Design for collaboration

Years ago I heard a fascinating anecdote: Ferrari was such an artisanal company that any mechanic would be able to build the whole car just by himself. A management guru would call this a holistic approach, but at Maranello it was just seen as knowing how to do their job. To this date I don’t know if that anecdote was ever correct, but even if it was at the time, I’m certain it no longer is: electronics have made cars exponentially more complex, and no mechanic can make sense of the whole thing any more. Every Ferrari is now the result of a multitude of highly skilled talents working together: out goes the artisan, in comes the crew. The same is true for pretty much any job, and the need for collaboration has generated a flourishing industry of books, processes and technology.

What this industry has produced so far is ambitious and fragile: it requires significant investments in time, money, effort and patience, and doesn’t come without problems. Not all companies are willing to outsource their whole project management or to throw away the baby with the bathwater: not everything can be left to Agile, and not everyone can be abandoned to Hola.

If that’s you, here are some guidelines on achieving meaningful collaboration, based on over 10 years of work in creative companies in Europe and Asia. They can be boiled down to a tweet:

Hire talented people. Then provide an environment where they can be at their best.

It’s as simple as that, you just need to follow through. That’s the hard part.

HIRE TALENTED PEOPLE

This is absolutely obvious, and absolutely disregarded. We spend too much time talking about talent and too little effort dismissing everything else until we find it. Lack of collaboration is the evidence that your team may just not be very good, because, despite conventional wisdom, detrimental egos are more associated with mediocrity than with brilliance.

In short, talented people love to work with other talented people and will actively pursue every opportunity for collaboration.

Talented people hate to work with mediocre people and will actively avoid any opportunity for collaboration.

It’s not because they have an ego. It’s because they don’t want to wast their time and spoil their work. Thankfully.

PROVIDE AN ENVIRONMENT WHERE THEY CAN BE AT THEIR BEST

This is equally hard, but it shouldn’t be. In fact, there is an extensive body of research on what kind of spaces and processes make organizations more productive and effective. It’s been validated across cultures and industries, and it’s left sitting in the shadow of management myths.

This is a much bigger problem than we acknowledge, because space is destiny: neighborhoods with walkable access to shops and services have higher levels of trust among neighbours; schools designed like prisons result in more violence and less education. It works both ways, and right now our offices are working against us.

1. Get rid of the open plan offices

They’re not trendy. They’re not cool. Nobody likes them, and even if someone did, they don’t work:

There is no excuse. It’s costing you more money than you think you’re saving, and making everything worse in the process.

2. Get rid of brainstormings

That’s another popular myth that should have died a long time ago. Brainstorming was invented in 1953 as a method for group thinking based on deferring judgment and reaching for quantity. It was proved useless only a few years later, and since then the evidence of its flaws has been piling up:

  • Deferring judgment “appears to be a counterproductive strategy […] debate and criticism do not inhibit ideas but, rather, stimulate them relative to every other condition”
  • Combining and improving ideas (1+1=3) fundamentally ignores that an idea is good within its context, and two ideas can hardly share the same (cronut, anyone?)
  • Group thinking disregards how “people are more creative away from the crowd”, while instead “over 50 years of research shows that people often reach irrational decisions in groups … and highly biased assessments of the situation… strong willed people who lead group discussions can pressurise others into conforming, self-censorship and create an illusion of unanimity.”

So if your usual brainstormings involve getting a bunch of random people in a room to throw ideas against a wall and see what sticks, stop. If anyone complains, tell them that science is backing you up. brainstorm

3. In fact, get rid of as much as possible

Enforcing collaboration doesn’t work, and is actually counterproductive.

  • Newsletters may be useful, but if no one is reading them you should give up: spending time on something nobody wants is a waste and sends the wrong signal. Focus instead on creating work so good that it makes people curious about it.
  • Work-In-Progress meetings should be abolished: they’re the equivalent of press releases, but they leave everyone under the impression that they’ve been working together. If real collaboration is required, it should be a working session. And if it’s just a matter of sharing information, there are better ways to do it than congregating half a dozen people around a table.
  • Collaboration councils should have the same expiration date as a yoghurt: real collaboration must happen at a granular level, and if a council doesn’t instigate that within a few days or weeks, it’s never going to succeed.
  • Get rid of most of your vocabulary: you only need a very few common words to make sure you speak the same language, but most corporate speak is engineered to be a verbal fence to keep people out, resulting in the same old words spoken by the same old people and leading to the same old ideas.

4. Keep people together

Collaboration either happens organically, or it doesn’t happen at all, so you want the key doers of a project to be physically together (to question, integrate and improve their contribution) while keeping everyone else distant (to avoid distractions and misaligned incentives).

At the same time, you want to give visibility to what the group is doing so that the rest of the organization can take it into account and approach it if relevant.

The best example I’ve seen of a space designed to accomodate this set of constraints is the MIT Media Lab in Boston:

  • Each project is assigned to a team of 3-6 people that is assembled at the beginning based on the skills required and dismantled at the end
  • Each team is assigned a room where all the work happens
  • All rooms have glass ceilings and walls so that everyone can have a bird’s eye view of the purpose and progress without interfering
  • The building is designed to maximise the relative exposure of each room

The whole space feels like a hybrid between a factory and a museum, and I think that’s exactly the purpose: a place where  some people can make stuff, others can see it happen before their eyes, and the two don’t get in the way of one another.

Now compare it to open plan offices: they are designed with no separation between doing and showing. It’s no surprise that they turn out to be spaces where people talk to one another incessantly but hardly get work done. Space is destiny.

5. Use gravity to your advantage

Minor details in the environment trigger instinctive, unconscious changes in our behaviour that can make a huge difference: heart surgery patients in intensive care units who viewed landscape scenes reported less anxiety and stress and needed fewer pain medications. If space design can affect our hearts, it can surely affect our minds and hands.

Furniture and objects exert a gravitational pull, and they can drive us closer to, or away from, collaboration.

  • Use higher tables and stools instead of traditional (or worse, lower) tables and chairs where you want people to work together: higher tables draw our eyes and hands towards the surface, and make it more immediate to write, draw, sketch.

   

  • Put ideas and knowledge that you want to share up on the walls, the columns, and all other potential canvas for people to be effortlessly exposed to them. Digital content is great, but it’s too easy to avoid and too hard to dig out. Physical content has an inevitability to it. Just don’t go for lame corporate slogans.

Pillar

  • Advertise what you’re working on: not the specific deliverable, feature or component, but the intriguing problem you’re trying to address. How do we put a condom in everyone’s pocket? How do we get people to leave a supermarket feeling like they got more than they paid for? Is there something that ice cream wouldn’t improve? These are some of the question that we’ve been working on lately, and they’ve been formulated to capture the attention of lazy eyes. The point is not to get people to provide the answer, but to be interested enough to be drawn towards the project.

Designing for collaboration is first about removing all the processes and constrictions that try to strong-arm people into working together and are actually counterproductive because we have mastered the art of avoiding what is imposed upon us, and even though we may occasionally pretend to collaborate, in reality we’re just sitting next to each other.

We should instead start from naked spaces where our spontaneous will can emerge and be recognized: if we employ really talented people, they will naturally want to collaborate; if we don’t, no mandated policy can make it happen.

Next, we should add small, invisible nudges that minimize the distance from thinking to doing. 

Lastly, we should get out of the way and let them be.

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