What does good collaboration look like?
A reflection as an enabler of collaborative practice to navigate a complex system.
With global crises, increasing complexity, and the accelerated pace of change, the need for collaboration is on the rise (Nawaz, 2021). Rewinding to a few months, collaboration to me seemed like an option and not a need. I viewed it as an enhancing element of projects rather than something that needed to be an integral part of my work. How could I be so mistaken when everything in life is indeed a collaboration? The systems we are surrounded by, the functions we are a part of are all collaborative efforts. Without collaboration, none of those would work. My interpretation of the dictionary definition of collaboration — ‘the action of working with someone to produce something’ was rather exclusive. For me, it was an act of working with someone who I thought would make my project better. In my previous experience as a visual designer, ‘Would you like to collaborate?’ had almost become a ‘cool’ sentence in the industry, altering the reality of collaboration as a need vs an option.
In designing for a complex care system like Camden Early Help, the need for collaboration emerged and redefined my views. As a product of ten weeks of the Collaborative Unit, this reflective post explores the idea of ‘good collaboration’ through different perspectives, highlighting the power of collaboration through some key realisations encountered during the unit.
A collaborative insight on collaboration
To reflect upon the true nature of collaboration, I conducted a short survey with my MA Service Design classmates to understand the elements necessary for successful collaboration and articulate what ‘good collaboration’ looks like to our cohort as a whole. I have demonstrated the survey outcomes by applying my learnings from the collaboration with the MA Data Visualisation students in the first few weeks of this unit.
Principles of a successful collaboration
From a list of 8 principles, active listening and effective communication emerged as the most important for successful collaboration, followed by collective contribution and empathy (Figure 1). Ironically, ‘active listening’ is the scarcest resource we as humans have (Ehlrichman, Sawyer and Spence, 2018) that is because research suggests that all too often when others are talking, we’re getting ready to speak instead of listening (Gino, 2019). I resonated with this personally as I was often too focused on asking the ‘right’ questions rather than actively listening to what the other person has to say. Closely connected with active listening is effective communication, and without the first, the latter will fail to exist, following a domino effect for the rest of the elements of collaboration. Throughout this project, I have experienced instances of effective communication with stakeholders as I began to make an effort to actively listen to what they have to say rather than sticking to the scripted questions, enabling us to gain more qualitative insights.
The Four Dimensions of Good Collaboration
When posed with the question — What does ‘good collaboration’ mean to them, my colleagues collectively answered what the ideal collaborative experience should look and feel like. I categorised their answers into four dimensions as if peeling layers to discover the secret for good collaboration (Figure 2). The left-hand side of the matrix lists the tangibles of good collaboration, whereas on the right-hand side the intangibles. Without the right-hand side, the left-hand side would fail to exist and vice versa. A quote from the survey that particularly stood out was — The outcome is greater than the sum of its parts — meaning that the result of a good collaboration will always be more than the individual contributions of its participants. Another participant quotes — Good collaboration gives me the power to work — highlighting that the sum of its parts is a powerful motivator in the realm of collaboration.
The powers of collaboration
1. Knowledge beyond what we see
Looking at the Early Help system as an outsider made me wonder if I could ever understand its intricacies. The idea of solving problems of a system where we were sitting in the sphere of — we do not know what we do not know — was highly daunting. In my experience of service design so far, this was the first instance wherein the first few weeks of secondary research only scratched the surface of the system and we heavily relied on the possibility of in-depth primary research to discover the scope of the project. However, speaking to people inside the system allowed us to collaborate to work through complex ambiguous problems, realising that it’s the knowledge and ideas people brought that added the most value (IDEO U, 2019). The experience highlighted the fact that we do not approach the project as an expert but as facilitators who do not have the full knowledge of the community in question (Hasan and Amin, 2020).
2. Establishing connections
Complex systems involve diverse and sometimes contradictory perspectives. While we were thrilled to have received the chance to collaborate and learn from so many different stakeholders, it involved a process of acknowledging their differences while also recognising the perspectives they share and the values they hold in common (Ehlrichman, Sawyer and Spence, 2018). While drawing parallels to collaborative approaches, two businessmen argue that the virtually infinite game, Chess, has more possible moves than atoms that exist in the universe, yet the Grandmasters manage to stay at the top by identifying patterns and looking for recognisable scenarios (Morgan, 2013). We took a similar collaborative approach, making connections between insights and synthesising all the knowledge we had gained from the various Changemaker Families and stakeholders in the infinite and complex Camden care system. Furthermore, because we interacted and collaborated with these stakeholders individually, it would have been interesting to see how their differences would amplify or patterns change if they were all brought together in a co-creative session.
Working collaboratively across teams in the cohort rather than silos was indeed an enriching experience. It highlighted that the true purpose of collaboration requires that participants share the work they are already doing, find opportunities to partner together, and avoid duplication of efforts (Ehlrichman, Sawyer and Spence, 2018). The sharing of knowledge between the teams allowed us to explore multiple recurring connections between insights to strengthen our hypothesis, almost embodying an exponential effect. It enabled us to amplify the two powers of knowledge and connections I listed above, and the outcomes reflected a truly co-creative process. The main learning from this way of working was that external collaboration cannot be successful without effective internal collaboration.
4. Evident Outcomes
In the last ten weeks as our team went about collaboratively gaining and sharing knowledge, establishing connections, and co-creating, we noticed that our outcome became more clearer as we advanced. In general, the goal of creative collaboration is to explore unknown directions and to develop new possibilities, so it’s not about knowing the answers, it’s about learning through exploration and experimentation (IDEO U, 2019). We learnt the answers to the problems we identified at the beginning of the project through continuous collaboration. This process caused a shift in my perspective about ‘brainstorming for solutions’, highlighting that innovation does not mean a unique idea but a unique way of turning an existing idea into reality, achievable through effective collaboration.
Altogether, across complex care systems, there are several underlying systemic issues of equality, justice and power that need addressing to bring about positive change. System researchers say action can be taken by creating levers for several similar changes central to the purpose of collaboration (Ehlrichman, Sawyer and Spence, 2018). This was highlighted when the underlying ideas of the outcomes across all our teams were somewhat similar, reinforcing that impact can be achieved by working together than by working alone.
What does good collaboration mean to me?
Through the course, my idea of collaboration has progressed immensely, and I now view it as something that we learn over time through good practice. However, most leaders have a narrow view of collaboration, treating it as a value to cultivate and not a skill to teach (Gino, 2019), often forgetting that learning happens when someone leads by example.
Common themes that emerged through my research highlighted that active listening is the most important element for effective collaboration, followed by communication, collective contribution and empathy. Correspondingly, a collaborative outcome is always greater than the sum of its parts, hence defining ‘good collaboration’. In this unit, applying collaborative practice brought us the power to gain valuable knowledge and establish connections in a complex system to co-create a holistic solution seamlessly.
The last few weeks have redefined collaboration for me — it’s about connecting with the people having a key stake in the system, consciously leaving aside any selection biases. Researchers have found that collaborations that begin and grow through “thoughtful inclusion” tend to exhibit
greater long-term sustainability and effectiveness (Ehlrichman, Sawyer and Spence, 2018). As a service designer, going further, it will be imperative to recognise who these people are throughout the process, since the teams and communities we collaborate with will steer the course of our outcomes, that have the potential of high impact on complex systems.
Hence, good collaboration for me is about the right people — The knowledge, connections, creations and outcomes we define along with these people.
Ehlrichman, D., Sawyer, D. and Spence, M., 2018. [online] Available at:<https://ssir.org/articles/entry/cutting_through_the_complexity_a_roadmap_for_effective_collaboration>
Gino, F., 2021. [online] Available at: <https://hbr.org/2019/11/cracking-the-code-of-sustained collaboration#:~:text=In%20the%20class%2C%20participants%20discuss,solve%20your%20conversation%20partners’%20problems%2C>
Hasan, M. and Amin, S., 2020. [online] Available at: <https://www.researchworld.com/design-justice-why-it-matters-and-how-you-can-apply-the-principles-to-your-work/>
IDEO U, 2019. What are Essential Collaborative Behaviors?. [video] Available at:<https://www.youtube.com/watchv=Igb1NUV_kr0&ab_channel=IDEOU>
Morgan, J., 2013. [online] Available at:<https://www.forbes.com/sites/jacobmorgan/2013/07/30/the-12-habits-of-highly-collaborative-organizations/?sh=5e7f5c236835>
Nawaz, S., 2021. [online] Available at:<https://hbr.org/2021/02/when-contributing-gets-in-the-way-of-collaborating>