The Importance of Collaboration

Author Date November 18, 2019 Read 7 min
Crafting cross-departmental relationships helps build scalable solutions to attract, satisfy, and keep clients, and allows a company to thrive. These relationships are different for every company, but here…
Team members having a meeting in an office

Crafting cross-departmental relationships helps build scalable solutions to attract, satisfy, and keep clients, and allows a company to thrive. These relationships are different for every company, but here at projekt202 – where work is being delivered by cross-practice project teams – instantaneous and effective collaboration between researchers, designers, developers, and sales and marketing/salespersons means everyone is involved. Our processes are built on the shared goals when envisioning the product, researching potential value to users, designing, validating users’ experiences, and finally producing and launching the product. The best ideas can come from anyone and the only way to find them is for broad involvement.

Despite this collaborative setup, frictions between any of these stages can lead to iteration fatigue, delays, and frustration. We sometimes find ourselves working as opposing forces rather than a single team, even though we share the same goal – delivering or launching a successful product. Conversely, in-between or post-engagement, our exchanges (at least from the standpoint of someone beyond Practice Lead or Director) often happen in siloed practice meetings, collab labs, and events, without much insight into the other practices. It sometimes appears that to collaborate freely is a privilege of higher management rather than a basic principle of the delivery-level UX team members.

Here are actionable suggestions on how to navigate your work environment in a more collaborative way. These are written from the point of view of an ESI researcher but are applicable to all:

Poke at the structure

Sales teams often lack clarity around what the development team does and why. At the same time, developers can use the vast knowledge that researchers have about users, their needs, and pain points and goals. There is a huge opportunity to bridge the gap just by reshuffling the structure of weekly or monthly meeting cycles. Next to practice lunch-and-learns and collab labs, we could set up theme-related or problem-related meetings where, for example, researchers could get a BD perspective on a particular aspect of the industry, or designers could share inspiration or production tips with the Marketing team.

Get on the same page

Collaboration requires perpetually checking for alignment. Understanding the basics of every stage of the process, having a shared vocabulary, being mindful of common timeframes, and an awareness of the specificity of client’s preferences will help you communicate limitations in research, design, and implementation. You do not need to get overly technical, but, as a researcher, I discovered that understanding fundamentals of my teammates’ fields and their tools builds trust. Make sure to address problems in a way that supports collaboration rather than creating confusion. Ask and phrase your questions respectfully and thoroughly. Focusing on gaining an understanding of why others (designers, for example) made a specific decision, rather than questioning their choices, allows everyone to move forward.

Whatever you do, relate to your cross-functional partners. When do they trust and when do they experience being trusted? When do they respect others and when do they feel respected? Asking those questions was one of the best team-building exercises I have ever done. Knowing the answers to these questions will make the work more effective and more fun.

Check yourself

Progress reports for clients or standbys are important throughout the engagement, but check-in moments are also crucial to self. Be able to identify signs of collaborative dilution. Is communication and handing off of your work (insights, deliverables in different stages) happening seamlessly? Do you still talk to one another within the team? Do retros happen regularly (or at all)? Are you learning new things and do you believe that you have new things to teach others? Are you finding it is easier to navigate around certain members of your project team, or, even worse, your manager or practice lead? Do you feel you have a space to ask questions or do you bite your tongue for the sake of keeping peace? Only awareness of these problems will enable you to address them.

Use the right tools

How do you internally communicate your research findings in a way that can inform others’ work in progress? Online communication channels like Slack or Skype, or presentation/feedback tools like InVision, project collaboration tools like Assana or Basecamp, and document-sharing spaces like Google Doc, Dropbox, Zeplin or Confluence help designers, researchers, developers, product managers, and stakeholders work simultaneously as well as streamline the workflow of the entire team. They also indicate the status of files, archive work processes, and assure their easy findability. Make sure you understand them and actually use them. Also, ensure the tools of choice are shareable with clients already at the earliest possible stage (I lately witnessed a project where a client was unable to see the deliverable on a Miro board on the day of the handoff, simply because of permissions and access, postponing delivery a few days).

Build relationships

While we all possess a high mastery of craft, building great relationships within our teams, with other practices, and other offices can prove challenging. But these cooperative relationships are key for a fast-paced team with agile methodology. How you manage work relationships will depend on your ability to listen, learn, and build cooperative solutions. Do not be reactive; be proactive. Remember to give and not only take: invite and not only respond to invites. Do not just attend meetings: facilitate them and give input for future content. Think about who else would benefit from them beyond immediate audience (I learned most by gatecrashing collab labs of designer colleagues and have gotten the best feedback on my copywriting from one). Organize and run workshops with multidisciplinary themes and make actionable follow-ups. Invite your teammates to co-write, co-chair, and co-think.

Know time and feasibility

One of the most common killers of any collaboration is making people wait. Do not slow down the workflow. Try to be involved in the planning from the moment the project is scoped; planning is the component of the project you have to be on board with. Be transparent with your hours (even if it means telling your PM you have been working twice as much as planned). If the time limitation turns out to be insurmountable, ensure that others understand the fundamentals of the problem, and ask them for alternative solutions. Make sure that they have enough time to come up with alternatives. Also keep time in mind during project handover, onboarding, and self-learning.

Show, don’t tell

Clients value transparency and collaboration within the project team. Making sure this transpires in all stages of communication and deliverables (Kickoff Deck, Progress Reports, Findings Readouts, Executive Summary, etc.) assures their trust. As a researcher, how have you elevated the work of your fellow designers, engineers, data scientists, product managers, and executives? What other dimensions were added to the product that was created? What are the cross-functional gains of having different experts on the team? This speaks of our professionalism and depth of engagement.

Teamwork is early work

Do not wait to cross-functional work until the kickoff. Research driven pursuits are our best pursuits. Business developers often lack time to dive deep into specific industry, company, and conduct aspirational/competitive analysis. As a researcher, you can make them walk you through the pitch they tell future prospects. Ask them about the usual client questions that would trip them up due to lack of knowledge. Work alongside them to deepen and enhance the story they tell future prospects. Strike the right balance between your input being informative and knowledgeable, and easily accessible and consumable. Make sure you have space and opportunity to offer our expertise and your curiosity.

Feedback really is a gift

Show your work early and often, and make sure to invite and welcome feedback. Do not hide your work by trying to make it perfect: you will end up presenting perfect solutions to the wrong problem. Frequently asking others to comment ensures that there is no unnecessary pressure just before a deadline. Learning to be vulnerable and take critique from anyone is a long process; give yourself time to get better at it. Sometimes (too often!) you will be asked to discard your idea rather than improve on it. Learn to let go and let someone else’s idea be the winner.

Conversely, help others develop by providing constructive and thoughtful feedback. Ask yourself: How well are you able to critique others’ work and maintain a safe environment? Are you conflict-averse to the point of not speaking up when you feel the project is going awry? Do you try to hide or mitigate it? Pushing back on internally imposed deadlines or questioning a project’s current direction is not wrong per se — when maximizing positive attributes while minimizing the negative, it can be beneficial.

Manage up

When you start out as a junior researcher in the UX field, your area of influence within the project team is usually small. Most likely you’ll work on a smaller project with oversight from a senior researcher. As your skills and influence grow, you’ll work on larger ecosystems and collaborate with other teams, stakeholders, and offices more frequently. Make sure that you establish yourself well in an environment that might not only be research-focused and that you are able to influence your peers and managers, manage up, and potentially change the course of executive decisions for the better. Learn to push back on constraints to maintain a higher bar for the work you do (in this case, research).

Keep learning together

Finally, think of initiatives that take you out of the office. Invite your colleagues. Research together advancements in UX research, design, and development: participate in hackathons, workshops, and conferences. Develop side projects for the sheer enjoyment of it, creating and innovating side-by-side with others: set up a shadowing program that shows what you and your colleagues from other practices do daily. Start a pro-bono initiative with a coworker who does entirely different work than you do. Encourage yourselves to grow together in these unexpected moments.

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