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Collaboration – that’s the name of the game

4 September, 2011

Oh, no wait – that’s multiplication. But in a funny way, it still works. Cue quote:

“The range of our collective vision is far greater
when individual insights become one” Andrew Carnegie.

Amen Andy.

As designers we espouse the value of collaboration. But what I’ve noticed in my years in the game is sometimes a designer speaking about collaboration is a little like the overweight dietician; oh sure, they say the right things, but they like their doughnuts on their own. This post is about collegial collaboration, that is collaboration with fellow designers. Working with clients and customers/users is largely the same, but you can be a little rougher, so to speak, with colleagues. And I guess I’d qualify that ‘co-design-collaboration’ has a few more etiquette rules around it which I’m not drawing out here.

A potted history of my relationship with “collaboration”

A few years ago a small group of us (three) organised a corporate leadership forum with the underlying theme of ‘Collaboration’. My role was to come up with the content and exercises for all the senior executives to present. Two key things came out of the experience:

  • A deeper understanding of what collaboration actually means because I had to break it down for the executives
  • A truly excellent and joyful collaborative collegial experience

Prior to forum I hadn’t thought much about collaboration. Yeah, yeah, people together, goals, outcomes, blahdey-blah. But this is where being a designer gives you the opportunity to dig into and behind the assumed. Some important definitions:

  • Collaboration: multiple people working together in a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship to achieve a common goal
  • Co-ordination: the bringing together of different and multiple working elements for consolidation towards a shared outcome

When we couldn’t get copyright to a collaboration model in time I had to produce one overnight as a Plan B. Broadly speaking there were five elements to the CLEAR model:

  • Communication between partners (trust, respect, constructive conversation)
  • Leadership of people and process (someone’s gotta be clear about the why, how and what)
  • Engagement of a shared outcome (everyone has to be on board – willingly)
  • Accessibility to participate and contribute (the process itself and how to contribute is explicit)
  • Responsive to future collaborative activity (learnings are shared – bearing in mind this is a corporate model, so that really means shared across the organisation)

It was from this work that my consciousness of true collaboration emerged. Simply bringing people together doesn’t guarantee ‘collaboration,’ it’s more likely to be frustrating for all concerned. Collaboration is about people working together, and in our designerly world of multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary groups (nod to @vickytnz for highlighting the categories, see PS at bottom) People + Techniques ÷ Intent = Magic Happens doesn’t always work out.

Three examples of collaboration : the good, the bad*, and the ugly

Example 1: The Good

– Creative design making a tangible product

  • The situation: With virtually no time together – except for a 30 min session, midnight emails, and passing in the hallway – the two of us involved had to agree a concept, content and activity ahead.
  • The scene: During the 30 min session we shared a flood of ideas and expectations based on thinking we had been mulling on from initial conversations. Whiteboards, sketching and prototyping was involved.
  • The collaboration part: As the ‘maker’ I knew the basic concept and constraints we’d have to work within but it was still messy and fuzzy. Through the conversation and sketching a clear and shared vision emerged, we had clear roles and clear responsibilities and no one voice was stronger than the other.
  • Why it was beautiful: For my part, I had made things like this before but with Obi Wan CLEARnobe in my head saying “Use the collaboration force, Mel” I shut up and listened. I used my experience as a framework for the discussion not as the content. What we came up with together was far cooler than any one of us could have come up with on our own. And it was still make-able.

Example 2: The Bad (as in Michael Jackson ‘Bad’, so Great!)

– Conceptual visualisations of complex and complicated strategic outcomes

  • The situation: Making sense of voluminous and complex information and nutting out next steps
  • The scene: In a room, piles of paper, client urgency, clarity unclear, a whiteboard, four designers
  • The collaboration part: A time was blocked out with no agenda set. We just started talking. We all brought something to the discussion – some different aspect of understanding. Someone was referencing the data, a couple riffed on experience with the organisation, someone directed someone to capture key points on post-its so we could move them around as our thinking moved around, people would get up and re-frame the capture. Someone reminded the group of pragmatic boundaries. There was conversation, there was dialogue, debate. What was said would be built on by another. Questions provided deeper insight and spread deeper understanding across the team.
  • Why it was beautiful It was dynamic, hugely productive, relatively short time-wise, fun, funny, bonding – in a team, and knowledge understanding sense. It produced a better outcome than the four of us going away by ourselves and bringing our thinking together.

Example 3: The Ugly

– Working out an approach for upcoming prototyping activity

  • The situation: Group of designers with mixed expertise in design method and varying levels of practical experience trying to scope and plan a series of prototyping activities
  • The scene: A time was set but no agenda set. One person reading track-change notes off a computer that one other person was marking up on the only copy of the document. Same track-change person doing all the writing on the whiteboard and saying things like “Let me just write this up before we go any further” “What I want is…”, “When I did something similar I…”
  • The collaboration part: n/a
  • Why it was ugly: One person turned the collaborative session into a meeting where they were Chair. They also used their personal reference points as the predominant ones – so little experience in prototyping meant the person’s experience in facilitating a usability report deliverable framed the conversation. The experience at the table was also weak so the dominant personality could not be constructively challenged. The real trouble in this example was a collaborative intent was crushed by a more senior person’s insecurity with the design process itself.

So, to sum up, good collaboration to me is:

  • A conversation: Just like design is the conversation, and the conversation is the work. It’s the glue that connects the making to how you get to the solution. Like any good conversation there needs to be a clear topic, some kind of outcome sought and equality of the participants. Good rapport and spirits help a hell of a lot too. And as with any conversation, the ability to shut-up and listen is very useful.
  • Fast and deep: For generating ideas and insights there is no faster or deeper way than through collaborative conversation. To the point that, aside from all the obvious collaborative stuff like workshops, I am absolutely convinced two people sitting together writing up a workshop or research outcome is faster and creates better synthesis than one person doing it for the other to QA. ABSOLUTELY CONVINCED!
  • Not personal: It’s about getting to a good place, not about feeling good: if you don’t have enough collegial rapport to say something is bullshit or wipe a whole whiteboard of thinking, then call out some ground rules first. If you do it right, with the right people you all end up feeling good at the end. Strike that, you end up feeling great and energised and spent!
  • Not about quick consensus: Not being in total agreement is vital (except about the outcome). Like-mindedness is ideal but don’t trust too much agreement and consensus if it’s not tested. Expect and seek creative abrasion – this is where collaboration and emergence converge.
  • Not for everyone: Some people just don’t know how to collaborate. If you can, avoid them. If you can’t, try and set some ground rules if you’re leading. If you’re not leading, let them get their inputs and directives out and work bloody hard to win them over progressively by balancing greater good compromise to their personal agenda. Poor collaborators (and here’s my amateur psychology input) fear a lack of control, so they exercise what they think is missing.

I love collaborating with good people. If you’re lucky enough to work regularly with good collaborators recognise it and cherish it because it can be rare. It’s the sweet spot of design to me. But its not the end spot, and I’m going to do the most egotistical thing (other than having a blog dedicated to my own thinking) and quote myself to end this post.

After the Bad* collaborative session, we were pretty fired up/exhausted from where we got to. We probably could have gone for a few more hours. But it wasn’t just about where we got to because we’ve got clients we’re collaborating with too. I said:

“We’ve got lightening in a bottle here, but we don’t need to start a fire yet”

There’s a point in collaborating where you have to pause. Where you leave it, sometimes in a unfinished-nearly-finished form. But you have to, so it can percolate, so emergence can emerge, so collaboration can continue.

Be a good collaborator. It’ll make the world a better place.

-disciplinary Definitions (my take)

  • Multi– varied but complementary expertise, skills and knowledge. Shared interaction for outcome
  • Inter– specialist expertise from related fields experience. Collaborative interaction for outcome
  • Trans– individual knowledge and expertise is valued and shared as boundaries are blurred for the outcome
2 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 September, 2011 2:32 pm

    Love it Mel! “It’s the sweet spot of design to me.” Couldn’t agree more!


  1. Promised an experience; given a map: Filing a Tax Return Experience Map (Part B) «

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