Designing for Collaboration

Photo by Linh Pham on Unsplash

PWC’s latest survey Dealing with market disruption deals with breaking down silos as a critical ingredient for competing with innovative and transformative competitors. They found that collaboration was a challenge. Here are some of their survey results:

  • 39% of employees within a surveyed group believe that there isn’t enough collaboration between people in their organization.
  • 86% of polled executives and employees blame a lack of collaboration or bad communication for team problems and failures.
  • Only about a third (36 %) of companies prioritize a few cross-functional capabilities at the company level and expect functional leaders to identify how they contribute to the mission.
  • More than half (55 %) of companies work in silos, with each function making its own decisions on which capabilities matter most.
  • Three out of five companies (61 %) say the solution to reaching their strategic goals is collaborating more across functions, paired with faster decision making.

Over the last several months I’ve watched people and teams who’ve had a history of troubled collaboration suddenly start working together in a positive and focused manner. What’s happening? In all of these cases the teams learned and used a service design approach to understand their customers. Rather than conflict, they’ve found common ground. Instead of competing, they have started to see how they might combine forces.

Of course, this isn’t completely random. It’s an intentional part of design training and coaching. When we work with clients we make it a point to work on creating diverse teams, with members from across departmental silos. Sometimes in makes for odd bedfellows. At other times, conflict will simmer beneath the surface for quite some time.

But the big “aha” comes when participants finally realize that the design work doesn’t have to be “digital” or “marketing” or “efficiency”. That is, people come into the design training with an expectation of a certain type of solution, based on where they come from. When we put people from the legal team together with people from the IT department, each has a set of expectations based on their typical work.

Instead, we teach people to put other people, customers, employees, citizens, at the center of the work. When groups work through understanding, creating insights, and trying to clearly identify someone else’s problems, needs or desire, they come up with new ways of solving those issues in ways that have very little to do with their area of expertise.

With one client, the design teams working together had not only never worked together, in some cases they had never met each other. The workspace was hierarchical: a decision maker decided on a direction and everyone else adapted to deliver on that decision. In our design work, there was a lot of tension when some of the decision makers realized they were going to need to share power. But the teams, with our help, kept placing the customers at the middle of the decisions. When that happened, the decision-making issue became less personal and it resulted in new ways of delivering services. In the end, that made the original decision maker look even better than usual.

With another client, the team included people from two division working at odds with each other for the past year. One group felt that the other was resistant to facing the future. The other group felt dissed and belittled by the first group. Little progress had occurred since they both needed each other to succeed.

In the design work, it turned out that customers were very dependent on both groups. The forward-thinking group finally understood that they were too far ahead of their customers. The traditional group felt relieved to hear the first group talk about how important they were to customers. The design work led to a new effort toward collaboration, customer insights and prototyping.

These experiences find support in a recent study by Foresster for IBM titled The Total Economic Impact™ Of IBM’s Design Thinking Practice. They measured the impact design thinking training had on IBM’s clients. When they measured business impacts, they found that collaboration had some of the highest marks, with about 45% of respondents stating they strongly agreed that design training improved internal collaboration with another 30% agreeing. In total 75% of respondents believed that collaboration improved through design training.

This isn’t to claim that design is the silver bullet when it comes to collaboration and silo busting. It’s not. But it moves the needle in clear and significant ways.

What I find most fascinating in all of this is that power of design-driven initiatives has a great impact when the organizations’ employees do part or most of the design work themselves. It’s much easy to disregard the findings of outside consultants than it is to disregard you own or your teammates findings. When you’re doing the work yourself, you OWN it. Actually, it’s one of the most fun and rewarding parts for me as a teacher, trainer and facilitator — I can see from peoples’ expressions when the light goes on and a change occurs.

When that change, due to participating in the design process, happens, there is no going back. Employees commit to continue to interact with customers and commit to collaborating across silos to share and explore.

We think design is a powerful change tool but it’s hidden superpower might just be in how it changes the way we collaborate with our fellow workers.

Photo by Marl Clevenger on Unsplash

Design Director and co-founder of Savvy Design Collaborative, focusing on design thinking, innovation and change. Vermonter in exile in Sweden.