I recently attended InfoCamp Seattle and found it to be an interesting conference; I highly recommend it. The keynote was by Nishant Kothary. Kothary shared insights about the creative process. What I found most interesting was his discussion of cognitive biases — the way we are “Predictably Irrational“.
This leads me to the session I led. The idea was to explore collaboration and identify what works and what doesn’t work when working with others. We kicked off the session by sharing some collaboration war stories — collaborative efforts that went horribly, horribly wrong. We then dissected those stories and moved on to what makes collaboration go right. (If you want someone else’s take on the session, check out this blog post.)
While listening to a lot of great stories, two main ideas surfaced as warning signs of collaboration failure:
1) Lack of agreement on, or definition of the goal. Is everyone on the same page? Are you working toward the same ends? According to Wikipedia (which should be an authoritative source on collaboration, right?), collaboration is working together toward a goal. So Step 1 should be make sure everyone has the same goal in mind.
This is trickier than it sounds. For example, a client wants your team to build a “cool” website for his business. Even if everyone agrees to create a “cool” website, “cool” doesn’t give you enough information to be sure that you’re all on the same page. Your goal isn’t specific enough to make progress in any sort of guaranteed way.
Many tools and processes are available to make sure that when goals are defined, you have actual agreement on them. The process of prototyping in and of itself is a way to validate that team members share a common goal, before investing a lot of work in a miscommunicated project.
2) Lack of Structure. In all types of collaboration, it’s important to have a way to resolve conflicts. This may be as simple as having a facilitator in a brainstorming session, having a clearly defined hierarchy of decision makers. The structure can be formal (I make the final decision), or informal (Joe is a great designer so let’s defer to him on design decisions). However, when the structure isn’t defined or doesn’t exist, there is a good possibility of working at cross-purposes.
Both of these issues are inherently political. In short: can the team get on the same page and pull in the same direction (I like to mix my metaphors)?
People expressed many ways in which they have dealt with the politics of collaboration:
- Broad education for team members about the project: Keep everyone informed. Spread expertise.
- Counter subjective bias with objective evidence: User testing, studies and other objective markers of expertise can help to raise people above their biases. (This point was brought home by Nishant in the keynote when he discussed the predictable, irrational biases that people have. See links above for more information).
- Structure and processes help: Best practices develop for a reason. By following and enforcing defined processes, you can ensure collaboration, counter biases and educate your stakeholders.
As the CEO of ProtoShare, I really wanted to have this discussion with others. I want to understand how we can create a product that helps large creative teams work together effectively. A key tenet we have at ProtoShare is “share early, share often.” This simple idea serves the purpose of educating team members, keeping them on the same page, and enforcing process. It may be my own confirmation bias coming out (again, see the links above), but I feel the features we are adding to ProtoShare (available soon!) enhance this pervasive sharing while providing additional structure to the process which will help keep collaboration on track.
Thanks again to everyone who attended the session, and thanks and congrats to all the InfoCampers. It really was a fascinating conference with a ton of information and new points of view.
And that’s what makes collaboration worthwhile. All of us are smarter than some of us. You never know where the brilliant idea will come from, or what part of the discussion will trigger it.