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Strategic Collaboration in Distributed or Remote Environments

In this post, I’ll talk about some strategies to help improve strategic collaboration while working in Distributed, Remote or Global Teams.

In a previous post, I’ve argued for the Need of Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world though effective processes.

In this post, I’ll talk about my experience of working in Global Teams, and share some strategies to help improve strategic collaboration while working in Distributed, Remote or Global Environments.

TL;DR;

  • Many people still view telecommuting and geographically separated teams as a kiss-of-death to any hope of good collaboration or communication. But collaboration is a mindset, not a by-product of co-location.
  • While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift to working in a virtual space, many companies also lack the skills, knowledge or insight to get the most out of telecommuting and geographically separated teams, finding it difficult to realise the full potential of virtual meetings.
  • For the purpose of getting better strategic collaboration, it’s important to the distinction between two design situations according to the nature of shared goals: co-design (or collaborative design) and distributed design.
  • In collaborative design, we design the solution together – establish common ground and negotiation mechanisms in order to manage the integrate multiple perspectives in design, which depends on creating shared understanding.
  • In distributed design, we work simultaneously (but not together), which heavily depends of managing tasks interdependencies.
  • There are many other tools available for remote collaboration. More important than the tools we use, however, is our approach: for remote collaboration to work, the people involved have to want to make it work.
  • Coordinating roles and responsibilities is inherently more challenging when you’re not in the same physical location. If you don’t check in frequently, your colleagues in other locations will lose track of what you’re doing.
  • In a collaborative product design environment, multiple people in different disciplines (designers, developers, product managers, researchers, etc) should cooperate to develop complex designs on the basis of common consensus, trust, and cooperation.
  • When it comes to teams, trust is about vulnerability. Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open — even exposed — to one another around their failures, weaknesses and even fears, creating psychological safety.
  • Design is a process of negotiating among disciplines. Solutions are not only based on purely technical problem solving criteria: solutions are negotiated. Therefore, it is important to establish common ground, negotiation and conflict handling mechanisms in order to manage the integration of multiple perspectives in design.
  • One approach to get more constructive conflict handling is to change the game from arguing over positions to negotiating on merits.
  • For teammates to feel more comfortable in global / remote / distributed environments, you will need to tools, policies and structures that enable raise Social awareness (who is around?), Action awareness (what is happening?), Situation awareness (how are things going?).
  • You’ve probably heard me saying a few times, but I’ll say it again here: creating shared understanding is critical to good collaboration! When teams share an understanding, everyone knows what they’re working on, why it’s important, and what the outcome will look like.
  • There is so much technology such as video conferencing — or the internet itself — so widely available, and yet, it is frustrating for many people. Why? Because people largely tried to recreate what did they in-person in their virtual meetings, since that’s the only experience that was familiar to them.
  • There are more similarities between physical and virtual collaboration activities than one could think: Everyone who’s in the meeting needs to know why they’re there and what role they will play.
  • In that sense, the structure around designing your meeting is the same whether you’re planning a face-to-face or virtual meeting. We simply need to tweak them to make them work on a virtual platform.
  • In distributed or remote strategic collaboration, most of the shared memories are created during meetings. So, we must design meetings that optimise for memory by breaking up our conversations into meaningful smaller chunks, smart use of repetition, and the use of elements of surprise.

The World is Flat (Really!)

Itamar Medeiros speaking at IxDA Latin America
In my talk at IxDA’s Interaction 14 South America, I explored the dynamics of distributed design teams, then I also framed some of the problems these teams face, and discussed some strategies to cope with these challenges

This might not have been necessarily your experience, but since 2005 I’ve been working with global or virtual teams in one form or another. What that means is that the organizations I work for try to make the most efficient use the knowledge and expertise of all parties involved — marketing, engineering, design, management, suppliers, production, etc. — in the design team, no matter how these parties are distributed geographically and organizationally.

Then COVID-19 pandemic came, and (overnight) everyone is working from home. Funny enough, I told a few people that this “working from home” anxiety was actually pretty normal when you first start working in distributed teams (“welcome to my life!”).

Sophie Kleber and I met recently at the UX Strat Conference in Amsterdam, and — in her talk — she captured a sentiment I’ve had since the beginning of this pandemic and yet it was hard for me to explain:

This pandemic was the great equaliser: everyone suddenly was – regardless if your office used to be in closest to headquarters or in the farthest fringes of your company location – on the same playing field, dealing with the same struggles.

Kleber, S., “Designing the Future of Work at Google” in UX STRAT Europe (2021)
Sophie Kleber's "Designing the Future of Work at Google" talk at UX Strat
In her talk at UX STRAT Europe 2021, Sophie Kleber presented what role UX research and design played in working through the pandemic and in defining the new Hybrid norms. She also talked about problem statements and user journeys Google is addressing, and show examples of her internal work, and discussed how to measure success across a diverse workplace..

Sadly, many people still view telecommuting and geographically separated teams as a kiss-of-death to any hope of good collaboration or communication. But collaboration is a mindset, not a by-product of co-location. So long as that mindset is present, with a few tricks and the right tools, remote team members can contribute to collaborative activities just as well as the teammate sitting in the room with us (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

While the COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift to working in a virtual space, many companies also lack the skills, knowledge or insight to get the most out of telecommuting and geographically separated teams. The sudden need to adapt working practices to virtual environment means that there has been a steep learning curve, and many are finding it difficult to realise the full potential of virtual meetings (Andersen, H. H., Nelson, I., & Ronex, K., Virtual Facilitation: Create More Engagement and Impact, 2020).

The Challenges with Design and Creative Processes

Any strategic collaboration takes work and being a global team takes even more work. But that is the challenge of global UX. Time zones, different languages, communication styles, and problems with gaining access to users become even more critical (Quesenbery, W., & Szuc, D., Global UX, 2012).

While this article is not an in-depth discussion on “what is design”, I think it’s important for us to have a quick overview on what I think are some critical activities that designers need to perform in distributed, collaborative, global or remote environments. From a problem solving perspective, a broad range of activities may need to be undertaken with the major steps including (Lang, Dickinson, & Buchal, 2002):

  • needs analysis/problem clarification,
  • information gathering/research,
  • ideation/creative thinking,
  • information generation/analysis,
  • evaluation, and
  • optimization.

From a creativity perspective, Shneiderman (2000) talks about the challenges that tools need to address to enable users to be more creative. His Genex Framework (generator of excellence) proposal consists of four phases:

  • Collect: learn from previous works stored in libraries, the Web, etc.
  • Relate: consult with peers and mentors at early, middle, and late stages;
  • Create: explore, compose, evaluate possible solutions; and;
  • Donate: disseminate the results and contribute to the libraries.

Within this framework, Shneiderman proposes eight activities software tools should support:

  • Searching and browsing digital libraries;
  • Visualizing data and processes;
  • Consulting with Peers/mentors;
  • Thinking by free association;
  • Exploring solutions (“what-if” tools);
  • Composing artifacts and performances;
  • Reviewing versions;
  • Disseminating Results.

The Challenges with Design and Collaboration Processes

Collaboration is an activity where a large task is achieved by a team. Often the task is only achievable when the collective resources are assembled. Contributions to the work are negotiated and mediated through communications and sharing of knowledge. Successful strategic collaboration requires effectiveness in a number of areas (Lang, Dickinson, & Buchal, 2002):

  • Creating shared understanding,
  • developing shared memories and meaning,
  • negotiation and conflict handling,
  • communication of data, knowledge, information,
  • planning of activities, tasks, methodologies,
  • management of tasks.

When work is distributed around teams with different cultures, economic conditions, and time zones it is that much more difficult to stay focused on user needs and carry high quality design validation. But it isn’t impossible (Quesenbery, W., & Szuc, D., Global UX, 2012).

Collaborative or Distributed?

Globalization of development processes is based on the principle of making the most efficient use of resources possible for whatever task needs to be done. In product design, this principle means exploiting the knowledge and expertise of all parties involved, including marketing, engineering, design, management, suppliers, production, etc., in the design team, no matter how these parties are distributed geographically and organizationally (Lang, Dickinson, & Buchal, 2002). The same logic applies to software development

In response to this increasing need to assist collective work in an information technology context, recent studies have shifted their foci toward cooperative work, concerning to the creation of new technical-organizational systems, which support collective work, greater interaction between design stakeholders, as well as capitalization and reuse of design knowledge (Détienne, 2006).

Falzon (Falzon, Montmollin, & Béguin, 1996) has stressed out a distinction between two design situations according to the nature of shared goals: co-design (or collaborative design) and distributed design.

honors: CO-DESIGN VS. DISTRIBUTED
honors: CO-DESIGN VS. DISTRIBUTED

Collaborative Design

In Collaborative design, design partners develop the solution together – they share an identical goal and contribute to reach it through their specific competences, they do this with very strong constraints of direct cooperation in order to guarantee the success of the problem resolution. The competence of the partners can vary depending on the level of competence (e.g. interaction between designers of different seniority) or on the type of competence (e.g. interaction between drafters and engineers). Design solutions are not only based on purely technical problem solving criteria. They also result from compromises between designers: solutions are negotiated.

Thesis: MANAGING MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES
Collaborative Design is all about MANAGING MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES

Distributed Design

In Distributed Design, the actors of the design who are simultaneously (but not together) involved on the same cooperation process carry out well determined tasks. Such tasks having been allocated beforehand, and they pursue goals (or at least sub-goals) that are specific to them and have as an objective to participate as efficiently as possible in the collective resolution of the problem. Distributed design is typical for concurrent engineering in which the various sides of the production system must function in strong synergy during the product development cycle.

Thesis: MANAGING TASKS INTERDEPENDENCIES
Distributed Design is all about MANAGING TASKS INTERDEPENDENCIES

Since the distribution of tasks has been identified as means of minimizing software development risks, let’s analyze the current interaction design process at through Distributed Design perspective. Lang, Dickinson and Buchal’s Cognitive Factors in Distributed Design seem an appropriate framework to start with, which divides the design process through distributed teams into 5 areas, namely design methodologycollaborationteamworkknowledge management and design representation.

Combining Frameworks

Merging the both previously mentioned frameworks (Shneiderman’s Genex, and Lang, Dickinson and Buchal’s Cognitive Factors in Distributed Design) allowed me to capture enough aspects of the design process in distributed teams.

Visual Map of issues associated with Collaborative and Distributed Strategic Collaboration
Visual Map of issues associated with Collaborative and Distributed work

Four Simple Lenses for Strategic Collaboration

The way I’ve looked that this problem was to decompose it in four aspects:

  • Tools
  • Artifacts
  • Process
  • People
Strategic Collaboration can be examined through 4 Contextual Relationships Lenses: Tools, Artifacts, Process and People
Medeiros, I., “Contextual Relationships and Stakeholder Management” in Twists & Turns of Working in Global Design Teams talk at IxDA’s South America, (2014)

Strategic Collaboration and the “Tools” Lens

Mention the word “collaboration” to businesspeople today and they immediately think you’re going to talk about software. The tech world is boring over with new tools that enable groups large and small to instantly and easily share complex information and that facilitate and track contributions from many participants. But true collaboration requires more than handy applications – in fact, the same tools can just as easily derail or outright destroy collaboration (Abele, J., “Bringing minds together” in Harvard Business Review, 2011)

I’ve been working on the software industry for more than 20 years now, and I’ve seen lots of tools come and go. And I’ve heard so many teams say “if only we could use [ENTER LATEST COOL/HIP TOOL HERE] we would be more effective”… just to see that tool fade out a few years.

"Designers tool stack of 2020" from Miro
Designers tool stack of 2020 (Jensen, U. S., 2019)

So, when I hear someone suggesting introducing a new tool, my first reaction is to ask them how will this new cool/hip tool allow us to

  • Prototype / Simulate
  • Explore of Solutions
  • Support our Creative Thinking & Ideation processes
  • Support our Visualizing Data & Processes
  • Asynchronously Collaborate

There are many other tools available for remote collaboration, and more being released almost daily. Because of the reality that many coworkers aren’t actually co-located, many companies are looking for making collaboration from separate locations as much like being in the same room as possible. More important than the tools we use, however, is our approach (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

For remote collaboration to work, the individuals involved have to want to make it work.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

If you’re part of a team, ideally your team leader will coordinate a conversation around how you will use the tools that you’ve identified. If you’re working in a looser arrangement, it probably doesn’t make sense to work out detailed rules, but you can still take the lead to clarify a few key items (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):

  • Venue: Which interactions belong on the phone, in e-mail, and so on?
  • Availability: How responsive will you be on each of these tools? How will you get in touch if something’s truly sgent?
  • Meetings: Who will set up and lead conference call or host video chats? How will you get the call-in number and handouts in advance? If you’re the only person calling in, who will introduce you? If the whole meeting is virtual, how will all of you identify yourselves when you speak?
  • Version control: How will you make sure that you and your colleagues are working efficiently and without redundancy? When sometime goes wrong, who will be responsible for fixing the problem?
  • Coordination: Which materials or tools do you need to synchronise? Who will set up and manage shared technologies?
  • Sensitive material: How will you safely share and store sensitive or proprietary material?
  • Politeness and privacy: What does good behaviour look like with each of these technologies? For example, can you call a colleague without an appointment? How ill you avoid interrupting each other on a video chat if there is a delay?

My recommended approach for introducing new tools is to integrate first before replacing: if your current tool set already supports (let’s say) 3 of 4 steps of your current workflow, what tool can you add without replacing the existing tool set? The way to think about this is to look of the cost of strategic collaboration (not just the cost of the licenses themselves), such as:

  • Cost of training: How much training material / community is available? How smooth is the learning curve of the new tool?
  • Cost of integrating: How much disruption will integrating new tools is going to cost? Will our current stakeholders need access to the new tools? How will our current assets be accessed in the new environment / tool? How long/risky will be the process of approval of the new tool (IT security/Intellectual Property Protection, etc.)?
  • Cost of producing and sharing assets: How much it was going to cost to refactor your internal/old/existing libraries? Will we just import on the existing assets in the new tool? Will we need to re-create the assets in the new tool?

Strategic Collaboration and the “People” Lens

When I hear designers complaining they can’t get their design accross, the conversation usually goes like”if only the [INSERT THE NAME OF A STAKEHOLDER] would listen to me!”

While I can understand their frustration, I usually recommend to step back and take a look at the dynamics of their team, and how have they ben set up for success (or not!) by looking at the different aspects of teamwork:

  • Shared Design Workspaces
  • Roles and Responsibilities
  • Ownership / Commitment / Trust
  • Social / Action / Situation Awareness

Team members have to believe in the importance of collaboration, be conscious of the differences being remorse poses, and address them together. So long as our team is dedicated to making critique and collaboration work in remote settings, we will find a way (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015)

Shared Design Workspaces

Shared design workspaces can also positively contribute to team spirit for distributed groups by further enhancing the feeling that members are contributing to the group effort (Saad and Maher 1996), by providing everyone with the same interface to the project’s shared design forms. Shared design workspaces also often becoming another tool for making distributed team communication richer.

Shared design workspaces are required that can support team collaboration in both virtual and face- to-face situations. In particular, this requires the design of meeting rooms or virtual conferencing tools with a shared data display and multiple user interfaces so that team members can interact with the digital design space as well as with each other (Schrage, 1995). For distributed teams, virtual meeting rooms with multiple modes of communication are required. For example, rooms with both a shared electronic whiteboard and video conferencing would give all members access to the whiteboard while others view both the contents of the whiteboard and how the current speaker is interacting (gestures, facial cues, etc.) with those contents.

MURAL provides a Shared Design Workshops that support strategic collaboration visually and problem-solve faster with an easy-to-use digital canvas. No ordinary online whiteboard, MURAL has powerful facilitation features, guided methods, and the deep expertise organizations need to transform teamwork
MURAL provides a Shared Design Workspace for your team to collaborate visually and problem-solve faster with an easy-to-use digital canvas

Finally, shared design workspaces can also positively contribute to team spirit (learn more about on Ownership, Commitment, and Trust) for distributed groups by further enhancing the feeling that members are contributing to the group effort, by providing everyone with the same interface to the project’s shared design artifacts. Shared design workspaces also often becoming another tool for making distributed team communication richer (Lang, Dickinson, & Buchal, 2002).

We’ve mentioned a few remote whiteboard or sketchboard tools that enable groups of people to make contributions to public memory in real time. Technology, however, is not always going to be consistent for everyone. If you are collaboratively sketching ideas, some may be able to draw using a mouse or a smart pen–type tool or tablet, while others may not. If you’ve got webcams working, you can always have everyone sketch in their own spaces using a thick line, black marker and paper, or 3 x 5 cards. The cards are better to hold up to the camera without flopping over. No matter how bad the video connection, thick, black-line sketches on a white background will always be clear (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

Roles and Responsibilities

Team members often naturally assume different ‘‘roles’’ to assist in the communication process inside and outside team boundaries. These roles include facilitating or mediating intra- and inter-team discussion as well as acting as spokespeople for the team with company or enterprise representatives (Sonnenwald, 1996).

Understanding and facilitating these communication roles can result in better team harmony, more support from leadership and better co-operation with external partners. Thus, when designing tools to support design groups, consideration should be given to what sort of communication roles will often be performed while or after using the tool in question and efforts made to facilitate those communication roles (Lang, Dickinson, & Buchal, 2002).

Both consensual and top-down decision-making processes can be effective. But members of a global team often have expectations about decision making based on the norms of their own societies, which lead them to respond emotionally to what they see as ineffective behaviors of others on the team.

Meyer, E., “Big D or little d: who decides and how?” in The Culture Map (2014)
The 17 Fundamental Traits of Organizational Effectiveness
The 17 Fundamental Traits of Organizational Effectiveness: The research from Neilson, G., Martin, K., Powers, E. (drawn from more than 26,000 people in 31 companies ) have distilled the traits that make organizations effective at implementing strategy.

Execution is the result of thousands of decisions made every day by employees acting according to the information they have and their own self-interest. In their work helping more than 250 companies learn to execute more effectively, Neilson, G., Martin, K., Powers, E., identified four fundamental building blocks executives can use to influence those actions—clarifying decision rights, designing information flows, aligning motivators, and making changes to structure (Neilson, G., Martin, K., Powers, E., 2008):

  • who owns each decision
  • who must provide input
  • who is ultimately accountable for the results
  • how results are defined

Coordinating roles and responsibilities is inherently more challenging when you’re not in the same physical location. If you don’t check in frequently, your colleagues in other locations will lose track of what you’re doing (and vice-versa). But sending multiple messages to multiple recipients on multiple channels can create infusion and make it hard to tack progress. To organize who does what take the following steps (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):

  • Simplify the work: streamline things as much as you can, and agree on who ultimately own each task. If you aren’t in a position to influence these decisions, talk one-on-one with the people you’ll be working with most directly to make sure that you’re all on the same page. If necessary press your boss for more direction — and suggest the changes you would like to see.
  • Have each person share a “role card”: Itemise important information such as the person’s title, general responsibilities, work schedule, close collaborators, and the key tasks, decisions, deliverables, and milestones the individual is attached to. These “cards” could be individual documents, email, or entries in a shared work or message board. Review the inform briefly during a meeting to clear up any misunderstanding.
  • Agree on protocols: guidelines are needed for important activities such as group decisions, tracking progress, and sharing updates. Consider these questions: Who is the group needs to be involved in each of these activities? Which communication technologies will you use for each of these activities? If you lack the authority to lead this conversation, pose these questions to your supervisor with respect to yourself: What activities do I need to be involved in? How should I share updates during a meeting? I’d like to…
The Team Canvas is Business Model Canvas for teamwork and strategic collaboration. It is a free tool for leaders, facilitators and consultants to organize team alignment meetings and bring members on the same page, resolve conflicts and build productive culture, fast.
“Get your team on the same page” in Team Canvas (2015)

Ownership, Commitment and Trust

In a collaborative product design environment, multiple designers in different disciplines and from different enterprises cooperate to develop a complex design on the basis of common consensus, trust, and cooperation (Chen, Chen, & Chu, 2008).

Some argue that the involvement of the team in the product definition increases the sense of ownership (Smith & Blanck, 2002): Time spent together exclusively for creating a product specification helps to bond the team around this definition of the product. The sense of ownership and deep understanding of product definition issues, which comes with the opportunity to influence the definition, will move the remainder of the project along faster.

When it comes to teams, trust is about vulnerability. Team members who trust one another learn to be comfortable being open — even exposed — to one another around their failures, weaknesses and even fears. Now, if this is beginning to sound like some get-naked, touchy-feely theory, rest assured is not that is nothing of the sort (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

The journey of every high performing team starts with addressing the absence of trust (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013)

Vulnerability-based trust is predicated on the simple — and practical — idea that people who aren’t afraid to admit the truth about themselves are not going to engage in the kind of political behavior that wastes everyone’s time and energy, and more importantly, makes accomplishments of results an unlikely scenario (Lencioni, P. M., The five dysfunctions of a team, 2013).

Trust is also a prerequisite for Psychological safety: the belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. That one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes (Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization, 2018).

Conflict arises in every team, but psychological safety makes it possible to channel that energy into productive interaction, that is, constructive disagreement, and an open exchange of ideas, and learning from different points of view.

Edmondson, A. C., The fearless organization (2018).

Creating psychological safety is not about being nice to each other or reducing performance standards, but rather about creating a culture of openness where teammates can share learning, be direct, take risks, admit they “screwed up,” and are willing to ask for help when they’re in over their head (Mastrogiacomo, S., Osterwalder, A., Smith, A., & Papadakos, T., High-impact tools for teams, 2021).

Commitment is the achievement of clarity and buy-in by a team around a decision, without hidden reservation or hesitation. Even when teams initially disagree about a decision, by engaging in a productive conflict, they can eventually agree to a single course of action, confident that no one on the team is quietly harbouring doubts (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2011)

Commitment is tightly coupled with trust, which is much harder to maintain when the team is dispersed. The more barriers the team encounters—distance, organizational boundaries, cultural and political differences, and language barriers—the more difficult it is to build and maintain trust. When members feel appreciated and supported, they will speak up during meetings, share ideas, and discuss issues freely and in a collaborative manner. Without this trust and respect, meetings are not as effective, innovation suffers, and discussion can bog down in meaningless details (Smith & Blanck, 2002).

I found important that designers understand the co-relation of communication and relationships, and the importance building trust.

A good way to start is to understand and identify Cultural, Social, Political, and Technical issues of working with teams and stakeholders, master collaboration, and have a good grasp of what it takes to become a Trusted Advisor.

The single most important thing you can do to improve communication between you and your stakeholders is to improve those relationships, earn trust, and establish rapport .

“Stakeholders are People Too” in Articulating Design Decisions, Greever, T., 2020

These will speak more for you than the words that come out of your mouth in a meeting. I couldn’t agree more with Greever (2020) when he says that it’s ironic that Uxers are so good at putting the user first, at garnering empathy for and attempting to see the interface from the perspective of the user. Yet, we often fail to do the same thing for the people who hold the key to our success.

That involves a few key soft skills, particularly influencing without authority.

The True Measure of Leadership is Influence – Nothing more, Nothing less.

Maxwell, J.C., “The Law of Influence” in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, (2007)

Be relational, not positional: barking order is positional, It assumes that your employees will rush to obey simply because you’re in charge. But remember, leadership is influence. Be tuned into their culture, background, education, etc. Then adapt your communication to them personally (“The Law of Influence” in The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership: Follow Them and People Will Follow You, Maxwell, J.C., 2007).

group of people sitting in front of table
Learn more about the skills required for design strategists to influence influence the decisions that drive design vision forward in Strategy and Stakeholder Management (Photo by Rebrand Cities on Pexels.com)

If building trust is important, then how does one becomes a trusted advisor?

Trust must be earned and deserved. You must do something to give the other people the evidence on which they can base their decision on whether to trust you. You must be willing to give in order to get.

There are two important things about building trust. First, it has to do with keeping one’s self interest in check, and, second trust can be won or lost very rapidly (Maister, D. H., Galford, R., & Green, C, 2021).

Social, Action and Situation Awareness

Social awareness (who is around?) is about how well the team and individual team members understand the social context of work, not on the on going activities and artefacts of a joint cooperative effort (Schmidt, 2002). In terms of cooperation, detecting others’ presence and availability can engender informal communication, which usually comes handy for design coordination.

When the level of social awareness of the team is low, it creates problems. Usually the biggest barrier is the difficulty to establish contact. Firstly, ‘knowing who to contact about what’ may be problematic, in particular, in multi-site design: people do not know each other personally and cannot identify easily who is the person who has the relevant information or is the expert (Détienne, 2006).

Action awareness (what is happening?) refers to the choreography of artefacts, tasks and collaborators contributions: timing, type or frequency of collaborators’ interaction with a shared resource; location and focus of collaborators’ current activity. It is oriented towards product dependency rather than process dependency (Détienne, 2006).

Situation awareness (how are things going?) is awareness of other people’s plans and understandings: shared plans; assignments or modifications of project roles; tasks dependencies based on roles, timing, resources, status of design project progress. It is oriented toward process dependency.

When you’re out of the office, you’re free to structure your time to suit your own particular habits and needs. But the routines, the etiquette, and the that work for you also need to work for your colleagues. Here are some questions to spark a discussion with your colleagues about how you’ll work together. Asking close collaborators these questions (and supplying your answers for others) will help you avoid confusion (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):

  • How many hours each day or week will you work when you’re not in the office? What times of the day are you expected to be available?
  • If you’re in different time zones, how will you schedule meeting to accommodate one another?
  • Will you have visibility into each other’s schedule (perhaps through an e-mail client such as Outlook) or create a shared team schedule (such as Google Calendar)?
  • Do you have authority to assign work to colleagues and vice versa?
  • What responsibility do you have to accept a coworker’s request for help? What freedom do you have to politely refuse?

Strategic Collaboration and the “Process” Lens

In my experience, the biggest disconnect between the work designers need to do and the mindset of every other team member in a team is usually about how quickly we tend — when not facilitated — to jump to solutions instead of contemplate and explore the problem space a little longer.

I’m of the opinion that designers — instead of complaining that everyone else is jumping too quickly into solutions — should facilitate the discussions and help others raise the awareness around the creative and problem solving process.

From that perspective, I find it incredibly important that designers need to ask good questions that foster divergent thinkingexplore multiple solutions, and — probably the most critical — help teams converge and align on the direction they should go (Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming, 2010).

Strategic Collaboration: Opening (Divergent) versus Exploring (Emergent) versus Closing (Convergent)
Gray, D., Brown, S., & Macanufo, J., “What is a Game?” in Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers (2010)

Knowing when team should be diverging, when they should be exploring, and when they should closing will help ensure they get the best out of their collective brainstorming and multiple perspectives’ power and keep the team engaged.

turned on pendant lamp
Learn more about how to steer a conversation by asking the right kinds of questions in Strategy, Facilitation and the Art of Asking Questions (Photo by Burak K on Pexels.com)

Remember when I mentioned the distinction between Collaborative versus Distributed design earlier? You may realize or not, but in global or remote teams some activities are (or should be) inherently collaborative — like strategy and vision–, while others — like execution — could benefit from a distributed approach.

Strategic Collaboration: Collaborative versus Distributed Design
When to do what: collaborative (like strategy and vision) versus distributed (like execution)

Creating Shared Understanding

In my practice, I’ve found that — more often than not — is not for the lack of ideas that teams cannot innovate, but because of all the friction or drag created by not having a shared vision and understanding of what the problems they are trying to solve.

Just to make sure I’m not misunderstood: it doesn’t matter at that point if the team lacks a vision or the vision is just poorly communicated, the result is the same: team will lack engagement and slowly drift apart.

Shared understanding is the collective knowledge of the team that builds over time as the team works together. It’s a rich understanding of the space, the product, and the customers.

“Creating Shared Understanding” in Lean UX: Applying lean principles to improve userexperience, Gothelf, J., & Seiden, J. (2013)

Shared Understanding (“Cognitive synchronization”) enables partners collaborating in a distributed design environment to reach two objectives (Falzon, Montmollin, & Béguin, 1996):

  • Assure that they each have a knowledge of the facts relating to the state of the situation – problem data, state of the solutions, accepted hypothesis, etc, and
  • Assure that they share a common knowledge regarding the domain – technical rules, objects in the domain and their features, resolution procedures, etc.

Teams that attain a shared understanding are far more likely to get a great design than those teams who fail to develop a common perception of the project’s goals and outcome (Jared Spool, “Attaining a Collaborative Shared Understanding” in Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design, 2019).

When teams share an understanding, everyone knows what they’re working on, why it’s important, and what the outcome will look like.

Govella, A., Collaborative Product Design (2019)

It’s very easy to verify if the team lacks understanding around the problem the team is trying to solve. Just ask some fundamental questions in your next meeting, like “what is the problem we are trying to solve”? “And for whom”?”

If you get different answers from key stakeholders, it is probably a good indication that you should jump in and help facilitate the discussion that will help the team to align.

Collaboration means shift from thinking big ideas alone and moving into the real-mess of thinking with others.

Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation (2019)

Changing the behaviour to a “we think together” model is the central activity of collaboration. Because thinking together closes a gap; people can now act without checking back in because there were there when the decision was made. They’ve already had the debates about all the trade-offs that actually make something work. This may appear a case of “when all was said and done, a lot more was said than done.” However, time needs to be spent in the messy and time-consuming front loaded process of thinking through possibilities in order to inform the decisions that needs to be made (Van Der Meulen, M., Counterintuitivity: Making Meaningful Innovation, 2019)

Sharing early and often helps create shared understanding (learn more about sharing early in Communication of Data, Knowledge, Information) by triggering the conversations that help you find out what others think, while doing three things (LeMay, M., Agile for Everybody, 2018):

  • Turning assumptions into knowledge
  • Testing ideas and hypotheses to see if they show promise with those they are meant to help
  • Opening up our thinking to find blind spots and mistakes.

Developing Shared Memories and Meaning

Developing shared meaning requires achieving a mutually accepted and understood lexicology, schema or language in which to communicate, despite differences in backgrounds (education, training, experience, fields, etc.) of the team members (Lang, Dickinson, & Buchal, 2002).

Many people — perhaps especially Americans — underestimate how differently people do things in other countries. Examples and insights for avoiding this can be found in The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, a 2014 bestseller by INSEAD professor Erin Meyer.

Meyer claims you can improve relationships by considering where you and international partners fall on each of these scales (Meyer, E., The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, 2014):

  • Communicating: explicit vs. implicit
  • Evaluating: direct negative feedback vs. indirect negative feedback
  • Persuading: deductive vs. inductive
  • Leading: egalitarian vs. hierarchical
  • Deciding: consensual vs. top down
  • Trusting: task vs. relationship
  • Disagreeing: confrontational vs. avoid confrontation
  • Scheduling: structured vs. flexible

Strategic collaboration at its core is about including diverse perspectives and people. Being inclusive makes team stronger; you have more to draw on and get more people invested in the success of the effort. But groups often need help bringing their differences productively. You can help teams be open with each other and develop shared norms to govern behaviours by being aware of collaboration dynamics (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive, 2019):

  • Being inclusive of many different kinds of people, skills sets, and perspectives is a core part of collaboration that helps mitigate risks, engage the team, and find blind spots before they become a problem.
  • Inclusivity can challenge the status quo of how people interact and may being about interpersonal conflicts that are destructive to the team.
  • Working in different cultures that aren’t naturally conducive to collaboration is challenging, but don’t get caught up in making changing the culture your mission. Instead, focus on practical, tactical changes that create a local space for team to be productive and deliver results. Culture Change will happen as a by-product of good results over time.

If you’re working with people in different countries or culture, you can close the gap in several ways (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):

  • Ask them how they prefer to communicate: You’d do this with any colleague, but put extra thought into it when you and your coworkers aren’t fluent in the same languages. Are they comfortable with written or oral communications?
  • Build on common ground: However different your and your colleague’s past experiences, you do share something in common right now: this work. Are you both sticklers about punctuality? Do you geek out about the same things? Are both of you having trouble getting a certain tool to function properly?
  • Do your own research. If you’re working with more than one person who live in a different country of if you will be collaborating with someone for a long time, read up about the area. Learn about their cultures and traditions. Occasionally check in with the main source of news for that area. Express your interest in learning more, and ask your colleagues directly for their recommendations.

As we build a shared understanding of what word and phrases mean among a group, we instinctively being to use them over other words that might mean the same things. By avoiding words that aren’t as easily recognised by the others in the gorup, we streamline and improve the quality of our conversations (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015).

In distributed or remote strategic collaboration, most of the shared memories are created during meetings. So, we must design meetings that optimise for memory by understanding how our brains work and optimising to make sure our stakeholders remember what we discussed. Here are fa few simple concepts we can keep in mind (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020):

  • Primacy and Recency. People are more likely to remember the first and the last things we say. They drop off completely somewhere in the middle. We can use this to our advantage by breaking up our content into meaningful (smaller) chunks and creating distinct transitions between each part.
  • Repetition. People are more likely to remember something that’s been repeated. This universal understanding in marketing and advertising is useful for our stakeholders conversation too. What’s is the most important things you want them to remember? The goal or problem we are trying to solve and the decision we made. So plane to repeat these (verbally or visually on a slide) at least three times throughout the conversation.
  • Surprise. People are also more likely to remember something they weren’t expecting. If you can find a way to insert something into your discussion that’s not commonly part of your meeting, they will remember. This can be difficult to do in a business setting g where things are expected to be business-y, but a touch of levity, comic relief, or unexpected surprise can be effective. This simple technique is a well-time joked that breaks a stagnant conversation. Remember the point isn’t just surprise them for the sake of surprise: it’s to help them remember an important bit of content. The challenge with using the element of surprise is that you don’t want it to be a distraction. Find the right balance of keeping people engaged with your content without causing unnecessary distraction that derail the meeting.
Break up the content of your conversations into meaningful (smaller) chunks to avoid "The Trough of Forgetfulness"
Beware of “The Trough of Forgetfulness” (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020)

Planning of activities, tasks and methodologies

One misconception about collaboration is that it’s a freewheeling effort where teams are encouraged to work free from rules and processes that might constrain them. It’s tempting, especially when te problem has a number of unknowns — to get the group together and dive in, because it’s true that we want individuals freed to participate. But the effort? That takes planning (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive, 2019).

The larger the team gets, the more complex the planning becomes, especially when it comes to managing task interdependencies. There are many workflow or project management tools invented in order to guide and monitor progress through a task: task goals, task decomposition into subtasks, dependencies among tasks and subtasks, actors roles and assigned responsibilities, tasks and subtask completion status. These tools are aimed to support coordination. They have – at least – two kinds of limit for design task (Détienne, 2006): 

  • Design work is a tightly coupled work with high and complex dependencies between tasks. Modelling these dependencies in a workflow system is not easy (and sometimes, even not possible).
  • Design work involves opportunistic planning and re-planning (Hayes-Roth and Hayes-Roth, 1979): opportunistic planning leads to creation and modification of goals and subgoals. This evolution is not taken into account in workflow systems, in which the task planning is based on the prescribed process model rather than on the effective activity.

Negotiation and Conflict Handling

In a collaborative environment, Design is a process of negotiating among disciplines. Solutions are not only based on purely technical problem solving criteria. They also result from compromises between designers: solutions are negotiated (Bucciarelli, 1988). Therefore, it is important to establish common ground and negotiation mechanisms in order to manage the integration of multiple perspectives in design (Détienne, 2006).

Given the collaboration required to generate shared understanding, conflicts can emerge from disagreements between designers and other stakeholders about proposed designs. Hence, a critical element of collaborative design is to manage the detected conflicts and particularly the impacts once they are resolved (Ouertani, 2008)

Conflict is natural to organizations and can never be completely eliminated. If not managed properly, conflict can be dysfunctional and lead to undesirable consequences, such as hostility, lack of cooperation, and even violence. When managed effectively, conflict can stimulate creativity, innovation, and change (Baron, E., The Book of Management: the ten essential skills for achieving high performance, 2010).

While conflict is natural, we need to step up to the plate with a non-judgemental attitude towards our team, always expecting the best and –– in a counter intuitive way –– not anticipate conflicts.

Someone who anticipates conflict in meetings is the most likely person to initiate the conflict which they expect.

Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design (2015)

I’ve noticed in my own experience — but also observing how junior designers conduct themselves — is that we usually tend to bargain over positions (e.g.: “from a user experience perspective, this works best because….”), thinking that if we bring enough knowledge to the table or make strong enough arguments, designers would convince the team about the way to move forward. This idea of “Bargaining over positions” (through persuasion) comes with shortcomings that we are – more often than not – not even aware of since most of us were not trained with the emotional intelligence it takes to deal with conflict in a healthy way.

We can only change two things: our own minds and our own behavior.

Benson, B., Why Are We Yelling?: The Art of Productive Disagreement (2019)

Meyer again brings clarity also on way persuading might prove to be difficult in trans-cultural teams (Meyer, E., “Why versus How: The Art of Persuasion in a Multicultural World” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business, 2014):

  • some cultures tend to be Concept-first: individuals have been trained to first develop the theory or complex concept before presenting a fact, statement or opinion)
  • while others tend to be Application-first: individuals are trained to begin with a fact, statement, or opinion and later add concept to back up or explain the conclusion as necessary.
Strategic Collaboration in Transcultural teams: Persuading
“Persuading” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (Meyer, E., 2014)

From that perspective, another challenge that arises while negotiating comes from the fact that the way most negotiation strategies fail because they start arguing over positions (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Arguing over positions produces unwise outcomes: we tend to lock ourselves in those positions. The more you clarify your position and defend it against attacks, the more committed you become to it. The more you try to convince “the other side” of the impossibility of changing your position, the more difficult it becomes to do so.
  • Arguing over positions endangers an ongoing relationship: positional bargaining becomes a contest of will. Each side tries through sheer willpower to force the other to change its position. Anger and resentment often results as one side sees itself bending to the rigid will of the other while its own legitimate concerns go undressed. Positional bargaining thus strains and sometimes shatters the relationship between the parties.
  • Where there are many parties, positional bargaining is even worse: although it is convenient to discuss in terms of two persons, you and the “other side”, in fact, almost every negotiation involves more than two persons. The more people involved in the negotiation, the more serious the drawbacks of positional bargaining.
  • Being nice is no answer: many people recognise the high costs of hard positional bargaining, particularly on the parties and their relationship. They hope to avoid them by following a more gentle style of negotiation. Instead of seeing the other side as adversaries, they prefer to see them as friends. Rather than emphasising a goal of victory, they emphasise the necessity of reaching agreement. In a soft negotiating game the standard move are to make offers and concessions, to trust the other side, to be friendly, and to yield as necessary to avoid confrontation. Pursuing a soft and friendly form of positional bargaining makes you vulnerable to someone who plays a hard game.
“Conflict Management Styles” in Organizational Behavior and Human Relations

One approach to get more constructive conflict handling is to change the game from arguing over positions to negotiating on merits (Fisher, R., & Ury, W., Getting to Yes: Negotiating an agreement without giving in, 2012):

  • Principled: participants are problem-solvers whose goal is a wise outcomes reached efficiently and amicable.
  • Separate the people from the problem: be soft on the people, hard on the problem; proceed independent of trust
  • Focus on interests, not positions: explore interests, avoid having a bottom line.
  • Invent options for mutual gain: generate alternatives to choose from; decide later.
  • Insist on using objective criteria: try to reach a result based on stands independent of will; reason and be open to reason; yield to principle, not pressure.

Moving away from bargaining positions to negotiate on merits is pretty much aligned with two important skills that designers must master:

  • Create Great Choices: the effectiveness of the team in making good decision depends on their ability of generating alternatives.
  • Facilitate Critique: when well done, critique focuses on analysing design choices against a product’s objective.

Design is about exploring and comparing merits of alternatives. There is not just one path, and at any given time or any given question, there may be numerous different alternatives being considered, only one of which will eventually find itself in the product.

Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design (2007)

Without multiple solutions to any question, the process is highly vulnerable. Without the ability to see all the work at once, spread out, relationships will be missed, and the conversation and subsequent designs will suffer. (Buxton, B., Sketching user experiences: Getting the design right and the right design, 2007).

Your decision can be no better than your best alternative.

“Create imaginative alternatives” in Smart choices: A practical guide to making better decisions, Hammond, J. S., Keeney, R. L., & Raiffa, H. (2015)

Professor Roger Martin from The Rotman School of Management advocates to work from a place of creating choices through what he calls integrative thinking

“…the ability to constructively face the tensions of opposing models, and instead of choosing one at the expense of the other, generating a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model that contains elements of the individual models, but is superior to each.”

“Integrative thinking” in The opposable mind: How successful leaders win through integrative thinking, Martin, R. L. (2009)

Martin explored this approach in depth in the book Creating Great Choices, co-authored with Jennifer Riel (Riel, J., & Martin, R. L., Creating great choices. 2017):

  • Articulate the models. Understand the problem and opposing models — even, or perhaps especially, those that make us deeply uncomfortable — more deeply.
  • Examine the models. Define the points of tension, assumptions, and cause-and-effect forces, with the aim of getting to an articulation of the core value that each model provides. The intention is not to help you choose between these opposing models, but to help you use the opposing models to create a great new, choice.
  • Explore new possibilities. Play with the pathways to integration. Go back to the problem you have been working on. Take a step back and ask, how might I break my initial problem apart, along a meaningful dividing line, so that I could apply one of my models to one part of the problem, and the other model to the other part of the problem? What might a new answer look like in these conditions?
  • Assess the prototype: Concretely define each possibility, more comprehensively articulating how might it work. Understand the logic of the possibilities, asking under what conditions each possibility would be a winning integrative solution. Design and conduct test for each possibility, generating needed data over time.
aisle architecture building business
Learn more about how to create great choices in Strategy and the Art of Creating Choices (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

Facilitating critiques becomes extremely important to get teams to converge from the alternatives generated during ideas. Critique – when well done – focuses on analysing design choices against a product’s objective. It also provides teams with additional benefits, acting as a mechanism for building shared vocabulary, finding relevant consensus, and driving effective iteration. The structure of a good critique looks like this (Connor, A., & Irizarry, A., Discussing Design, 2015):

  • It identifies a specific aspect of the idea or a decision in the design being analyzed.
  • It relates that aspect or decision to an objective or best practice.
  • It describes how and why the aspect or decision works to support or not support the objective or best practice.

Strategic Collaboration and the “Artifacts” Lens

The main difficulty associated with a collaborative design process is to understand the product data exchanged during the design. Efficient and effective coordination of design activities relies on a thorough understanding of the dependencies between share product specifications throughout the entire development cycle (Ouertania & Gzarab, 2008). The capture and expression of this knowledge is vital if teams are to be able to use both existing knowledge and generate new knowledge for future activities.

Communication of Data, Knowledge, Information

Successful collaborative product design depends on the ability to effectively manage and share knowledge and experience throughout the entire development process. Challenges in this area include knowledge discovery, support for natural language processing and information retrieval, the capturing of design intent in multimedia formats, dynamic knowledge management, self-learning, reasoning and knowledge reuse (Shen, Hao, & Li, 2008).

Typical communication problems in strategic collaboration usually are (Chiu, 2002):

  1. The media problem: design information needs to be conveyed, and the communication problem is related to how to transmit communication message and symbols precisely.
  2. The semantic problem: the purpose of communication is the accurate conveying of information. The problem is how to let the message and its symbols carry their original meaning without interference from noise.
  3. The performance problem: the problem is related to how to effectively receive meaning in messages and influence behavior as the sender wished.
  4. The organizational problem: to reach the right persons for sharing expertise or ideas, design information has to pass throughout the hierarchy of an organization. The complexity of transmission is related to the scale of distribution.
Strategic Collaboration in Transcultural teams: Communicating
“Communicating” in The Culture Map: Breaking through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business (Meyer, E., 2014)

Sharing work early and often is critical for team to succeed. Because organizations typically share finished work for a final approval, versus seeking input to refine work in progress, solutions can become inflexible (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive, 2019)

When work can be shared ahead of time – before certain assumptions become etched in stone – solutions become better adapted to real world conditions

LeMay, M., Agile for Everybody, 2018

Sharing work in progress also helps organisations continually refine and communicate their understanding of the problem(s) to be solved. Sharing early and often means being curious to hear what others think about ideas before they are fully fleshed out. Sharing also helps keep a large group more engaged in the problems and solutions at play (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive, 2019).

Design History, Intent and Rationale

Although design in any domain is a very complex activity, the end-result of a design process is merely a product description either captured in the form of drawings/description or in a digital system. The decisions made in the design process and the rationale behind the design of the component(s) that comprise the system are not recorded as output of the design process. Even where the history of the design process has been recorded, the history captures the sequence of actions taken by the designer, not the “design intent” for that action (Sim, S. K., Duffy, A. H. B., 1994):

  • The design intent of the object or component or system remains known only to the designer and becomes hidden to others who may wish to use the design information.
  • Capturing design intent explicitly in any design support system is important because a misunderstanding of the designer’s intent may have dire consequences. Capturing design intent in digital systems is usually not built-in and requires knowledge management strategies, policies and tools.

The benefit of explicitly stating the design intent is that it helps both the designer and the users of that design information to understand the expected behaviour or effect of the design solution and act sensibly when using that information. The rationale for design intent is accomplished by (Klein, M., 1992):

  1. Keeping track of the relationships and differences between the options explored.
  2. Ensuring that all relevant issues and requirements have been addressed.
  3. Detecting flaws in one’s reasoning.
  4. Tracking the consequences of changes in requirements and design decisions.
Abstract is a cloud-based desktop and web app for versioning, managing, and collaborating on Sketch files.
Abstract is a cloud-based desktop and web app for versioning, managing, and collaborating on Sketch files. It allows multiple designers to work independently, then easily merge progress into a single master file. What I like about it is that – leveraging on the concept of Github – it not only handles the design history of a project, but also effectively prompts designers to consciously capture design intent and rationale at every commit..

The value of the capture and representation of design intent, design rationale and design history pays off for:

  • capturing of design expertise as a corporate asset
  • reusing of design expertise to accelerate future designs, an
  • facilitating backtracking during complex and ill-defined and ill-structured design problems

Synchronous versus Asynchronous

Human beings social beings. We are wired to connect with other people and feel alive and well (Lieberman, M. D., Social: Why our brains are wired to connect, 2013). Without connection, our very existing is in danger and crisis. In the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, we found ourselves in the mines of such a crisis across all walks of life. Social distancing made “social” feel distant. In theory, we had a set of miracle technologies that could helps us stay connected (Ozenc, K., & Fajardo, G., Rituals for virtual meetings, 2021).

I remember when I first moved to China in 2005, I had to buy Prepaid Phone Cards to make phone calls to my parents and loved ones back in Brazil: those were expensive, so I could only call family once a week (sometimes a month). Around that time, Skype was becoming popular. At some point, I did the math and figured out that it was cheaper to buy my parents / in-laws a computer and teach them how to use Skype than it was to spend money on phone calls.

Fast forward a decade and now people can videoconference from their mobile phone on the go! My kids can talk to their grandparents at anytime — or almost, since they had to learn the concept of timezone difference. My kids are even learning to send message to their colleagues in other countries (we’re an international family!) and wait to get the reply the next day: my kids learned early on to understand the difference between synchronous and asynchronous.

The different types of interaction can be considered in a space/time matrix, which is based on two principle dimensions of collaborative systems: the location of the users and the time of the collaboration involved (Saad & Maher, 1996).

Same Time (Synchronous)Different Time (Asynchronous)
Same Place (co-located)Face-to-face Interactions (meeting rooms, design studios, shared table, workshop room)Continuous Task (team rooms, large public display, shift work, project management) 
Different Place (remote)Remote Interactions (video-conferencing, instant messaging, virtual whiteboards, shared screens, virtual worlds)Communication + Coordination (email, discussion lists, blogs, asynchronous conferencing, group calendars, workflow, file sharing, versioning control, wiki, etc) 
Space/Time Matrix definition of Collaborative Work

When you think about it, it’s kind of crazy that technology such as video conferencing — or the internet itself — could be so widely available. But in reality, it was frustrating for many people. Why? Because people largely tried to recreate what did they in-person in their virtual meetings, since that’s the only experience that was familiar to them. Many people approached virtual meetings with a deficit mindset where “it’s never as good as in-person,” and they ended up with sad, second-rate copies of in-person experience (Ozenc, K., & Fajardo, G., Rituals for virtual meetings, 2021).

When it comes to Synchronous or Asynchronous communication, how can you can strategic collaboration as effective and efficient as possible? To decide which mode to use, ask yourself two questions (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):

  • What do you want the recipient to do after you convey your message? If you thinking they will have a lot of question or will need to craft a detailed replay, then phone or video is best.
  • If you need a quick answer, try email, text, or another Instant Message service.

Strategic collaboration through asynchronous or synchronous design meeting is not only seeking a place for exchanging and sharing information, ideas, concerns of individuals, but also functions as a place for understanding the context and situation of a project, exploring and developing design concepts and ideas, and reaching a consensus of a team (Yamaguchi & Toizumi, 2000).

InVision's Inbox consolidates conversations inside InVision, creating an easily consumable single source of truth for all design feedback. When it comes to collecting feedback on designs, it can be difficult for a designer to keep their feedback organized, remember where it came from, or know what feedback requires action. Inbox solves that problem.
Collaborative tolls like InVision allows to consolidate asynchronous conversations, creating an easily consumable single source of truth for all design feedback.

These tips for communicating with colleagues in different places (If you’re part of a team, ideally your team leader will coordinate a conversation around how you will use the tools that you’ve identified. If you’re working in a looser arrangement, it probably doesn’t make sense to work out detailed rules, but you can still take the lead to clarify a few key items (Harvard Business Review, Virtual Collaboration, 2016):

  • Get some real-time face time, even with colleagues in different time zones. Done’t let the logistics put off: if you can’t find a mutually convenient hour, be the one to compromise.
  • Find a shared widow of time in your working days, and make sure you’re regularly available during that period.
  • If you don’t have any available hours in common, talk explicitly about how you’ll manage trading any necessary information to keep things moving. What do each of you need from the other to get your work done?

Some conflict arises when people try to do too much all together. Keep an eye on people’s energy level, be aware of those who may do better work on their own, and then come back to share and critique. Make time and space for people to be away from one another and keep their discussion focused on the content of work and decisions (Anderson, G., Mastering Collaboration: Make Working Together Less Painful and More Productive, 2019).

Facilitating Decision Making

I’ve met with many designers that that feel frustrated that the vision they try to convey doesn’t get through the team. I even heard things like “if people would [ INSERT THE NAME OF AN ARTIFACT HERE ]… be it specifications, prototypes, concepts, etc.

Here is something important to bear in mind: artifacts don’t influence people; people influence people! From that perpective, designers might be putting too much faith on the documents they produce. Don’t get me wrong: knowledge management is something important for the long-term success of the team, but when it comes to influencing, designers need to skill up!

As I mentioned in the first post of this serieswe need a different kind of senior designer. We need designers working on user experience teams must first advance from a tactical designer to a strategic designer. They can not only move pixels, but translate design insights in a currency that business stakeholders can understand. After that, he or she can get teams to paddle in the same direction.

battle board game castle challenge
Learn more about how unprepared designers are if they are not able to understand and influence strategy in Becoming a Design Strategist (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

That said, you’ve probably have experienced problems working with teams, such as:

  • drifting focus
  • misunderstood communications
  • uneven participation
  • Conflict
  • struggles for power and control
  • difficulties reaching consensus
  • frustrations with obtaining commitment to follow up action.

This is not by ill-intent: Patrick Lencioni posits that making a team high performing – i.e. high-functioning, collaborative, cohesive, aspiring, engaging – requires self-discipline, courage and stamina (Lencioni, P. M., Overcoming the five dysfunctions of a team, 2011).

Facilitation is the design and management of structures and processes that help a group do its work and minimise the common problems of people working together

Justice, T., & Jamieson, D., The Facilitator’s Fieldbook, 2012

It’s been my experience that — left to chance — it’s only natural that teams will stray from vision and goals. Helping teams paddle in the same direction requires not only good vision and goals, but also leadership, and intentional facilitation.

I’ll argue for the Need of Facilitation in the sense that — if designers want to influence the decisions that shape strategy — they must step up to the plate and become skilled facilitators that respond, prod, encourage, guide, coach and teach as they guide individuals and groups to make decisions that are critical in the business world though effective processes.

That said, my opinion is that facilitation here does not only means “facilitate workshops”, but facilitate the decisions regardless of what kinds of activities are required.

I’m of the opinion that designers — instead of complaining that everyone else “doesn’t get it” — should facilitate the discussions and help others raise the awareness around the creative and problem solving process.

photo of people near wooden table
Learn more about how to become a skilled facilitator in Strategy and the Need of Facilitation (Photo by fauxels on Pexels.com)

Facilitating remote meetings can be challenging. Facilitation is built on the trust of the room, and much of that trust is earned via nonverbal communication. Matching tone-of-voice, volume, vocabulary, and body positioning contribute to trust in the facilitator. In a remote meeting, you’re left with only voice, and if technology is willing, a two-dimensional video. When facilitating a remote conversation, it can help to establish more ground rules regarding how to speak. For example, you might have people announce their names before they speak in the beginning of a call, until or unless everyone can tell each person apart by some other means (Hoffman, K. M.,  Meeting Design: For Managers, Makers, and Everyone, 2018).

One of the main things that physical and virtual meetings should have in common is a really clear purpose as to why people are attending. Everyone who’s in the meeting needs to know why they’re there and what role they will play (Andersen, H. H., Nelson, I., & Ronex, K., Virtual Facilitation: Create More Engagement and Impact, 2020).

One way to make our meetings easier for stakeholders is to set the context at the beginning. That is, to start the meeting with a reminder of the goal for this project or design, where we are in our process, and the kinds of feedback they can expect to provide. Here are a few tips to quickly bring them to speed (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020):

  • State the goal. The first thing you should remind them about is your previously agreed-upon goal for this project or design. This should ideally be an improved business metric or the outcome we expect, but it might also be framed as the feature or output of your work. It be be your your answer to the questions, what problem does it solve? Whatever the goal is, state that clearly up front before you jump into your designs.
  • Summarise the last meeting. Briefly remind them of the discussion you had last time or the decision you made together. This can be a short sentence or several items, depending on the project. Either way, you want to quickly refresh their memory of your last conversation.
  • Show a timeline. Create a visual that will help them understand where you are in the process of your design. Typically, you can express this as a horizontal line where the left side is the starting points (research, low-fidelity mockups, etc), and the right side is the finished design (high fidelity, ready to ship, etc). Highlight where you are on this spectrum and the level of fidelity of design they can expect to see.
  • Specify the feedback you need. Also, tell them the kinds of feedback that are helpful at this stage in the project and what feedback is not needed yet. Helping them understand what feedback is most valuable will help you guide the conversation in a productive way.
  • State the goal, again. It’s important that we are always on the same page about the problem we trying to solve. Conversations get derailed when people fail to remember the goal or the goal has changed without us realising it. Repeating it will reinforce this and help everyone remember what we’re here to accomplish

When you’re in the design and planning of your virtual meeting, you will look at the purpose, the participants, the platform, process and partners. In that sense, the structure around designing your meeting is the same whether you’re planning a face-to-face or virtual meeting. We simply need to tweak them to make them work on a virtual platform (Andersen, H. H., Nelson, I., & Ronex, K., Virtual Facilitation: Create More Engagement and Impact, 2020).

Here are some tips for effective remote meetings (Greever, T., Articulating Design Decisions, 2020):

  • Tell everyone to turn on their camera. Even if there are few people together in a conference room, each of those people should use their own laptops and cameras so that everyone participating remotely can see everyone else. People feel left out when someone is off-camera.
  • Share your screen and your video. You want everyone to see both your face as well as the content you’re representing.
  • Find good background. Ideally, sit somewhere with a simple wall behind you and light shining on your face. Virtual backgrounds can be helpful, but are just as often a distraction.
  • Be an expert in muting. You mic should only be on if you’re talking. Learn the keyboard shortcut for muting your mic and use it.
  • Think about your facial expressions. Smile and nod just as you would if you were in-person. It can be discouraging to see someone wince in the middle of a meeting, even if they’re wicking at something else in the middle of a meeting. Related, use the webcam attached to the screen you’re using (or position your webcam pointing at your face) so that it appears you’re looking at the people in the meeting. It’s off-putting when people use multiple displays and seem to be looking at the side.
  • Turn-off notifications. There are too many distractions, chat messages, and temptations to check your likes on social media. Shut it all down and focus on the people in your meeting.
  • Mitigate technology risk. Call in using a phone for audio in addition to your computer audio. If the internet goes down, you’ll still have audio. Preferably, upgrade your router to prioritise bandwidth going your office so that your kids video streaming habits don’t disrupt your meetings.

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By Itamar Medeiros

I'm a Strategist, Branding Specialist, Experience Designer, Speaker, and Workshop Facilitator based in Germany, where I work as Director of Design Strategy and Systems at SAP and visiting lecturer at Köln International School of Design of the Cologne University of Applied Sciences.

Working in the Information Technology industry since 1998, I've helped truly global companies in several countries (Brazil, China, Germany, The Netherlands, Poland, The United Arab Emirates, United States, Hong Kong) create great user experience through advocating Design and Innovation principles.

During my 7 years in China, I've promoted the User Experience Design discipline as User Experience Manager at Autodesk and Local Coordinator of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA) in Shanghai.

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