Collaboration is hard. It’s not automatic. In a lot of ways, it can seem unnatural, or even disruptive. It can certainly be stressful. This is especially true in our present time with the forced physical isolation we’ve been enduring for months, where “being remote” has gone from a nice-to-have corporate perk to a defining characteristic of life.
Fortunately for our internet-connected project teams at U.Group, we have our pick of all the state-of-the-art collaboration tools that the tech industry has to offer: Slack, Zoom, Trello, Miro, InVision, SharePoint, Confluence, Jira… So much collaboration tech!
But even with all that software at our fingertips, we still don’t have everything we need to level-up our collaboration skills. To do that, we need to be good at talking, listening, and sharing. We need to be good at having productive, mutually-beneficial, human-to-human interactions with the people in our workspace. Collaboration is a skill, not a software suite. And like any skill, to get good at collaborating, we need to practice.
I have been very fortunate to lead the design efforts on some stellar projects during my time with U.Group. The National Park Foundation, No Kid Hungry, and the NASA Space for U.S. websites are a few that come to mind. Success in these scenarios boiled down to our team’s effectiveness at collaborating, working through tasks and challenges in a fluid manner, without anyone’s feelings getting hurt (too badly)—while having some fun along the way. What follows are a few pointers I’ve learned working with these and other project teams. Give it a read. Hopefully, you can pick up a few helpful ideas for honing your own collaboration skills.
Don’t Assume Collaboration Will Happen on a Schedule
Collaboration shouldn’t happen exclusively in meetings. Aside from the occasional well-crafted and highly productive brainstorming session, those little hot spots on your calendar should be reserved for coordinating activities and timelines with your project teams.
In fact, nothing makes a project manager happier than canceling a meeting or calling one short because everyone is on top of their stuff. Well, it’s up there on a short list with receiving a lightning fast Slack response and achieving flow state while timeline-ing.
Allow for collaboration to happen outside of prescribed times. Get good at seeking out your project peers to get a gut check on your idea—especially when you hit that inevitable roadblock. Drop in on folks even when you don’t have anything pressing to see what they have going, or to see if they need anything from you. And don’t forget to reciprocate—be available and encourage others to approach you with their asks.
Sometimes a simple status on your Slack app tells others that you are in a mood to invite some randomness into your day. Big things can come out of these little sidebar conversations, so don’t be shy. You never know what a chat convo might bring about.
Learn How to Take a Punch
Take a breath. Hold it in. This could hurt a little. It’s time to share your ideas, and guess what? Not everyone is going to love them. It’s really tough to go outside your comfort zone—to put yourself out there and have your ideas critiqued by your peers. We all take this stuff personally, so sometimes even the slightest correction of an idea can feel like a personal attack.
A great way to take the edge off critiques is to share your ideas sooner. A lot sooner. Ideally, as soon as they come to you. Well, maybe not that soon. You should probably wait until after you’ve had some time to polish your delivery a little bit.
Once you’ve polished your idea to your liking, go work your communication channels on your team. Run your idea by some folks individually and see what they say. Most likely, each person will have a little something to question or contribute. Sure, some of those interactions are going to sting, but not nearly as much as if you had toiled with your idea in isolation before unveiling it in that big internal review, only to have your team pummel you with their feedback. If you do it right, by the time you get to that review, the whole team will have seen it and you’ll have already incorporated all their ideas. And they won’t have to see you sweat.
Play Nice with Others
Like children drawn to the jungle gym at recess, we have all followed our respective interests and passions to the playground of our adulthood—a posh 9 to 5 at a company we love. This is where we have chosen to be because this is the work that fulfills us, sustains us, and brings us joy. Lest we forget—this is fun.
But, like any bickering over the favorite swing or game of tag gone awry, there’s always a risk of spoiling that fun before it gets started. We might get caught up in our own interests and motivations and lose sight of those of our peers. We might overlook or undervalue another person’s contributions because they are new to the game or a bit out of step with the rest.
We need to learn to look outside of ourselves and work—and I mean really work—to include everyone in the gameplay. Take time to see what makes your peers tick—what drives them, what they are passionate about. Most games are best played in unison, with everyone contributing to the dynamics in their own way.
So, find a way to play together where everyone on your team is having fun and contributing in a way where they feel fulfilled. Because when we are all having fun, we create our best work together. As Paula Scher—one of my design heroes—laid it down on a recent Netflix series: “You have to be in a state of play to design. If you’re not in a state of play, you can’t make anything.”
So, there you have it. My top suggestions for helping your team create the best work possible, together. Some of it might come across as obvious, even trite. But in times like these, we all need to hit the reset button on how we work together to hopefully rediscover the essence of what makes our work…work.
And although the medium for our back-and-forth discussions might be more sterile or distant than ever before, let’s face it—that grid mosaic of familiar faces in our video calls is the real reason we show up to work every day.