Designing Your Way to Better Team Collaboration by Alison Coward

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As the founder of Bracket Creative, Alison Coward spends her working life advising creative teams on how they can collaborate better. She’s an experienced facilitator of workshops, so at this year’s London #mtpcon she shared some practical ways to get teams to work together more productively.

Many of the techniques used to run workshops can also be applied to the day-to-day running of a creative team, says Coward. These include techniques such as avoiding “groupthink”, when everyone goes along with a bad idea, balancing introverts and extroverts so that everyone has their ideas heard, and making sure everyone stays motivated and engaged.

Academic research has consistently shown, according to Coward, that it’s not the individuals that make up a team but how the team works together that is critical to its success. Research from the MIT Human Dynamics Lab showed that the most successful teams communicate frequently, listen and talk in equal measure, engage in frequent informal communication and explore outside the group for ideas and information. Similarly Google has found that there is no impact from the individual talents of team members in its most successful teams, it is how they work together that makes them successful. Google found the overriding factor to make up its most successful teams was psychological safety – they trust each other and feel safe sharing opinions and ideas.

We can think and design for better teamwork, says Coward, but she is doubtful whether it is possible to copy the habits and rituals from one team and apply them to another. Every team has its own individuals, quirks, products and expertise – so while we can take inspiration from the working of successful teams it’s not always possible to replicate them directly.

5 Key Team Habits

Coward details five areas with real-life examples where she thinks successful teams can provide inspiration.

1. Ways to meet

The design studio of Swedish bank Nordnet is very specific about why when and how they meet, says Coward. It conducts four types of meetings:

Weekly goalfest meeting – the team gets together on a Friday to talk about what they’ve achieved during the week and what they want to achieve in the next week. Goals are collected and shared.

Weekly design critique – the team has specific framework for feedback so that people remain objective and keep their users in mind.

Monthly pet peeves – every month the design team gets together with the bank’s marketing team and talk about solving problems and the constraints and difficulties of working within a banking environment.

Quarterly retrospective – as well as looking back at achievements the team looks forward at its strategy for the coming quarter

As Coward notes, it’s not just the format of the meeting which is important, but also the way they are conducted. Asana for example reserves five minutes at end of every meeting to make sure that everyone knows what they need to do. Google Ventures uses a silent technique called Note and Vote when it’s difficult to select an idea, and it’s a technique which gives introverts the opportunity to share their ideas. Similarly, the regular Brain Trust meetings at film company Pixar are aimed at encouraging productive conflict, and directors expect to be challenged.

Alison Coward at #mtpconIn order for meetings to be effective, Coward suggests that they should incorporate time for individual thinking. It’s also important that the difference between divergent and convergent thinking is clear – that is the difference between brainstorming for many ideas and the selection of one idea that results from this. Meetings should also create opportunities for productive conflict, says Coward, and it’s important that meeting organisers keep brainstorming cycles down to a maximum of 15 minutes. Most importantly, says Coward, don’t forget to follow up – we can place so much emphasis on ensuring a meeting runs successfully that we can forget to follow up afterwards.

2. Sharing work and ideas

DIY is a children’s app which encourages craft skills. The company founder saw that staff weren’t connecting in the way that he wanted them to. Coward says that he set up a “make a compass” tradition so that every Thursday evening someone posts a picture of a compass they’ve made to a blank Google slide file. People then share the compasses they’ve made, places they’ve been, the events they’ve attended, obstacles overcome and so on. The company then goes through the slides on Friday morning.

At Etsy, there is a tradition where engineers share their mistakes around the company by email, so that other people don’t make the same mistake. As Coward points out, this needs an organisation with a solid support culture rather a blame culture to succeed.

3. Alone time

A number of companies, says Coward, have begun to recognize how difficult it is for staff to get the time to think and get to grips with the challenges of their work and have instigated processes to enable this. Coward cited Asana as an example, which has a no meeting Wednesday rule. Some teams at Google differentiate between “manager time” and “make time” where manager time is a 30-minute slot, and make time is a half or full day. The teams are encouraged to find make time every week.

4. Physical space

Brazilian tech company ContaAzul wanted to introduce more accessibility and interaction into their design area, and ended up just moving the furniture around into order to make the walls more accessible. Coward says that it led the team to post their ideas on the walls, to become more visual and ultimately to collaborate better.

5. Social connection

Teams work better if they know and trust each other. At software vendor Atlassian the design team all have coffee together every Monday morning. Citing Margaret Heffernan’s book Beyond Measure, Coward says that this sort of approach can have a huge impact. “Don’t underestimate the power of regular coffee,” she says.

Be specific

All the team-working examples above are very specific in nature. Being this specific helps to increase the chance that the changes you wish to make will in fact happen, says Coward. Of course it’s about better communication and this often requires someone to start or facilitate the change. Coward also suggests that the route to better team working should be treated as a creative design task, and as such you should iterate and review regularly. She says: “Ask your team how do you do your best work, what does good teamwork look like, what do you want to achieve as a team?”

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