Solar Do-Nothing Machine — Eames Office

Collaboration is Tricky

When the Percolate team could fit around a table, collaboration was easy. Sharing and developing ideas was within an arm’s reach. When there was enough of us to fill the room, we created group activities to solve problems together. Fast forward a few years, and we’re faced with the challenge of evolving our collaborative culture across offices.

The dynamics that create friction around collaboration are: location, logistics, and people. We figured out the first two with careful planning — it’s the people aspect that has proven most tricky.

People have different perspectives on when and how to collaborate during a project. Some even prefer avoiding group activities for fear of slowing down their productivity. Then there is the reality of how different personalities influence sessions. And, last but not least, there are different goals and motivations present when a cross-functional group comes together.

These considerations have asked us to design activities around three levels of collaboration:

  • How do we instill confidence in people to contribute to groups?
  • How do we guide cross-functional teams to work together effectively?
  • How do we gather and take action on ideas from across the organization?

Allocating time to prepare and test activities has been the difference between an average session that results in meandering conversations, and one where problems are solved and people feel fulfilled by the experience. Here are some of activities we have established.


Groups: Independent thinking gives people confidence to contribute

Since an unsatisfying introduction to brainstorms, I’ve been looking for approaches to build confidence in myself and the groups I’ve worked with. The best practices I’ve discovered have a few things in common.

When bringing a diverse group of people together, ice breaker exercises help set the tone for a safe and fun environment. From drawing Sharpie portraits of your neighbour to sharing two truths and a lie, people get used to contributing to the group.

Once warmed up, the most successful tactic I’ve used is asking the group to independently respond to questions or scenarios. Whether it’s two minutes or 20 minutes, timeboxing creates energy in the group to note or sketch down their ideas. Once time is up, people take turns sharing ideas. Everyone gets chance to speak, uninterrupted. From here, the group can use techniques like affinity mapping to cluster similar observations and ideas for further discussion before deciding on next steps.

These simple activities have led to productive problem-solving sessions where diverse ideas are surfaced and visualized. We’ve built further clarity into workshop exercises by assigning roles to members of the group. The most common role is a moderator, who coaches the group through an exercise. The thing about moderating is you need to remember that it’s your sole role. You need to focus on guiding the session to ensure everyone is contributing in a productive way.

Teams: Don’t presume people know how to work together

It takes time for teams to get to know one another. This doesn’t mean we should presume people will work out how to be great team players. People often need coaching and a supportive environment around them.

From daily stand-ups to get teams together to discuss what they are working on and what’s blocking them, to tools like the project charter that make project briefings more interactive, to design sprints that guide a team through iterative exercises to solve a problem. These activities have helped foster collaborative behaviours across teams.

What makes these activities work is that they bring people together to work towards a common goal. Whether that’s building a new product or creating an event experience, the focus is to move things forward. In addition to the activities I’ve suggested, we’ve seen the benefit of inviting teams to contribute to guidelines and playbooks that describe the responsibilities of disciplines throughout an activity or phase of work. These conversations have helped clear up uncertainty and confront issues that may be holding people back.

I’ve found the key to building collaborative teams is to continually look for ways to encourage the behaviour you want to see. One area we have done this is cross-functional design critiques that have allowed us to test new formats of working together. These sessions have provoked open conversations on what’s working and how we can improve the sessions for everyone.

Organizations: Develop systems to support ideation at scale

When we first did company-wide activities, we were successful in capturing diverse ideas from everyone in the room. What didn’t work was how we followed up. Synthesis came in dribs and drabs. Often it wasn’t until months later that elements were resurfaced in a company meeting.

Since then, we’ve continued to explore ways to get people across the organization engaged and connected in the flow of ideas. These are a couple of the systematic approaches I’ve seen emerge.

For long-term product planning, we carry out stakeholder interviews with different groups. Insights around the current and future state of our product are captured from our marketing, services, sales, engineering, product management, and product design teams. These perspectives are then synthesized by the product management team. Themes emerge for us to discuss and plan against with the broader group. Whilst this approach is less frequent than the day-to-day collaboration we see in project-based teams, it does provide a repeatable process for the company to connect and align on long-term plans.

I‘ve also been involved in an effort to capture, track, and take action on usability feedback that can improve our product. This project has brought together our product design, engineering, and support teams together. Central to this has been designing a system where usability observations from employees and feedback from customers are submitted by various inputs to our product management tool. This feedback is then reviewed and prioritized in cross-functional sessions where decisions are logged before we commit to developing solutions. A combination of leveraging existing data and establishing new collaborative workflows have enabled us to connect teams across departments and locations.


In a recent conversation with InVision, John Maeda speaks to the promise of design thinking for the modern organization. Here, he talks about the speed and iterative nature of collaborative activities and how they help companies develop agile ways to solve problems and deliver services.

At Percolate, we take an enterprise lens to our approach in an effort to create positive outcomes for our business and customers. For some activities this is about making sure the teams who are involved in the selling, building, and delivery, of our software are heard. We also plan activities that are specific to customer touch points. An example here is the system design sketching sessions we do with engineering, product management, and product design.

By taking a closer look at collaboration across our teams, we’ve established activities that have created new learning experiences for people, and they have helped the company solve problems effectively. Furthermore, the experiences have helped build trust and respect, and encouraged comfort with dissent amongst our teams. My friend Joe Turner calls these the building blocks of collaboration.

As for me, I’ve learned to be more aspirational around how I spend my time to make sure that guiding collaboration is number one on my list.


This post was written at Writeshop Wednesdays. Thanks to Kyle for getting us together.