Originally published on Journal.
How often do you hear the word “collaboration” thrown around? Collaborative workspaces, projects, problem-solving…you name it, there’s probably a way to collaborate on it. However, it’s not appropriate for all contexts, and it should be used with intention. The trick is knowing why, when, and how to wield it.
Collaboration is a way of gathering the collective wisdom across your organization.
When an organization doesn’t leverage collaboration, a number of issues can arise. People work in silos and are unaware of how other team’s work affects their own, which leads to a disjointed customer experience. Teams over-index on their own success rather than the organization’s. Projects are longer and more expensive than necessary. And ideas come from one source, are self-referential, and are misaligned with real user needs.
When done right, collaboration leads to generating powerful insights, envisioning bold new ideas, and building products and services much more efficiently. It’s a way of gathering the collective wisdom across your organization. People in different roles and parts of your organization can bring distinct, sometimes differing, understanding of a business challenge, its context, users, and process to the table. Their perspectives can help shape a holistic understanding of users and the market, make new product concepts bulletproof, or highlight ways to build something more effectively. Knowing where perspectives conflict is also critical. It can pinpoint where you need more information before making a decision or investment.
A Collaboration Success Story
In one of Designit Bengaluru’s engagements with a leading global bank, we looked at redesigning its new customer onboarding process and experience. For a legacy bank, new customer onboarding (especially if it’s a business entity) is very complex, as it involves multiple teams working together to collect, verify, approve, and activate a new account.
Our researchers and designers went out in the field to understand the current journeys and experiences of the bank’s customers, on-the-ground business development team, and operations team. Our work mapping the current journey, process flow, and challenges was eye-opening for the teams involved in delivering the service.
Through multiple validation and co-ideation sessions, we brought these teams (including business leads) together to look at the complete picture, think from their customer’s perspective, align toward common goals, and ideate on the future experience map, which became a blueprint for their decision-making moving forward.
As a result, the participants not only streamlined the account-opening process and documentation – which brought down the account-opening time from a few days to just a few hours – but they also came up with new ways of doing business with their customers. Taking a holistic view and encouraging harmony among teams developed their empathy, increased trust and transparency, and ultimately lead to the co-creation of a future roadmap.
When to Collaborate
It can be tricky to identify when collaboration is a worthwhile investment. There are certain times when it’s especially smart to incorporate collaboration: when tackling problems that must be solved across teams, when multiple groups must co-own the solution, or when a team doesn’t have enough information to arrive at a well-thought out solution on its own. Choose collaboration points wisely so that you don’t create unnecessary churn, project bloat, workload, and complexity.
How to Collaborate
Collaboration is a mindset that must be enabled and encouraged in order to flourish. Here are key ways to embed this principle into your organization’s culture, with some actionable techniques for each.
Invite participation: Open the door for multi-disciplinary engagement
- Institute regular, cross-functional work sessions and meetings. Encourage project owners to identify, in advance, the key moments when diverse perspectives would strengthen the work, and plan accordingly. Remind them to be intentional about when they invite collaboration so they don’t run into collaboration burn-out.
- Be transparent about this effort to foster cross-functional pollination so others in the organization can see signals that diverse perspectives are welcome.
Get the most out of everyone: Foster equal contribution
- Be intentional about creating psychological safety, which allows participants to comfortably address the elephant in the room or offer “risky” ideas that can lead to breakthroughs.
- Use the “think, pair, share” technique to make space for everyone to contribute, not just the loudest voices or most senior people. Here’s how it works. Think: ask everyone to reflect on their own. Pair: break people into pairs to discuss their individual reflections. Share: ask pairs to share insights that arose from their discussion.
- Encourage questions. To help people let go of inhibitions and express themselves confidently, facilitators can use language like, “What other questions do you have?” (which spurs more questions), rather than, “Do you have any more questions?” (which tends to bring questions to a close).
Be intentional: Establish goals and steer the outcome
- Set a clear purpose and agenda for the session and share it in advance. Be focused and realistic about what you can cover in the allotted time. Adhere to your agenda throughout the session.
- Create a “parking lot” (make it visible on a whiteboard or poster) for topics that are outside of the goal of the session. At the end of the session, decide when, how, and by whom those topics will be addressed.
- Use time-boxing, the practice of setting a time limit for each activity or discussion in a collaborative session. This sets the pace, keeps people on task, and makes the session more productive.
- Define and communicate roles. Ideally, use two facilitators: one who leads the discussions and activities, the other who watches time and the parking lot.
- Clarify who the decision-maker is. Collaboration does not equal collaborative decision-making. Rather, it’s a way of soliciting input and perspective. Set expectations about how decisions will be made, so that participants understand their role in this process.
More ways to foster collaboration in your organization
- Cooper Professional Education’s Facilitating Design Thinking course helps team leaders facilitate more effective, engaging, and actionable collaboration sessions for greater team alignment and creativity.
- The Design Leadership course helps leaders cultivate collaboration within and across teams, and motivate others toward a shared vision.