7 Barriers to Collaboration

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Collaboration. Bosses preach it. Complex projects demand it. But what is it?

Design is an industry that requires us to adapt, invent, and innovate in teams. But the truth is, we don’t always play well together. UX design portfolios are full of successes that, under the surface, could have been even more impactful, if the team’s efforts had been more closely aligned.

Here are seven barriers to collaboration that I’ve encountered on the job as a user experience practice lead.


1. Delegating work into silos.

Managers or project leads assign specific portions of the work to individuals, based on their presumed abilities. In silo-based work, the team meets for occasional dialogue or work reviews prior to client meetings, but the heavy lifting is done individually. There is very little time allotted to brainstorming, or mulling over ideas together. A strong or ambitious lead may keep the best or hardest work for themselves.

It’s important to assign tasks effectively. Regular stand-ups do give the team a view into individual progress. But collaboration requires regular and reciprocal contact, at a meaningfully detailed, conceptual and concrete level. When teams work closely together, their collective brainpower is engaged and aligned, ideas are rapidly validated, and product integrity is strengthened.

However you divide up the work, make the effort to have a consistent shared conversation with teammates, to keep parallel efforts on track.


2.  Treating collaboration as a transaction. 

There’s nothing wrong with negotiating favors. Sometimes, we have to give a little something to get what we want. But it’s not a sustainable approach for cooperative teamwork.

Collaboration is all about solving a shared problem, reaching a shared goal, or building a shared idea. Real collaboration takes the focus off personal benefit, and puts it on creating something valuable together – more valuable than you could have done alone. This benefits everyone. It also adds pliability and strength into the cultural fabric.

If teammates have a habit of asking “what’s in it for me?” or “why bother?” then cooperation is not considered a priority in your workplace. In this environment, it’s up to you to forge your own collaborative alliances. Extend your reach across the lines of expertise, territoriality and hierarchy to find people whose views and concerns align with your own (even if only slightly). Don’t overlook those whose views may differ; entertaining an alternate viewpoint might just change the way you see things, too. If you do meet strong resistance, work on addressing it at an individual level. Find common ground, however small or fragile, and build on that. And if you do convert them to your views – as they say, there are none more fervent than the converted.

The first step towards collaboration is defining a shared understanding of the challenge or opportunity with ALL key stakeholders. If you can’t sell your worldview, get better at it, and in the meantime, learn to have fun working within arbitrary and impossible constraints. Yes, really. It’s up to you to clearly communicate the current state, and negotiate the potential lines of action, so that stakeholders can make fully informed decisions, and form reasonable expectations. After all, that’s a transaction, too.

Get people engaged in your way of thinking, and be genuinely open to learning from theirs. Demonstrate a generous spirit and a curious attitude, and others will follow your lead.


3. Leaving innovation to the experts.

Design by committee can certainly water down results. And it makes sense that your best performers would deliver the best results. But how many projects have we seen brought down in flames by a solitary ego, flying too close to the sun?

Increasingly, our designs are driving core business operations, and defining entire ecosystems of customer experience transactions. Our projects have become too vast, complex and critical to be hoarded away in a single brain or discipline. Project leads should all be talking – and listening – more deeply and consistently to each other, and to everyone around them.

If your whole team isn’t engaged and moving in the same direction, then you’re squandering their ability to contribute. Moreover, you’re limiting your own ability to receive support and new information. Even those with “lesser minds” know a great many things that you don’t.

In improv, you develop a sense of when it’s time for you to step forward and drive a scene. And when you do, you’re giving your scene partners (and the story) exactly what’s need. To do that requires deep listening and attending to everything that’s going on around you. Players trust that everyone is capable of generating great ideas, and to take them forward. It’s the same in an agile/lean world: each participant applies just what’s needed, when it’s needed, in full awareness of the big picture. That’s collaborative leadership.

There’s a time and place for decisive hierarchical leadership. But it’s equally important to include teammates and stakeholders in the sense-making process, especially early on. Lead judiciously, and encourage your team to participate as fully as they can.


4. Assuming that collaboration takes too much effort.

This blocker has a sibling: believing that just because you had a great project kickoff or off-site event, you can check the collaboration box. Just because everyone starts out on the same page doesn’t mean things won’t diverge quickly.

It’s true, keeping everyone on the same page does take time and effort away from doing actual work. We’re all doing more with less. Few of us have time for more meetings or checkpoints on our calendars. And decision sprawl can kill momentum. Yet it can be costly to postpone stress-testing your assumptions, viewpoints and designs across the organization. If you work to keep the teams’  ideas and vision synchronized early and often, you’ll save significant time, effort, confusion, arguments, mismatched decisions, and rework over the long haul.

It’s infinitely more efficient to fix errors and conflicts at the beginning of a process. We must expose more of our thought processes to each other, not just the end results.

In business today, we have to make it a priority to informally connect with more of our colleagues, more often. Know your stakeholders’ routines, and find discussion times that mesh with shared schedules and breaks – or plan a time that’s easy for both of you to have a quick call, IM, swing by the cubicle, come in early or stay late once a week… just make a connection and ask more questions. Asynchronous communication channels eliminate the scheduling issue. Reach out and share your passing thoughts and idle questions via email or discussion boards.

If you need more structure, or if you’re working with a large / bi-located team, establish a specific process and/or location to share ideas. We had a Jive board on one of my projects which we used to get feedback from the field in Asia on a pre-launch rollout we’d done (to 1500 users) – the design team also used it to quickly see and correct small gaps and inconsistencies in the model using live feedback. We were able to explain to the field how and why we made design decisions, while simultaneously identifying key issues for iterative design work. We established protocols, moderators and timeframes to help manage the glut of input.

Team members should know at all times what each person is thinking – not just what they’re doing – and how it fits with the big picture. Open up your process, let others connect with your thinking and solicit feedback. As people see the value in the extra contact, they’ll reciprocate.


5. Disregarding the importance of buy-in.

“Better to ask forgiveness than permission.”

Say you represent a particular point of view, and the nuances are getting lost in translation. You might believe that the circle of project stakeholders is just too vast, different, or disengaged for everyone to be included. Sometimes, different departments or team leads have different perceptions of the project vision, goals, or scope. We’re most comfortable working with those closest to us, and we can get a lot done through those natural alliances.

But we must also reach out to key players who aren’t already on our side. Collaboration is about building trust, raising awareness, pulling together, and expanding possibilities. You must develop a certain amount of goodwill equity and agreement on the team for your ideas to be adopted.  That requires you to advocate, educate, and inspire people to get on board.

Small differences tend to fester when ignored. By the time you decide to address stakeholder or end-user opposition, it may be too late to properly adapt the design. And then you’ve lost credibility with the team. This is especially dangerous for organizations new to UX.

Ideological conflicts can be an opportunity to lean in and learn something new. You have to be willing to entertaining opposing perspectives, and be playful with how you promote your own. Breakdowns become breakthroughs, if you’re willing to work through them together. Do the legwork to build new relationships across the team.

Draw others into the circle. Get more creative and nuanced in your listening, your persuasive language, and your conflict-resolution techniques.

6. Doubting others’ intentions or competency.

This is one of those dirty little secrets that’s rarely discussed but ever-present. There’s a reason the “peter principle” is a thing. Whether you’re dealing with a difficult personality, rivalries, cluelessness, ambition, geographic difference, or a simple lack of familiarity and understanding, it’s easy to slip into an “us and them” mentality. Sometimes, it gets personal.

You have three choices. You can fight, flight, or shift your perspective.

If you can’t overcome a bad fit, don’t try to prove you’re right. Stay polite and positive. In most cases, it’s best to let go of the rope, get your colleagues and mentors involved, and put someone else in your place as the point of contact. The only exception is if you’re absolutely certain that taking a strong, principled stand is necessary for the health of the project or the team. And you’d better make sure your ego is in check first. Confrontation, marginalizing that person from the process, or escalating the problem to their bosses should be your last resorts.

Build trust by making gestures of good faith and respect. Let others know how their work influences your choices, and vice versa. Help them understand why the work you do matters, and where it all fits in the big picture.

Even in the finest gardens, you’ll eventually find a few snakes. But that’s not an excuse to fire up the bulldozer or bar the doors. Can you listen and communicate with empathy and certainty?

Your real value is in who you are – your unique abilities and insights, and your capacity to express them in your work. No one can touch that. And don’t cling to your ideas as if your life depended on them. They’re really not that precious.

Accept the fact that the best ideas don’t always win, or get implemented as designed. Trust that the right people will notice your good works, and your impact will grow over time. If your work environment is chronically wrong-headed or toxic, find a new spot in your company, or polish up your résumé.

7. Protecting your claim on the Big Ideas.  

Unless you are in the business of generating patents, who came up with which idea should not matter, and it is a false premise to begin with. Even Jony Ive’s successes are fed by a multitude of discussions and prototypes generated by other Apple designers’ work. And you, sir, are no Jony Ive.

Design is a team sport. No lead, however smart, deserves to take all the credit for inventing an idea. It is the process of design, the shared discovery, the iterative dialogues and explorations, from diverse perspectives, that culminates in a design solution.


Parting thoughts

Teams are challenged by time, resourcing, communication issues, and capability maturity. At the next level out, politics may creep in. Each stakeholder has their own goals that must be served. Turf wars and hidden agendas can pull projects off-center. Conflicting interests are reconciled through the willpower of the team doing the work – or not at all.

Each of these seven barriers is a valid idea in the right context. They’re just not collaboration.

When we fail to routinely engage with our teammates, when we fail to develop a shared point of view, individual efforts stray out of alignment. Priorities get lopsided. Our design models – and their executions – become fragmented and brittle. We lose conceptual integrity. We deliver flawed results. Today’s projects are too complex, and the organizational stakes are too high, to dilute the results with poor collaboration.  …. focused on delivering the ideal results for our intended audience

Our industry continues to move toward more agile/rapid/lean approaches, and presumptive or hypothesis-driven design. Business continue to lean more heavily on technology-mediated interactions across all their operations. In this new reality, success will become ever more dependent on strong working relationships and strategic alignment.

As design advocates, it’s our responsibility to develop in ourselves the maturity, leadership, empathy and communication skills necessary to engage the entire team in generating and executing great design.

How will you inspire collaboration across your project teams?