Team having fun collaborating

Tips on how to enable true collaboration vs. mere cooperation

Researching for a paper on design and collaboration, I stumbled across this very interesting piece in the Harvard Business Review. Ron Ashkenas describes in his article „There is a difference between cooperation and collaboration” how

meshing the skills and resources of different departments, each focused on its own distinct targets, to achieve a larger organizational goal is much easier said than done. In fact, it takes much more than people being willing to get together, share information, and cooperate. It more importantly involves making tough decisions and trade-offs about what and what not to do, in order to adjust workloads across areas with different priorities and bosses. And despite all the well-meaning cooperative behaviors, this is often where interdepartmental collaboration breaks down.

Ron also explains how managers and employees struggle with real collaboration despite the fact that they participated in various trainings on the topic.

I have observed similar struggles in many organizations trying to implement design thinking into their corporate culture. Usually people are absolutely enthusiastic when they attend a training on design thinking. During the feedback session they state how amazing it was to directly work with so many colleagues from other departments and how much they enjoyed getting to know different peoples’ views on the given challenge. Nevertheless, once they go back to their own desk they seem to forget about this enthusiasm. They fall back into their old habits. They stick to their own department or team. They hesitate engaging with others in order to avoid misunderstandings and to co-create a solution that works for everyone.

Culture of collaboration

In order for true collaboration to happen it is important to enable the right culture. An organization and all its’ members must understand that collaboration results in better outcomes. While this is easy to grasp theoretically, many organizations struggle.

I personally made this experience during many projects. One project in a previous job stands out, though. It is an example of how the overall culture and structure of an organization undermines the goal of creative collaboration:

The whole company speaks about design thinking and agile development. Many teams have the goal to use and implement an iterative, user-centered and agile way of solving problems for the customer. Nevertheless, the goals of the different teams are not aligned accordingly. While one team has the ‚innovative‘ priority of listening to the customer and understanding their problems, the other is measured by delivering working software and making a profit for the company. The team members of the second team cannot ‚waste‘ their time, working on fluffy visions while no actual piece of software is produced. Combined with a customer who provides unrealistic time constraints, this leads to a very arduous collaboration between the teams. The design team creates design visions that are not agreed upon with the development team. The development team thinks of the design team as the dreamers, who come up with these crazy, unrealistic ideas.

Give time for collaboration

In my opinion this can be avoided by allowing and applying the right collaboration experience design, but the organization has to understand the importance of giving time to their employees to really collaborate.
While normally the day-to-day work keeps everyone busy and allows only short meetings of one to two hours for project planning, the time would be better spent if the two teams would openly plan their work together. If designed right, this kick-off session can create an amazing energy amongst the collaborators to start into a really successful project. Even though this effort might take a day or even two in the beginning of a project, it will avoid a lot of problems in time to come.

Avoid the waterfall approach

Due to time constraints and the conflicting team goals, the two teams in my example where not able to really collaborate from the start, because it was not possible for the development team to spare someone right from the start. This leads to a waterfall approach of sorts, even though the project is based on agile and design thinking methodologies. Later in the project, this challenge was resolved. A developer joined the design team and even later in the project – when it became more development driven – the designers joined the dev team.

Deliberately design a dramaturgy of collaboration

As Ron Ashkenas writes in his article, two steps are important for better collaboration:

First, consider the goal you’re trying to achieve. Map out the end-to-end work that you think will be needed to get the outcome you want. […] Second, convene a working session with all of the required collaborators from different areas of the company to review, revise, and make commitments to this collaboration contract.

While the mentioned steps are important for the kick-off of a project, it is also important to follow up in the same spirit. Feedback sessions should be planned in and a regular exchange should be organized. Processes like design thinking or agile development can give you a framework for regular interaction and exchange. Methods such as daily stand-ups, a team charter and the „I like – I wish“ feedback exercise help you to build the team and avoid misunderstandings.

Appoint a CEO – Collaboration Experience Officer

In each project there should be someone who is in charge of the collaboration experience. Ideally this person is external to the project and has no personal interest in the project itself. This will make it easy for him or her to stay neutral and only focus on the collaboration experience: the process and the goals. Naturally, project managers could be in that role, but they first need to understand the need of intentionally designing the collaboration sessions. As a collaboration experience designer you have to adopt the mindset and approach of a facilitator.

Don’t only rely on tools

The article by Ron Ashkena is sponsored by google. Naturally the advice from a company such as google is heavily related towards technology. So it is no wonder that their tips are all related to using the right tools. Nevertheless, I would argue that besides the tools it is very important to also engage the team into an actual collaboration experience by creating sessions, touchpoints and even rituals that foster the team spirit and allow for an exchange of ideas and perspectives. If you are co-located, definitely meet in person. But even if you are working remotely, the aspect of personal communication is crucial. Matthew of Hanno.co – a globally distributed design agency – explains how they build a strong team culture:

The culture we try to maintain in our team is to rather over communicate than trying to avoid a problem.

Of course, this will be supported by the right tools, but it is the culture of over communicating that makes the team stronger. A tool alone will not help anyone.

Do you need help with your collaboration experience?

If you need help with your collaboration experience, don’t hesitate to contact me.

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