6 Steps to Design Better Collaboration: The Paper Airplane Experiment

The challenges that teams come up against when they are trying to innovate and transform what they make and how they make it, come down to a lack of clear communication. Without clear communication, great collaboration is impossible.

Each of us builds great collaboration one conversation at a time, or fails, one conversation at a time.

download the six steps activity guide here, to try this with your team

Redesigning how you talk about work means you can do better work together.

I’ve worked with teams and organizations on how to work together, in a more mindful and intentional way, all over the world, using the tools of Design Thinking… but for me, it all started with origami.

I learned about clear communication early on from my origami teacher Michael Shall. When I was 13, I was a gigantic origami nerd and apprenticed myself to Michael, who taught huge groups of people and kept them in thrall. I quickly saw why he was such an ace teacher: Clear language. Specific words.

He wouldn’t say “fold your paper in half”…He would say, “Fold the paper in half, long side to long side, making a tall rectangle. Run your finger over the folded edge to make a sharp, crisp crease.” The extra words weren’t extra. They made his communication style foolproof and flawless.

Working together is like this. If we talk without clarity, we’re understood without clarity. Errors and misunderstandings pile up and frustration rises. Just because a team uses the same acronyms doesn’t mean they get each other!

If you have an hour, get some paper and gather your team and do the origami experiment below. You’ll leave talking about work in a new light. You can download the activity guide here and just skip the rest of the article!

Designing Conversations about Design

“Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what it looks like. People think it’s this veneer — that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” — Steve Jobs

This idea of design as totally core to business success isn’t news anymore, the way it was when Steve Jobs said the above, back in 2003. Today, design is almost a meme. Design is being applied to more and more things. And why not? Design just means making things better, on purpose. So when we want a better organization, we do Org Design. When we want better experiences, we use Experience Design. Same for services. Service Design. Boom! Fixed it. I even design conversations with…you guessed it: Conversation Design. I have a podcast about that. Just saying, it’s a thing.

But design isn’t just how “it” works. Design is also….what is “it?” Are we making the right thing? Who benefits from the creation and use of the “it”? All of that can and should be designed.

Creative teams, groups of people who are responsible for making things (services, experiences, products) in the world need to grapple with the What, the How and the Who of design. And sussing all those questions out all at once gets very confusing.

Design belongs to everyone now

“Everyone designs who devises courses of action aimed at changing existing situations into preferred ones.”
Herb Simon, Nobel laureate in economics

With Design expanded to effect change in so many contexts, we need a better, shared language of what it means to design, since, in this definition, everyone designs.

Get your team speaking the same design language through this easy Origami exercise

Let me explain…actually, grab a piece of paper and a few people and I’ll show you. Download the guide here!

This is an exercise I facilitate with teams who want to work in the same direction at the same time, instead of pulling in different directions. If your team wants more positive collaboration, try this out. The whole exercise with discussions can take less than an hour, depending on the size of your group. (I’ve done this with teams of 5 to groups of 150)

It’s evolved over 4 years of prototyping, first, just teaching UX teams origami diagramming as a reflection tool to talk about wireframing and visual communication. Later, it became a key part of my UX bootcamp at General Assembly. Then, it became a tool I brought to any group ( not just UX) trying to rethink how they collaborate and communicate. It got simplified and streamlined.

The Paper Airplane Experiment

1. Get a group of people together and pair everyone up (threes are fine, too)

2. Ask each group to “make a set of instructions on how to make a paper airplane.”

3. Set the timer for 10 minutes.

4. Talk about what you made: What ways of explaining your work did you use?

5. Talk about how you chose which airplane to make.

6. Swap instructions with another team and try them out. Which methods worked well? Which fell flat? Did you get the plane you intended?

Unpacking the Experiment: Simulated Work

At the end of the ten minutes, almost every team will come up with a very different set of instructions for their paper airplane. And many will have a very different plane. Their overt goal was to make instructions. The secret goal of the exercise is to get participants to examine the way they communicate and collaborate with their teammates and the way they communicate with people outside their teams. As I facilitate this exercise I try to get teams to see a six key ideas about collaboration.

Six Collaboration Insights

  1. Be Aware of First Speaker Syndrome

There are a few very predictable things that happen as far as communication within the group. The most common I call the First Speaker Syndrome.

First Speaker Syndrome is when someone speaks up first and says something like, “I know a good paper airplane,” and so the rest of the group goes along without questioning the first speaker. This is a major mistake within teams and in our everyday lives. Each person has a unique experience and perspective that could greatly improve a project or design. Design the conversation around making sure everyone is heard before decisions are made. And ask each teammate to be aware of how they might be affecting the conversation.

Ask yourself who you are within this group. Are you the person who speaks first and doesn’t give time to others’ ideas? Are you the person who goes along with any idea? Or are you the person pushing and challenging the group to make the best airplane there is?

2. Did you fly the plane?

I would say that 80% of the people who do this exercise never fly the plane before diagramming it. When I ask them why they didn’t try out their design first, they complain about the time. And yet…there will always be one or two groups who somehow managed to *each* fold a plane they know, try them both out, and then make diagrams for the best one.

3. Best plane How?

Is the best plane the one that flies longest? Fastest? Highest? Most maneuverable? Easiest to fold? This question almost never gets asked. Why? Time. We don’t take time to ask this totally critical question…and so spend our time designing the wrong thing, or, not the best thing.

Taking a moment to think, “Why am I doing this? What’s the real goal here?” is never time wasted!

4. Who are these diagrams for? Who Are You designing For?

One of the most interesting things that happens in these ten minutes are the assumptions made about the exercise. Almost everyone assumes two things. The first, who the set of directions are for. And secondly, how “directions” are supposed to look.

The most important piece of information to decide in the beginning of any project is the audience. Who is this for?

You have to decide who you are designing for because this information goes into every piece of the process. You would design two completely different sets of directions for a simple plane for kids and an advanced, top-speed paper airplane.

Who did YOU initially imagine you were designing these directions for? I bet you pictured someone like yourself receiving the instructions. Did you pause to ask what modifications might need to be made if the audience was blind or a child?

5. How to share your ideas?

A commonly made assumption is that directions can only look like steps written down on a piece of paper. This is not what the exercise says.

50% of teams that participate in the exercise will create one-dimensional directions (only words.) This can be hard to follow if you’re new to origami or the particular paper airplane. This method is still used in some cases but problematic when words are so often misconstrued (Like UX requirements docs!). More information is generally better. (Imagine assembling an IKEA table without those pictures!)

Some teams use symbols and diagrams to go along with the written directions, making the communication two-dimensional and removing potential ambiguity with the words.

Occasionally teams will take another approach by creating a series of three-dimensional planes. (these are called step folds, like origami breadcrumbs, and are great for blind origami instruction)

One thing that I have never seen a team do is to pull out the cell phone that everyone has in their pockets and make a video of the entire process. Why? Most people fear that would be breaking the rules.

The assumption that directions must be one dimensional and that thinking outside the box would be breaking the rules is devastating to the world of design. The best designers are the ones always asking questions and pushing the “norm.”

This same concept goes for designing more than just paper airplanes. It’s the same for designing bridges, conversations, and even relationships. Self-reflection, evaluation, and breaking the “rules” lead to the most beautifully designed parts of life.

6. Everything is a Paper Airplane

I’m still surprised at how many teams create directions for a paper airplane without testing if the plane even flies, or how well. They hear the ten minute time-crunch and decide to get straight to the task: write the directions.

Forget who the directions are for. Just get the job done.

Why spend ten minutes creating detailed instructions for a paper airplane that doesn’t fly? That one person just thought up?

Unfortunately, this mindset is adopted in more than just paper airplane origami. In offices everywhere, every day, people are launching planes that won’t fly, just because they were told do.

A Culture of Collaboration: Asking Why, together

All ideas are like paper airplanes. Ideas need to be tested — early and often. At the very least, they should stand the test of a simple question: Why?

Many thanks goes to my origami mentor, Michael Shall, who taught me to give clear instructions and that in origami, copying from your neighbor is called “sharing”.

Want to try this with your team? Download the activity guide here.

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Did you enjoy this lesson in how origami can change the way you think and design? If so, you’re in luck. I’m coming out with an eBook with more exercises like these.

Sign up here if you want to be the first to get it!

Many thanks to Carl Collins for the many conversations about this.