For most of my twenties, I made fun of people for a living. Working as a caricature artist at one of the largest theme parks in Los Angeles was so much fun, and I’m not afraid to admit that I was damn good at it. Luckily for me, the ability to exaggerate and get great likenesses in a humorous way came naturally. I only had to worry about the one or two faces on the other side of my drawing table, and occasionally outdrawing fellow artists. Then I decided to mess everything up and become a designer.
It wasn’t nearly as easy for me. I used to be able to make quick judgements about a person, draw and airbrush their face in less than ten minutes, and rarely got returns. Switching to design work involved so many outside considerations I didn’t expect. It’s perfect as-is, right? You mean I have to make changes? Wait, I’m not starting over … again.
So, I have a confession.
Collaboration makes me very uncomfortable. Because of my past experience and personality, everything about collaboration feels unnatural to me — from working with others to achieve a common goal, to sharing all the glory of success. Having to talk to people throughout the process can be mildly anxiety-inducing, too. When it comes to design, I’m an independent worker and a control freak — I prefer making things look exactly the way I envision them.
But guess what? That isn’t how the business world works. In my 15-year career as a designer, I’ve never been able to get away with avoiding collaboration. In fact, when I actively avoided it I would wind up making more work for myself. As designers, collaborating is something we have to rely on frequently in order to get things done in the most efficient way possible.
It’s become a buzzword at many companies, being used mainly as a synonym for “working together” or just simply teamwork. However, I believe it goes much deeper than the joint efforts of working together. When I worked at SupplyPike, a supply chain software solutions company, we had a Slack channel reserved for calling out coworkers’ efforts when they go above and beyond. It was full of positive shout-outs involving collaborative behavior. But how does the collaboration part actually happen? That’s one question that I keep hearing. How does this mysterious thing work and what’s the best way to do it?
First the Why
What’s so necessary about collaboration you say? It’s important enough to be a permanent part of the Culture Code at SupplyPike, and many other companies. It’s frequently cited among academics and researchers to be a better way to accomplish tasks than going at it alone. But why has it gotten so much attention lately and become such a popular buzzword?
The collab gap
As the difficulty of certain tasks increases, so does the requirement to have greater specialization. This is illustrated above by the narrowing of each expertise triangle. The result? Broader knowledge within other areas becomes more difficult. Consider a neurosurgeon who spent twelve to fourteen years learning their trade. They would likely have a hard time answering questions that a typical general practitioner would immediately know the answers to. A neurosurgeon knows what techniques would be best to decrease swelling in the brain, but if you were to ask them for drug recommendations to relieve chronic heartburn, they probably wouldn’t have an answer for you.
To combat this problem, and others within the medical industry, the Mayo Clinic, a nonprofit academic medical center, has developed a unique collaborative approach to patient care. The Care of Mental, Physical, and Substance Abuse Syndromes (COMPASS) model draws on the best practices of valid collaborative care approaches in order to tackle mental and physical diseases simultaneously. Instead of seeing one doctor with individualized and specialized knowledge at a time, a patient is presented with a team of diversely-skilled doctors — a care coordinator, a consulting psychiatrist, and a primary care physician — who work out problems and solutions as a group. This approach has historically resulted in better patient care with faster problem resolutions. In short, many brains are more powerful and efficient than one highly specialized brain.
The collective brain is really the key to true collaboration, and something extremely valuable to the design-thinking approach. More on that in another article.
So where does one start?
The first important skill is communication. Hands-down, the best way to start collaborating is in person. Communicating online or over the phone is better than nothing, but having a face in front of you is how we humans are built to interact. You can observe body language, facial features, and tone of voice. Plus, how we talk to each other tends to be chaotic with lots of back-and-forth, interruptions and direction changes. That chaos is the fastest way for humans to convey information. You can’t receive or synthesize those nuances over email, or Slack, or even a Skype call. It’s also worth noting that not everyone has strong in-person communication skills, so being cognizant of that will help maintain a solid and healthy dialogue. Give any person you’re attempting to collaborate with the time to express their thoughts, and be flexible with electronic follow-ups where they may feel more comfortable voicing their ideas.
Give a little to get a lot
The ability to compromise is next on the list of important skills to have. Without it, you might as well be talking only to yourself. I used to believe that “all designs are a compromise”. This was sort of a negative outlook on how the typical designer serves as a vessel for outputting others’ ideas and never getting their own way. However, my thinking has evolved to view that all good designs are a result of necessary compromises, which are a result of effective collaboration. Yes, you could even call it a negotiation. In other words, in order to get to the best result possible, some outside considerations must be made. Making design decisions, or any work decisions for that matter, within a box is inefficient and can even be dangerous.
“…approaching a collaborative session armed with the attitude that you probably already know the answer or outcome means you’re either in the wrong profession or you’re completely missing the point.”
If you’re collaborating to resolve a disagreement, then keep in mind that not every battle needs to be fought. Even more, no battles are worth fueling a toxic work environment over. Similarly, approaching a collaborative session armed with the attitude that you probably already know the answer or outcome means you’re either in the wrong profession or you’re completely missing the point.
Perspective is everything
Being tolerant and accepting of others’ viewpoints is another cornerstone of great collaboration. SupplyPike was fortunate enough to have many diverse team members within the company: people from all over the world with different beliefs, cultures and perspectives. Every person came to the table equipped with varying work backgrounds and life experiences. Use that to your advantage and explore what each perspective brings to the collaborative process. Diversity equals a myriad of opinions, so approaching discussions with the belief that all viewpoints are valid in their own way makes for the best collaborative solutions.
Stay on target
Lastly, have a common goal defined from the beginning and work from there as a team to achieve it. It may sound cheesy, but if you are not all working towards one end goal, there is no use in collaborating in the first place. Working as a team means sharing resources, working alongside each other, and not just dictating what needs to be done.
Are there steps to follow?
Uno, get your stakeholders defined. The last thing you want is input from a stakeholder who’s late to the party. One of the biggest causes of scope creep is not involving the right people early enough. A surprise stakeholder entering near the end of a project that feels left out and has plenty of input can completely derail your process. So who are your stakeholders? These are people that have a vested interest in the success of the project. Examples would be a salesperson who needs a flyer to hand out to potential customers, or a Product Owner who knows the most about what a product can currently do, what’s in the product’s pipeline, and what the future direction of the product needs to be. If you’re not sure who your chosen stakeholders need to be, ask someone. On the flip side: if you happen to be a stakeholder, make an effort to be an active participant instead of waiting on the sidelines until it’s too late.
“This clarity and respect of role should be extended to everyone involved.”
Nextly, a clear decision-maker needs to be understood by all parties involved. Even in a collaborative environment, someone needs to command the project and call the shots. This role may fall to a project manager, a director within the department, or even the person who first brought the project to fruition. Without this role there will be confusion, stalling, and project failure. The opposite is true as well: too many cooks in the kitchen will cause conflict and a breakdown of processes. This clarity and respect of role should be extended to everyone involved. I can’t stress how important this is. A collective respect for who owns what and not circumventing or ignoring fellow collaborators is a foundation of collaborative behavior. From there, there should be no question of who to go to when issues arise or a quick decision needs to be made.
Southern African tradition relies on a philosophical concept called Ubuntu, a way of thought that roughly translates to a belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all of humanity. Defining what Ubuntu means, Nelson Mandela said “…if we are to accomplish anything in this life it will in equal measure be due to the work and achievements of others.” Applying this philosophy to collaboration doesn’t mean respecting bad work; it does mean respecting the person who does the work. This means staying in your lanes of expertise while politely offering advice that will help move the project forward.
This leads to the next step. Roles besides the decision-maker should have the authority to control what aspects of the project fall within their wheelhouse, and have a collective understanding of where others fall too. For example, if a developer is helping build a landing page, then they should act as the authority on technical decisions. If messaging is in question, then marketing should have the final say in what it says. Similarly, sales would be responsible for defining the parameters of the value proposition.
Moving right along, everyone needs to understand what the objectives ultimately are. Additionally, questions like deadlines, what resources will there be access to, and many others, need to have answers. Why are we doing this? How much time do we have? Who’s doing what work, and will there be extra cost considerations besides person-hours? If these can’t be answered up front, it’s best to reconsider the project.
Now it’s time to put some heads together — the really fun part of collaboration. Don’t be afraid to brainstorm as a group. Personally, I like being the deliverer of bad ideas so they get out of the way immediately and no one will wind up wasting time on them. Even if you think you have a great idea, always keep in mind that it will never be the best. Organized brainstorming is proven to be more productive and efficient than just jumping in a room together to throw ideas at each other. Allowing for ten minutes of independent idea generation, then presenting said ideas helps to get everyone participating, and accounts for the less talkative ones that would normally be drowned out by the bossier, ahem, more vocal ones in the room.
Another step to consider: try collaborating in a new location. Nothing fosters creativity like a new environment, so get out of the office as a group. This is especially true if you tend to collaborate with the same group over and over. If that’s not possible or you wind up stuck at some point, try taking a walk. It’s been proven that an idea or solution will work its way up from your feet.
Last but certainly one of the most important steps, create feedback loops. Think of a feedback loop as protection against going too far in the wrong direction. If you feel stuck, it’s time to communicate to the group. If you think you’ve completed the project, it’s time to communicate to your stakeholders. If it seems like you’ve been working on it alone forever, it’s time to circle back for reviews from your peers. Try getting feedback from someone outside of your typical circle of collaborators, even a stranger. Their unfamiliarity with the project can provide a unique viewpoint. They might have an even better idea, or conjure up something the usual suspects would never think of. Ultimately, keep in mind that you can’t please everyone. Others’ opinions are always hugely valuable, but need to be filtered through stakeholders and the decision-maker, especially when incoming feedback is either overabundant or mistimed.
Sometimes, for whatever reason, collaboration just doesn’t work out. This is normal and one of the more difficult parts of the process to grasp. Overall though, making a genuine effort to stick to the above pointers should save you some time and lots of headaches. They’ve certainly worked for me, even though sometimes I would prefer to draw funny faces all day.