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Developing a Collaboration Culture

The collaboration of a company and its multidisciplinary units has never been more crucial than it is right now. Everything we make today depends upon our ability to stay current, move nimbly, innovate, engage and delight. Those things are too difficult to achieve without cross-team collaboration.

How can we unlock better collaborative rhythms within organizations that have tried and true processes that have worked for eons, but may not be working any longer?

One of my favorite quotes to use over and over in talks and in client sessions is by Aarron Walter, from his book Designing for Emotion. He writes, “Knowing who your users are is only half the question. You also have to know who you are.” He writes this in reference to really understanding who you are as a brand, a culture and as a company. The better you know who you are, and who your customer is, the better the ability to communicate through your product and engage them emotionally.

Aaron Walter’s book inspired me to dig deeply into the exploration of “who we are” as teams making products for users, and I’m excited to share what I’ve learned.

After more than 16 years of focusing on user experience in the context of interactive products, software, websites and mobile applications, and combining that experience with life coaching training, I’ve shifted my focus to expand UX thinking to incorporate the teams that make products. The key I’ve found to creating more harmony and eagerness in team collaboration is to fold some shifts in process and mindset into your company’s culture.

Three of the most common scenarios I encounter with clients seeking my help with team collaboration, improved product & team focus, and better product outcomes are:

Scenario 1

A product or feature is presented to the design and development teams that must be implemented in a specific time window.

Common challenges

  • The teams work in silos and are not set up for collaboration; they are set up to keep doing things the way they’ve always been done.
  • There is no time to try to do things a different way.
  • Meetings are considered “collaboration.”
  • Design and developer teams have to redo a lot of work because they run into unforeseen challenges that may have been prevented by earlier communication.

Scenario 2

The business keeps adding features or revisions.

Common challenges

  • Missed or extended deadlines.
  • Frustrated teams.
  • Finger-pointing and blame.
  • Decreased team morale.
  • Budgets are blown.

Scenario 3

An outside agency has been hired to advise and execute an “innovation” that will later be handed off to the in-house team.

Common challenges

  • Tension between teams.
  • Demotivation of in-house team.

The most successful outcomes of these common case scenarios happen with companies willing to embrace some of the following shifts in their process, and put more care and consideration into the people.

Understand and Embrace a UX Mindset

Shift 1: Understand and Embrace a UX Mindset

UX Mindset is all about putting people first.

UX Mindset reframes the thinking of what User Experience is. As brands, enterprises or corporate cultures, we need to think about UX as a responsibility, not as a role. UX is the responsibility of the company and of each individual employee, consultant or contractor that works with that company. Yes, there are UX practitioners, UX designers, Directors of UX, “CXO”s, and other titles we’ve come up with trying to wrap some sort of identity around the act of being responsible and empathetic to our product’s end users. A negative effect of having “UX people” on staff is that it has removed some responsibility of user-sensitive thinking from the rest of the company.

Your products and your users need the support of everyone in the company.

Shift 2: Collaborate from the “Why”

Everyone involved needs to understand the “why” behind what they’re going to be doing. Start off every project, product, feature or requirement exploration by framing the problem that needs to be solved and the outcome that needs to be met. Avoid presenting the team with a solution or a “We need you to make this in order to solve this” statement. Involvement from the problem-solving stage plants the seed of care and ownership.

Keep it general to start: assemble a small multidisciplinary team including at least business, design and engineering representatives who will ideally have the ability to not only kick-off the project but also see it through to launch. Identify the stakeholders and get alignment from day one. This is the only way to manage scope-creep further down the road. The project team needs to ensure alignment on the “why” and be sure that everyone is clear on what the problem is that needs to be solved. Continue alignment communication once a solution is identified. Over-communicate status throughout the project to instill trust.

Shift 3: Respect for Roles

Lack of respect for roles can result in a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding, miscommunication, demotivation and/or feeling defensive and territorial.

Respect comes from understanding the value of another person’s role or contribution on a larger scale. Understanding that someone was likely hired because he had a skill set that would contribute to the collective vision doesn’t always carry a great deal of weight, especially in a time when self-appointed titles are more common than not.

Help individuals cultivate respect for the roles of other teams by building time into work days for people to get to know each other more personally. After-hours happy hours and holiday parties are generally appreciated, but are not the ideal setting for getting to know people at the most honest, human level.

Assembling small multidisciplinary teams to tackle business challenges, and building in the time for them to think and talk over coffee, is a much better approach. This applies to outside vendors, as well. If an outside agency is necessary, it’s important to establish a human-side rapport between the individuals that will be working together.

Encourage understanding and respect around working together toward a common goal.

Lack of respect for roles can result in a lot of unnecessary misunderstanding, miscommunication, demotivation and/or feeling defensive and territorial.

Shift 4: Improve Communication

I’ve not seen one company to date that has a demonstrated knack for perfect communication. I’ll even step out on a limb and say, everyone could stand to improve their communication practices. A great place to start is by encouraging and supporting open, honest communication. True UX Mindset would demonstrate empathy and respectful but direct communication from everyone without fear of termination or toe-stepping. While communication cannot be stated enough, it’s important to remember that listening is a huge part of the equation.

I also consider word choices to be a pillar of importance in communication. Word choices are something I am constantly seeking to improve on. Avoid word choices that hold an individual responsible for something gone awry, instead frame the situation and approach how you can work together to make the situation better.

Even the smallest switch from words with negative or fight-based undertones to more positive words can impact people at a subconscious level. For example, it might seem pretty innocent referring to preparing for a new project kickoff meeting as “gearing up for battle” but that can actually set an underlying tone of “we need to be prepared to fight.” Instead, explore ways to reframe how you refer to a kickoff meeting.

Shift 5: Encouragement to Embrace Change

Change is often very uncomfortable for people. Embracing change is a cultural shift as much as adopting a general UX Mindset. Demonstrating by example is one of the best ways to filter this through a company. A great habit to form is to frequently ask, “What’s Good?” The question reminds people that no matter what the situation, they can likely find some good aspects and shift the focus to those. Every project, change, and shift is bound to encounter a rough patch or two, but it’s important when embarking on change to identify what is good, and to not lose sight of it. It’s also important to encourage focus on the positive.

For clients that have chosen to take these changes on, adopting these shifts-in-process has proven time and again to result in more than just resolutions to the challenges identified in the most common scenarios. Their teams are becoming happier, healthier teams that are more inspired to collaborate, with individuals that are more empowered to lead continued collaboration efforts. Additional, incredible rewards often start surfacing as a result. Many of my clients have seen improvements like:

More Innovation from Within

Teams that understand the “why” and are aligned early on have the opportunity to add value in the most unanticipated ways. The business may have otherwise never known that Joanne the developer was a helicopter mechanic in the Army for seven years before becoming the awesome developer she is today, and she has a brilliant, almost instant solution to bring to life Jerry the designer’s concept on how to solve the business problem.

Sometimes we don’t know the power of the people we’ve already got on our teams until we open ourselves up to more collaborative ways of working.

Increased Morale, Creativity, and Ownership

Teams more inspired to collaborate bring energy and ideas to the table because they have a chance to see their own contribution come to life and benefit the entire company. Individuals feel better about their participation and their role in the company. Teams with strong morale and ownership are teams that care deeply about what they put out into the world. That is an asset every company should find invaluable.

Greater ROI and/or Overall Long Term Cost Savings

Each project is sure to have its own obstacles and unforeseen challenges but collaboration early on allows a lot of upfront anticipation of time, materials and resources and a broader collection of possible solutions, which almost always result in better solutions early on. The opportunities to get it right from the start increase, saving time and money on starting over. When the end-user experience is more considered as a culture, your customers will feel it when they use your product.

Cultivating more collaborative work environments is about constantly improving upon the processes we put our people through. Our processes need to be about people: the human beings that make products for other human beings. The happier and healthier the people making the products, the more care they will pour into the things they make. A care-invested product has no choice but to radiate its sense of quality and consideration to, and for, the end user.

This article was originally published as part of the series “Design And Technology: Joining Forces For A Truly Competitive Advantage Content On InfoQ”. 

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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