Collaboration – the act of working together with other people or organisations to create or achieve something – is clearly a good thing. Product teams need to collaborate in order to succeed.
But ‘collaboration’ can easily be confused with ‘working together on tasks’, which is only valuable in certain circumstances. Often, it’s detrimental.
Playing as a team
Consider a successful football team. They need to collaborate to get the ball, score goals and ultimately beat their opponents.
So they organise themselves accordingly, assigning roles to team members based on their skills and abilities – the agile striker, the creative midfielder, the tenacious defender.
Players hold their position, trusting each other to play their part, whilst being ready to support when needed.
Communication happens naturally – alerts to danger, shouts of encouragement, handovers, strategy updates from the sidelines – are all delivered and absorbed intuitively. There is a sense of flow.
In short, they play as a team.
Swarming on tasks
What they don’t do is all run after the ball at the same time. They learned not to do that in primary school.
And yet naive efforts at collaboration like this still happen in product organisations. Team members and stakeholders swarming around tasks, poking at them enthusiastically, trying to be helpful, but often getting in each other’s way.
It’s most common in the earlier stages of product development. Stakeholders rarely want to ‘get together and collaborate’ on writing code. But, when it comes to design – i.e. deciding what the thing needs to do and what the user experience should be – everyone has an opinion.
‘Agile’ has compounded the issue. Designers find themselves working in developer-centric environments, making decisions in groups where, if we’re honest, most of the participants are more concerned with their ability to deliver the thing on schedule, than they are with the finer points of user experience.
If we’re not careful, crucial design decisions are made in poorly structured meetings by people who mean well, but don’t understand the rules of the game. The result is less valuable, less usable, products and services, and demoralised designers.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s absolutely necessary for designers to seek input from others throughout the design process. But it must be done with care, to ensure that everyone can contribute their perspective where it’s most needed, without drowning out others, and without allowing the subtleties that make the difference between a well-designed experience and mediocre one to be overlooked.
This requires skill and resolve. And it doesn’t come naturally to everyone. I’ve worked with many great designers who are much happier quietly thinking through problems, exploring options and designing solutions than they are facilitating high-stakes meetings.
A new game plan
To foster effective collaboration throughout the product development cycle we need two things.
Firstly, we need the right team culture – that winning combination of a shared goal, clear roles and responsibilities, mutual trust and great communication. And within that, designers, like everyone else on the team need the space and resources (access to analytics and insights from user research) to do their work.
Secondly, designers need to hone their facilitation and stakeholder management skills. Designing a great solution is the easy part. The real challenge lies in convincing your colleagues it’s the right solution to build. That means gathering the right inputs from the right people (especially users!) at the right time, showing your workings, backing up your decisions with evidence, carefully listening to feedback, and picking your battles wisely.
It’s not easy, but it’s the key to unlocking the potential of every team.
After all, the essence of collaboration is not about working together on the same tasks. It’s about leveraging diverse knowledge and skills to achieve what we can’t achieve alone. Those who can master it will win.