Good collaboration goes beyond being able to complete tasks together. Good collaboration is fluency; it is a language of partnership and co-creation. It is mastery shaped by deliberate effort and thoughtful systems. Within good collaborations, one should feel curious and empowered. Good collaborators are strong independent workers and inspiring partners; they are empathetic people who understand the difference between having a point of view and judgement. They are amazing at what they do but recognize that the power of the team is greater than their individual self.
But gathering the right people in the team isn’t enough to guarantee better collaboration. How do we nurture collaboration dynamics or even more so, scale them? Over the past few years I have worked on a range of cross-functional teams — both large and small (at one point I was the only designer on a team of 20+ engineers) — and what follows are the key observations I have made in that time.
1. Break out of arrested development
Many teams operate on autopilot and fail to reflect on the day-to-day work of their peers; sometimes a problem happens so often it becomes part of the operation. Team members need to help their peers get through the day and only then will they build confidence towards purposeful collaboration.
On a project at Connected delivering a cloud-connected app experience for an audio-electronics company, our engineers encountered downtimes due to limited design resources in a just-in-time delivery model — a type of agile cadence where all design and engineering work is done within a single sprint. While this would have ideally been rectified through process and allocation changes, these solutions take time and can introduce new issues to the project. To ensure forward momentum, our engineers, QA, and designers came together to devise a simple protocol for assessing design layouts and component behaviours. These assessment principles were then embedded into our hand-off tools — Zeplin and Jira — allowing for seamless access. This empowered team members to get involved in creating solutions and prevent them from being blocked during the sprint.
Although these types of project problems are common and easy to ignore, they should never be brushed aside. Consider implementing a mechanism for identifying and escalating repeated problems. (Retros are very good for this!) These nuisances can accumulate over time, instill distrust, and keep the team in a state of arrested development — fighting to get tasks completed instead of pushing solutions to new heights.
2. Build empathy from everyday interactions
When team members do not understand each other, complex discussions can easily spiral out of control. Fostering an open and safe culture is crucial to building mutual understanding. However, time is always short in our industry and teams do not always have the luxury for yet another calendar event.
On my last project with one of the world’s largest automotive and mobility companies, we worked with the client’s in-house team on a project that would improve the system of delivering vehicle data to their fleet customers. During our research phase, rather than having our engineers separated from the conversation, they eagerly participated in our usability test session. They brought insights from the session back to their work and began proactively pushing the technology for better user experience. In addition to this, our client product owner was attentive and present in all our interview and test sessions as a way to vouch for and evolve our findings within the organization — another inspiring example of a team member advocating for empathy.
In addition to showing up for your team, another way to build empathy is to make sure you are understood. Be mindful of our diverse ways of thinking and being, and embrace universally known mental models, analogies, and stories. A picture is worth a thousand words after all.
To make for a more compelling argument, deliver your point of view in a prototype or as photos, videos, or data. The same can be said for communication formats. Using long, short, slow, and fast in the right moment allows your team to adopt a diverse set of tools for different types of work.
Small moments with the right people are also critical. “Say no more,” says one of my colleagues during one of our design desk checks. There is magic to working with people who understand that putting a big, authentic smile on people’s faces is as important as anything else you can do for your team members.
3. Direction over destination
I had a friend who once told me he stuck a (steel) chopstick in an outlet when he was a child, and his mom kicked him loose so he wouldn’t get electrocuted. I asked him why he did it and he explained that he needs to learn the hard way because he finds it difficult to follow orders without clear reasoning.
Okay, okay. I know we are all adults here. But we can probably all agree that mandating rules doesn’t help anyone’s understanding of the problem at hand. During crunch times, it can be tempting to prescribe comments to your teammates and walk away. If your comment turns out to be wrong or unhelpful, your teammate will end up without direction again. In those situations, if you must, pair terse exchanges with takeaway sticky notes at the very least. Sometimes the few seconds you save from skipping a discussion are not worth the cost of mistakes.
I find great joy in being embedded in teams with engineers. At my last company, I worked on a project designing an online shop with over 60,000 posters. One of our goals was to help customers find and curate posters collections. Although designers tend to own design solutions, our engineer took note of our customer profiles and experimented with colour-sorting mechanisms that would allow interior decorators to curate collections for a specific palette. This mix of expertise elevated product potential.
Instead of sending your designs away hoping it will come out right, align on the direction and let solutions manifest. In product delivery, there are often no right or wrong executions, only those that create the most meaningful impact.
4. Promote curiosity
Curiosity urges us to rise from the routine to explore alternatives. (I don’t need to go into details of the benefits of curiosity as there have already been tons of research and articles on the impact of curiosity on performance. Here is a fantastic one by Harvard Business Review.) Most of these articles highlight how curiosity fuels exploration, motivation, experimentation, and even empathy. They point out that while most leaders acknowledge the contribution of an inquisitive mind, many still favour efficiency over experimentation.
Many young companies and teams lump exploratory work into collateral creation (the “actual work”). This is not only irresponsible towards time estimation, it also reduces transparency to what it truly takes to create something proven and thoughtful. Whether it is design research or engineering spike (research required to pursue an engineering task), these efforts need to be recognized as progress and contributions to solving the problem.
To work through this challenge at Connected, we describe our work through stages of identify, make, release, and evolve. At each stage, we outline the functions of research in guiding ideation, insights, validation, and optimization. This meticulous planning helps to facilitate buy-in from clients and ensures time is allocated for creative work to happen.
Curiosity is crucial to reducing risks and sparking new ideas, which thereby transforms team members into proactive problem solvers, equipping them with the autonomy to undertake even grander challenges.
5. Radical changes are rare, pivot smartly in small increments
“Nudge” is a concept coined by Noble prize-winning economist Richard Thaler. It describes the impact of subtle, yet intentional changes have on influencing people’s behavior.
People Management wrote about an example of nudge theory in action where a company tried to change its core working hours from 9 to 5 into one of flexible working. Understanding that people are vulnerable to peer pressure and habits, the company enlisted managers as advocates, then changed the core hours on the company calendar so people get a pop-up when they book meetings outside of core hours. The result was an increase in employees converting to flexible work.
Radical changes are risky and can be difficult to overcome without a considerable amount of determination. In client relationships, buy-ins are tricky without physical proof. Instead of glorifying grand strategies, teams can learn from behavioural science and leverage incremental changes for better team collaboration.
6. Champions, not celebrities
Whereas celebrities are promoted for their unique charm and influence, champions are promoted for their expertise and resilience. Champions are individuals who lead by doing and work in the trenches challenging the team to evolve their work. They are not recognized for their gifts but their integrity and knowledge in their craft. They are effective at disseminating information among peers and are crucial to driving product impact.
On my last project exploring the VoiceOver feature on iOS, a champion engineer on my team shared his explorations to create a micro-learn session for the entire team on voice accessibility best practices. The content of the session continues to live on the company knowledge database for everyone to access. Through pairing, this engineer continues to develop best practices with his peers. Not only does this work positively impact projects, it also increases institutional IQ.
When you have a large team, consistency in quality and approach can be difficult to manage. The making of a champion involves recognizing small accomplishments and providing a platform for sharing and growth. (Drop-in workshops, round-tables are great for that). People who learn together tend to work in similar ways. Amplify the importance of being a good teacher and learner. Everyone has the power to make a difference!
Products are complex, epic problems. Solving them can get messy, and no process in the world can prevent the unexpected. Good collaboration provides team flexibility and resilience to overcome hurdles.
While completing tasks will get you somewhere, it does not always translate to impact.
In the worst cases, mindless tasks can distract from finding the right solutions. It’s time to think beyond the SoW (or your Jira ticket) and unlock the collective power of a curious and compassionate team.