You know you’re not collaborating when…

Guest Blogger

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Ruth Keiry is an experience designer at PwC's Experience Centre, based in Wellington, New Zealand. Ruth lives and breathes collaboration; she has solved important problems that make a real difference to people’s lives in New Zealand. Before her talk at UX New Zealand 2017, Ruth shares her thoughts on collaboration. 

Looking back on a recent experience, I found myself pondering the thought: “All of us, are smarter than any ’single’ one of us. The experience I had made me realize it can be so easy for our overloaded memories to simply forget how to effectively work with other people — especially when it comes to collaborating with those outside of our direct team. It also illustrated that we hadn't set up the conditions where collaboration from both 'sides' could happen to achieve group genius.

How I knew we weren’t collaborating

In my case, this experience was a planning meeting with the 'guiding coalition' of the project. The meeting was the third in a series of 'get togethers' – that allows us (the design team and our client) to discuss/explore the challenge, test possible approaches, make decisions and build ownership — for an upcoming event. The meeting gives the sponsor team a chance to engage in a conversation that explores all sorts of complexity and content.

Now, I should mention, we had some delays throughout the process of these meetings. Natural disasters can put a spanner in the works of any process. Due to this, the original brief had evolved and the urgency to complete this event was a priority. Saying this, I knew after a productive meeting we would have had the answers required to back be on track. As a team, we reconnected with the purpose that was driving the event, agreed on the objectives we were trying to achieve and the discussed the intended output. So far, everyone was in agreement. As I turn to grab a whiteboard marker to capture a change, I hear: "Ruth, I do have something".

I turn around and see one of the sponsors clutching a piece of paper; she sticks it up on the whiteboard right next to the objectives we had just agreed on. I take a minute – and see that the information we had framed up from our previous meeting (a week earlier) had been crossed and out replaced with a new set of objectives. I take a deep breath, as now the work the design team had created between meetings was no longer connected to purpose driving the work. The documents were mutually exclusive and the team were not clear which one to look to, for guidance.

What went wrong in this scenario?

How did this happen? While the Design team had been collaborating all week, our client had been working alone, in isolation. Feeling so uncertain about the objectives, she created new ones – rather than sharing her thoughts with the rest of the team. This was a problem. To our own detriment we simply hadn't applied our basic working principles to how we worked with everyone in the team. The client’s approach to changing information was done in this way because we hadn't set up the right conditions in which we could all be collaborative.

Creating the conditions for effective collaboration

Effective collaboration happens when the right conditions are created. Typically, when a team is working together on a common goal you will hear words like co-located, communication and co-creating. These are all elements that enable collaboration and form a manifesto for an effective way of working. Although, as my experience demonstrated, if all team members aren't aware of or feel comfortable in these conditions, collaboration just won't happen. When it comes to your client, sponsors, vendor, core stakeholders —whatever term you use — creating suitable conditions that allow them to work effectively with you is essential. If overlooked, parts of the group will abide by a very different set of rules. Things such as grand reveals, working in silos, and a lack of accountability begin to happen – which should sound alarm bells in any collaborative environment.

Addressing common roadblocks

Below are some of the alarm bells that appeared in my experience. These demonstrated to me that the wider team wasn't collaborating effectively. For each, I have captured what you can do to tackle these and avoid disruption.

The problem is taken away by individuals and your team are in 'silos'. When you find yourself working alone on a piece of work that requires various perspectives and skill sets, you aren't benefitting from a collaborative environment. Sometimes people can think it's more efficient to take the work away and sometimes that can be the case, yet most scenarios will benefit from cross pollination. Trust is important here. Aim to create an environment where problems are shared and those on your team are willing to work with each other to solve them.

'Grand reveals' happen in the team. Please note — it's never time to "move that bus!" When you can't communicate easily or have limited access to your core client, large presentations will take the place of regular conversation. This is not collaborating. If you must constantly press pause and have a growing list of questions then you aren't in an environment where communication is easy. Aim to have regular check ins with the wider team. If co-location isn't possible have a daily virtual stand-up, or a Slack channel. This will help limit any surprise moments, provide easier progress updates and speed up the team's progress sufficiently. As an added bonus,the more time spent with the client consistently means it’s easier to get their buy-in.

Your team can't make decisions. There are too many chiefs trying to solve the same problems. Try and ensure careful selection of the people you are collaborating with. Consider the following: Are they someone who can make decisions? Are they accountable and responsible for the outcome? Can they hold a different perspective from their own? Can they communicate with others? If the answer is yes — great! Ensuring this of your core sponsors will allow decision making to happen inside the 'room' and save the team time and energy. Commitment and ownership of the problem must be strong from all.

Once you are aware of situations like these, you will see that collaboration can't happen unless these issues are mitigated. In most cases, the fix is a pretty simple one. Ultimately the sooner you remove the barrier that stops someone from collaborating with you, the quicker you can create the condition required to allow everyone to be more effective.

That thought of achieving group genius - will stay with me from now on, shining bright over every piece of collaborative work I do, no matter who I'm working with. I encourage you to do the same.

Want to hear more? Come to UX New Zealand!

If you'd like to hear what Ruth has to say about team collaboration, plus a bunch of other cool UX-related talks, head along to UX New Zealand 2017 hosted by Optimal Workshop. The conference runs from 11-13 October including a day of fantastic workshops, and you can get your tickets here. 

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