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Building Conditions for Collaboration

Tactics to create trust, foster diversity, and build leadership

For seven hours on Friday, October 23rd 2020, hundreds of professionals from around the world convened virtually for XFN Conference 2020, a focused discussion on the topic of collaboration. Why collaboration? Because it’s a key force driving efforts to innovate and build stronger communities, which we’ll need in the coming years more than ever.

Any conference should leave its audience armed with both a toolkit of tactical actions to take in their day-to-day, and a deeper understanding of the topic’s strategic underpinnings. This second element is key because tactics without strategy is, as Sun Tzu writes, “the noise before defeat.” And when it comes to collaboration, it’s especially true — without healthy conditions, even the best laid plans are bound to fall short.

The tactical takeaways from XFN Conf 2020 centered on understanding these necessary conditions — what they are, why they matter, and how to create them.

Creating the conditions for trust

A theme that resounded across nearly all sessions was the necessity of trust in any collaboration. It makes intuitive sense, but how many collaborative efforts neglect to build trust before plunging ahead?

Trust lets collaborators make and share mistakes safely, which in turns lets them take bigger risks and think farther outside the box. It lets teams move quickly, giving feedback that avoids the unexpected obstacles or slowdowns that otherwise sap motivation — or even spell doom for a once-promising effort.

Conference speakers shared some steps to building trust that are easy for anyone to use:

  • Say people’s names, not their department, persona, or industry. Don’t say “Let’s check with Design about that.” Say the name of the designer you’re working with: “Let’s see what Priya thinks.”
  • Play together! Collaboration without fun is a grind, and collaboration without competition is exceedingly rare. Finding ways to play together throughout the project builds trust, making that natural competitiveness more positive, and making it easier to have productive disagreements. User Research Manager Marlin De May (Algolia) focused her entire talk on play!
  • Focus first on trusting yourself. Own your perspectives, and bring your full self to the collaboration. When you’re wavering or noncommittal, your team members don’t know where you stand, and that means they can’t rely on you to make decisions or deliver the work expected of you. Growth Investor Rose Yuan (Capital G) says:

“First take the time to think and inform your own opinion. Conversations get more productive when you have your opinion formed first — and then, be open to being disproven or building even more validation around it.”

Fostering conditions for diversity

There’s another bedrock condition for successful collaboration — diversity: of thought, of representation, of beliefs. But beyond the idea that diversity leads to better collaboration, speakers emphasized the effort and purpose that goes into assembling diverse teams. The world is diverse by nature, but diverse teams only form through intention. Some things they suggest:

  • Go outside of your immediate network of friends and colleagues to find collaborators. Who else out there is passionate about the same idea? How can you find them and connect with them? Digital collaboration tools and social media have made building those kinds of connections and creating together easier than ever. Content creator and DreamWorks trainer Don Allen Stevenson III suggests this might be as simple as “following hashtags, not just individuals.” You go from consuming the same types of content on repeat to continually discovering new perspectives, dramatically increasing your exposure to new ideas.
  • Actively review job descriptions for bias. Find a second and third set of eyes, ideally an expert in this area. There are minimum job qualifications in place to weed people out, not recruit them in. How can you switch that calculus, and create minimums to encourage a diverse applicant pool?
  • Invest financially in communities that haven’t historically had access to funding. Investment can fuel collaborations that otherwise wouldn’t progress beyond a project between friends, and turn them into viable businesses, nonprofits, or artistic endeavors. One organization that’s leading the way here is Pipeline Angels, whose Deal Flow Lead Lisha Bell moderated and spoke on XFN’s investor panel.

Setting conditions for leadership

Leaders are defined by their levels of collaboration — not by how much they give direction, delegate, or take charge. It was fascinating that this theme arose across such different industries, from product managers to chefs to TV writers to name a few. But it makes perfect sense — the conditions that create healthy collaboration are also the characteristics of successful leaders: earning trust and trust-building, tolerance and a purposeful effort to increase diversity, and the ability to create a sense of belonging and alliance between individuals and cross-functional teams.

Chef Emmanuel Chavez speaks at length about the degree to which his profession and the concept of leadership are intertwined:

“Chefs are leaders first and foremost. The specifics of what we do day-to-day changes a lot depending on the setting, and has changed a lot over the last decade. But leadership and collaboration are the key skills that haven’t changed.”

This is a reframe we’d challenge all of you, our readers, to make in your own life. Swap “chef” out for your profession or passion in Chavez’s advice above — how does that feel? How does that change how you approach each day?

And taking the thought exercise to the next level, consider the important reminder Technical Recruiter Tiffany Nealy (Google) offered during XFN Conf’s recruiting and hiring panel when she said, “Being a leader doesn’t just mean management.” Those leadership traits described above? They have nothing to do with title or hierarchy. We can all be leaders within our teams and communities, and can all raise the bar for collaboration.



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Nicky DePaul

Nicky DePaul

UX Researcher. Finding market fit and living in the moment.