Friday, December 22, 2006

"The three-legged stool of collaboration"

Effective multidisciplinary and/or cross-organizational collaboration remains a challenge for many. And it is an important challenge to meet. As nicely stated by the authors of the recently published "Innovation: The Five Disciplines for Creating What Customers Want" (see "The way we work has enormous power"):
"Collaboration is powerful. Only through collaboration can one gather the skills and knowledge needed to solve most important problems and make an impact. Most of us enjoy working on collaborative projects with supportive colleagues. We want to make a difference and have our contributions valued. These are strong human needs."
And since user experience is inherently multidisciplinary and often impacted by multiple organizations within or across companies and cultures (see, for example, "Co-design, China, and the commercialization of the mobile user interface")...

In past postings, I've addressed some of the elements that successful collaboration sessions have in common, including effective facilitation, walls, and fun.

The authors of the above-referenced "Innovation..." book describe what they consider to be the essential elements:
"Imagine a three-legged stool where written on the seat is 'collaboration' and on each leg is one of these three elements:
  • shared strategic vision
  • unique, complementary skills
  • shared rewards
...if one leg is missing the stool will fall over and collaboration will stop."
Regarding the first of these three elements:
"First, you must be able to understand and agree with the vision, goals, and objectives of the project. ... A clear, compelling vision is a force for change -- it pulls us forward."
Clement Mok, when he was Chief Creative Officer at Sapient, put it this way when I interviewed him on stage at CHI '99:
"Collaboration, I think, requires engaging the individual or the group to take on a change. The minute that the metalevel of understanding within the group that the group is about to do this one thing is not there, collaboration is not going to work. When people are in disagreement, they don’t have vying at the metalevel that they are about to alter something fundamentally. You have to operate at a concept level so that people are engaged and ready to accept a change."
Regarding the second element (back to quoting the "Innovation..." book):
"Second, you must be able to see clearly how your contribution is unique and essential to the success of the project. If your skills are redundant with those of others, then you are constantly worried about your role in the endeavor. ... Afterall, you can't dance when someone is stepping on your toes."
User experience professionals "forced to defend their position as user experience experts" will be happy if fewer others would step on their toes, but overlapping responsibilities can facilitate collaboration in lots of cases (see, for example, "pair design pays dividends").

And lastly:
"And third, you must be able to articulate clearly how you will be rewarded fairly as a member of the team. ... Rewards, like good meals, should be shared."
But there is more:
"...these three ingredients are not satisfied automatically. Constant, respectful communication is needed to keep the Three-Legged Stool of Collaboration intact. Respectul communication is the glue that holds the three legs together. Without it, the stool falls over."
As Clement Mok also said in the above-quoted CHI '99 interview:
"Another piece of the equation is about communication and really listening, and about creating a forum in which disagreement can happen. Agree to disagree, and create a respectful environment to facilitate that. You can agree to disagree without having the respectful environment; that will destroy collaboration."
The "Tips for Working Successfully in a Group" presented by Randy Pausch during his opening plenary address at CHI 2005 provide some guidance for achieving such respectful communication. Among those tips:
  • Meet people properly.
  • Find things you have in common.
  • Let everyone talk.
  • Check your egos at the door.
  • Praise each other.
  • Avoid conflict at all costs.
  • Phrase alternatives as questions
The quotations from the "Innovation..." book all come from Chapter 12 "forming the innovation team: how we won an emmy for hdtv."