This introductory article describes the journey of desynchronized collaboration and our learnings from the experience. It is the first communication of our company culture experiment, with many more to follow.
Our first few months here at Kaiser X Labs felt like a rapid growth spurt for the many of the early members of the team. This fast-paced environment saw to it that people both deep-dived into project challenges and juggled the daily affairs of the brand new office staying on track. We realised that it would be a threat to our working and thinking culture if we allowed ourselves to be swept up in our own priorities. Working on different projects and within smaller teams, we strived to keep the collaborative spirit of our young group alive and to grow our company culture organically.
It was our aim to keep the team unified through a common conversation.
So we set out to create a conversation around topics of interest to us all, in a way that engaged participation from every Kaiser X Labs member, and included those often working off-site. By adopting Slack as our collaboration platform we had the freedom to lean into the conversation as and when our busy days allowed.
Much like in our daily work on projects, we experienced a series of divergent and convergent activities to get closer to our goal. The goal was to energetically discuss big questions of common interest. That said, we first needed to agree on a question that seemed worthy of tackling, was related to our work with Allianz, and allowed us to reflect upon from a variety of cultural backgrounds.
We opened the discussion with an initial workshop, where we collected questions that we had casually asked over the previous weeks. We clustered them and then voted on the question that excited us most to explore first. And the winner was…
The next divergence phase lay the foundation of the exploration. Similar to how we approach work on projects, we opened up the topic collecting a wealth of inspiration from diverse perspectives.
On any given project we normally combine web research with customer interviews as well as stakeholder conversations. In this case we concentrated on knowledge we could gather from within our team, without interviewing external people.
We collected stories of our personal experiences and those shared to us from friends, and teamed our opinions with points of view shared online in articles and through statistical data.
The next level
Once our timeframe for contributions came to an end, a smaller team grouped to consolidate the collection of information into key provocations that would take the conversation to the next level. These provocations were strong statements, distilled from clusters of information that each Kaiser X Labs member had shared on Slack. Once again we opened the conversation to the whole Lab, this time to collectively discussing the provocations and then converged one last time to produce an article that reflected our point of view.
When we began this journey, we anticipated this process to leave us in a place where “someone simply needs to write it up”.
But it wasn’t quite so simple.
We are now looking back on the experience much wiser. We did have a lot of comments and really got a conversation going — and we also learned a lot about how to get further with this collaboration. We want to share our learnings to serve as guidelines, if you want to repeat the exercise without falling into the same traps.
We learned very quickly that the questions we drop into the arena need to be picked carefully: yes/no questions aren’t very suitable because you can either prove one answer is right and then the conversation is over. Instead we feel that “why” and “how” questions allowed for much richer dialogue amongst us. We also see this on the projects we do: asking ourselves “why” people act, talk, feel specific things, lets us uncover their motivations and needs, which we ultimately build design solutions for.
A beautiful reflection was the fact that our different cultural backgrounds and individual experiences put each one of us in a different predisposition to discuss a topic from a different angle. This made us smile, argue and be inspired!
Tackling a single topic within a big group (towards the end of the collection phase we were just under 20 people contributing), put our daily work into an international context and broadened the horizon of each one of us.
We also learned a few practical things: timing is an essential key to success, especially during crowd initiatives, because no-one holds one clock for all. This initiative took us longer than anticipated and we now feel that we need to be strict on ending each phase within the planned timeframe. We learned that frequent prompts and reminders were necessary, although nobody wants the be the person to nag. Someone has to do it, but who?
The thought of a truly collaborative experience was what drove us and we now recognise that it is crucial to have dedicated roles in order to move the process smoothly forward.
We primarily need contributors, a large group of people who are eager to play. We also need a moderator, someone who moves the process along and reminds people to keep at it. This person can also change the rules along the way if necessary. In our case, she quickly realised that throwing more and more raw content into the group could suffocate the thread with too much disconnected information to digest, so she made the decision to ask everyone to post their own short summaries of the link and a point of view on it. And we need a couple of curators who can also be the dedicated writer(s). They must have agency to make decisions and move along with an argument. Not every step can be or needs to be crowd sourced. The democratic nature of an activity like this lives mainly in the generation of broad content. But the curation needs to be done by a sub-group in order to be efficient and coherent. And then “you only need someone to simply write it up”. To keep the distribution of responsibility (and workload) democratic we suggest that the moderators and curators group should change from time to time.
While Slack as an online collaborative platform helped us to include everyone easily, we also have to admit that every method has its limits and we sometimes found that offline conversations just happened more naturally and were hard to integrate into the flow online.
Overall we think this process is a valid tool to share a conversation and turn it into insightful answers. We are also using this crowdsourcing process to kick-off new projects when we start with an often blank(ish) slate and need to gather information quickly and from broad sources to form hypotheses in preparation for our actual consumer research. Even during a project we often reach points where a quick check with our colleagues can be very helpful. We can easily achieve a broad point of view from a collaborative shout-out, saving the time that would otherwise be needed to craft carefully phrased presentations that bring an audience up to speed.
And last but not least, we learned a lot about the topics we chose and about each other. Stay tuned to read our first article which will be published here soon!