills to the table and each project will be judged on its own metrics of success. However, I hope the above offer useful guiding principles.
As technology advances and a growing range of domain experts are required, it will be more important than ever for interdisciplinary groups to work alongside one another. This is often easier when it follows a tried and tested framework — and while it may sound counterintuitive, we have found that QuantumBlack’s most creative examples of relentless collaboration have thrived within set parameters.