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Collaboration has become that word that’s being thrown around carelessly like paper cups. This is especially apparent in open offices that have taken down desk dividers and engulfed office partitions to embrace the hot and swanky stand-up desks and whiteboards on wheels.

Just like hot-desking is not synonymous with collaboration, nor is teamwork. In teamwork, individuals usually operate in silos towards a shared goal and the leadership is fixed. In collaboration, individuals are participating as autonomous entities where leadership is context-dependent and leaders arise when the situation demands.

In this article, I’ve gathered some of my reflections and learnings on collaboration during my demi-decade experience of working in culturally diverse countries like Australia, Netherlands and India.

  1. Packed like sardines: Collaboration is more than its Oxford dictionary’s definition, “the act of working with another person or group of people to create or produce something”. A successful collaboration is an exchange between space, tools and people- between different styles of working, between languages, values, beliefs, softwares and hardwares. This exchange is facilitated by a conducive space and strengthened by supportive culture. A good balance between ‘we’ and ‘me’ is an imperative to a good collaboration as further explained in this HBR article that says “the more demanding the collaboration task is, the more individuals need punctuating moments of private time to think or recharge.” If you have to elbow your colleague to finish your wireframes, that isn’t a good set-up no matter how close-knit a team you are.
  2. Cultural breadcrumbs: The space we occupy is a reflection of the culture we embody, both on an individual and an organisational level. In China (collectivist culture) workers are more comfortable with densely-arranged workstations when compared to United States (individualist culture). In Netherlands, “more fluid spaces that encourage equality and reflect a focus on well-being” are symbolic of their egalitarian and feminine culture, in comparison to the masculine Italy where hierarchical offices are important. To be more a productive and considerate collaborator its beneficial to know that our relationship to space can be rooted in national identities. You can read more about how culture shapes our workplace in this HBR article.
  3. Same same but not different: We collaborate to get a fresh perspective, to eliminate bias, to get deeper into a topic, to be more creative, inclusive and innovative in our approach and outcomes. Collaboration thrives on diversity- in gender, age, expertise, culture, background. A heterogenous team is more like to come up with innovative ideas than a homogenous one. More hands, however, do not guarantee less time but instead can facilitate deeper work and cover more ground.
  4. Me too: People are more likely to be persuaded when in groups, also known as group thinking or herd mentality or the bandwagon effect, which can be catastrophic to collaboration. Yes, we all want to be that exception but our need for security can cause us to become the Ms. Me Too (or Mr./Other). This can lead to agreeing or disagreeing onto something that may not be thoroughly thought through. Organisations require a culture that fosters disagreement whilst maintaining cohesiveness within the team.
  5. Say it right: Believing that there is only one answer can lead to a competitive tone rather than a cooperative one which is destructive for collaboration. However, knowing that everyone has the answers creates a safe place for everyone to be heard, bounce ideas of each other to co-create.
  6. Mon-oh-god: Collaboration will get strangled by the cold hands of a monologue, every single time. “Keep contributions short. Points should be made in a few words, and build incrementally into a coherent whole. “, says Terence Brake in his article about collaborative conversations.
  7. Body talk: Watch out for the cultural nuances when interpreting non-verbal cues. For example- Nodding up-down is a symbol for agreement in most cultures, except in Bulgaria and Greece where that nod is used to convey disagreement. Gesturing is considered impolite in Japan, and they’re less likely to use non-verbal cues to communicate. The famous ‘thumbs up’ is a rude signal in Middle-eastern countries and Greece. In North American countries and UK, silence is considered uncomfortable, even problematic but its used to show agreement in China. Silence is a mandate before answering questions in many aboriginal cultures. More on cultural differences in body-language here.

No two collaborations are the same and for each it’s vital to be patient, have a unbiased mindset and an learning attitude.

I’m an Experience Designer and am available for collaborations and speculations on prachi@plaidesign.com.

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Plai design in a transdisciplinary practise specialising facilitating emotion-rich experiences and envisioning utopian futures, ethically and collaboratively.

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