The secret of successful collaboration

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In an ideal world, a digital project should act like a campfire; a central point of interest that draws together experts, practitioners and stakeholders. But when you’re trying to achieve this across an ever-shifting team, how might you maintain that shared sense of focus? Here are some top techniques to try.

01. Create a shared vocabulary

Every project participant comes to the table (even if it is a virtual one) with a different lens; a different perspective on a subject, which means they have a different language from you. If you’ve ever sat at a boardroom table listening to a conversation and thought “I don’t understand what these people are talking about” then you’ve experienced one of the main blockers to creating a fruitful collaboration, which is not having a shared language.

The more diverse your group members are, both culturally, physically, mentally, and in terms of their domains of expertise, the more potential you have to innovate and create something no-one has ever seen before. But it requires acknowledging that time and effort need to go into the language you’re using.

As part of my work at Clearleft, I recently facilitated a workshop with 16 Artificial Intelligence experts from all over the world. In order to create divergence in the conversation and reflect the diversity in the group, I ran a “vocabulary dump”. Every individual took 15 minutes to write out all the words they could think of from their domain on sticky notes. We stuck them together randomly in a cloud, covering several metres of window space.

We then used our huge vocabulary cloud to act as a starting point for discussion, allowing people to question what one another’s phrases meant, and also pick up on nuances in meaning. It was a wonderfully collaborative way to spark helpful discussion and identify where there was convergence and divergence in our vocabularies.

02. Establish a north star

A few organisations we work with are now using the evocative term “North Star”. It’s a short central organising statement in the form of a proposition or an elevator pitch. The act of composing this short North Star statement with everyone on your project is a surprisingly challenging exercise in collaboration, but the major benefit of the work is that it draws the team together in order to iron out inconsistencies in everyone’s perception of what they’re doing. It’s not copywriting or marketing language, it’s just a plain language statement that shows the team have consensus around what it is they are creating together.

Try working with your team (whether they are near or far) to answer these questions about your project:

  • What does this thing do? For example, it’s a thing to write with
  • Who is it for? For example, it’s for people who want to write things down
  • How does it help them? For example, it helps them to collect all their thoughts on paper

03. Make a set of cultural principles

Some organisations like to create sets of values, others have rule books, some even have manifestos. One set of guidelines we’ve enjoyed using is the “It’s ok to…” list, inspired by a system used by the .gov.uk team. Examples from that list include:

  • It’s ok to say ‘I don’t know’
  • It’s ok to have a messy desk
  • It’s ok to make mistakes

One way to gather these guidelines is by asking your team members to contribute stories that begin “I liked it when…” or “I like the way…” about other brands, work experiences, or about your working culture. The act of doing this is in itself a positive experience that focuses the team on the act of collaboration.

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Donna Lichaw: Crafting products that engage

Donna Lichaw guides startups, non-profits, and global brands in optimising their digital products and services by providing them with a simplified way to drive user engagement.

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