Can you design your way to great collaboration?

What if companies started applying the same design principles they use to develop great products and services, to design collaboration in their teams? I’ve been thinking about this for a while now and this post is a collection of early thoughts and some good articles I’ve come across recently.

With the growing awareness of design thinking, it’s clear that design is not just something that is stuck on the end of a project to make things look nice. Companies are now using it at a more strategic level, and it’s permeating through all departments. Companies like Apple, Airbnb and Pinterest are all championed for their design attitude.

One of the foremost thinkers in this area is John Maeda, previously president of Rhode Island School of Design and now Chair of the eBay Inc Design Advisory Board. He recently tweeted:

“Design used to be the seasoning you’d sprinkle on for taste; now it’s the flour you need at the start of the recipe”

(h/t swissmiss)

In the same way, enabling teams to do great work is so much more than designing a cool-looking workspace, especially now that many of us work in virtual teams.  We need to think about the way we approach and design collaboration from the start. This is not about telling people how they should do their work – they’re already the experts in that. This is about designing methods for people to do their best possible work together.

So, can you turn the design process inwards, to create great experiences for your team? I’ve facilitated workshops where teams have the opportunity to explore new ways of working together. It’s great to see them using the same skills they use for developing new products, to generate and prototype ideas for how they collaborate on an ongoing basis.

Applying design principles to collaboration doesn’t have to be a big event – it can be gradually infused as a mindset so that your team regularly thinks about how they work. Gather opinions and think creatively about the best ways to work. Design for collaboration purposely, rather than leaving it to chance.

After the article No Dickheads! A Guide To Building Healthy, Happy and Creative Teams, received over 1500 recommendations on Medium, there’s a clear interest in turning attention to the right conditions for delivering outstanding work. A couple of other articles I’ve come across recently:

Google is tackling the science of how to build excellent teams

Following their research into what makes a great manager, Google is now setting up a whole experimental lab to investigate what makes up the best teams, and “how to build the best team for different types of problems and situations”.

Process is not sexy (because you’re doing it wrong)

Verne Ho tackles some of the objections to spending time on process. He finishes with an apt quote:

“Remember: process is not for the sake of process – it’s for the sake of helping great people to great work (which itself, is a pretty sexy idea)”

He has also written the excellent A Framework for Building a Design Practice – a piece which encourages design studios to think about the tools, production models and rhythms they work with to support their ideas.

Building a Culture of Collaboration

Kuri McKinley of Frog Design reflects on her last 10 years at the agency and how they’ve successfully built a culture of collaboration. This has had a positive impact on how they can consistently and effectively deliver quality work for their clients:

“In our experience, organizational success is about building a functional and collaborative user experience for your own teams. Actively reflect on what worked, and drive continual learning and refinement of your own processes and approaches.”

They’ve distilled their methods into a toolkit which they use with their clients.

Some of my early thoughts about applying design principles to collaboration:

It’s done collaboratively. Involve everyone. Consider everyone’s individual working methods and the work that needs to get done. Identify the pain points and what is already working within the team, to create ways to make it better.

It’s iterative. Make small interventions to the way your team works, test, learn from them and then develop further if you need to.

Figure it out as you go along. If you’re starting a new project, you won’t know how things will turn out. Sometimes you just have to start with a hunch for what might work, and appreciate things will be a bit messy and uncertain as you try it out. But make sure you take time out to review how you are all working.

Keep it simple. The aim is to create a framework that guides great work, not a heavy-handed restrictive process that directs it. Strip tools and methods down to the minimum and build them up from there.

Stay flexible. Teams change, projects change, people change. Recognise when the methods you’re using are no longer working and need to change.

Ask questions before designing solutions. Start with people. Be clear on the problem you’re solving before you come up with answers. You may already use these approaches for user-centred and service design. Turn it back on your team.

I’d love to hear your ideas about this, and find more sources for applying design to collaboration. Is it feasible to expect a team to design the way they work together? Where does it fit in with company culture? Let me know your thoughts below.

Image credit: Juhan Sonin on Flickr

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