Collaborate better: a balancing act

How to build alone time to make collaboration more efficient

Collaboration is at the heart of a user centred design approach.

Collaboration with clients, users and  amongst your colleagues. Yet, too much collaboration can often get in the way. How can you merge collaborative ways of working with ways of working alone for best results? Here’s some practical advice to help create that space for thinking alone.

Sharing experiences at the cxpartners conference

At meetings and workshops:

1. Prepare and share an agenda before meetings

Receiving an agenda in advance allows those participating to prepare in their own time (this is even more important if you are collaborating with people where English isn’t their first language). The ability to digest in their own time will bring clarity on the objectives of the meeting and what is expected from everyone. It will also invite questions, which will help ensure everyone is on the same page before the meeting starts, saving precious time. Make sure you reference the agenda at the start of the meeting to refresh their memories.

2. Send out homework before a meeting

You can do this with users during co-design workshops. During a project for a major hotel chain, we asked participants to sketch out their most memorable holiday experience (good or bad) before the workshop. This allowed them to step into the workshop prepared, already in the headspace of the activities that followed. Having something to present to the group also ensured everyone was equally heard right from the start.

3. Solitary moments during activities

Not all tasks should be immediately collaborative. Give participants first some time alone to start tackling a task. This could be an affinity diagram, card sorting or sketching (see the Gamestorming book for such exercises). Get participants to present to a smaller group, refine their outputs, then present and compare with other teams.This allows people who need more time to get started the chance to prepare. It will also stop the louder voices biasing everyone’s thinking.

4. Provide moments of reflection towards the end of a workshop

Get clients and/or users to write on two post-its: what they liked and disliked about the workshop. This gives them a moment to reflect and provides you with feedback.

5. Allow time to absorb

Workshops are tiring. But having a heavy debrief at the end of a full-on day can be draining. Recharge those batteries and allow yourself and your team to reflect on the meeting. Regroup after you’ve had a break or the following morning while it’s still fresh. If an immediate regroup is not necessary, make sure you at least follow-up with a group email to allow the conversation to continue until the next time you meet.

At the office:

6. Guard your project time

Standups and meetings are often essential but don’t let them get in the way of the actual work. We’ve recently introduced a new format for Monday standups: tell the group one thing they might find interesting from your previous or upcoming week. Spending 5 minutes to think this up beforehand means your bit is short, concise and useful.

Quiet spaces are a vital part of a productive workplace

7. Cater to the proximity effect

Getting that quick opinion of your colleague is a lot easier when they’re sitting beside you. It allows for solo project time with space for instant collaboration. Yet be mindful of this needing to being a two-way street. If not, book in short collaborative moments to avoid interrupting all the time.

8. Take ownership of problems

Identify when a problem is taking too long to resolve as a group. Take ownership or volunteer it to someone to tackle by themselves before they bring it back to the group. Equally avoid the “design by committee” mantra. Ask your colleague or client if you can think about it and get back to them with ideas.

9. Encourage solo time

Build in solo time during analysis. Immersing yourself in reams of data is very often a solo task. Yet coming back together to discuss this data will fuel debates around how these insights are interpreted. This will also prepare you for the more difficult questions from your client.

A collaborative / solo work balance

Effective collaboration must strike a balance with focussed work time. Be mindful of combining both methods throughout a project, rather than bursts of one or the other. Both ways of working are not in conflict with each other, but complementary in achieving best results.

How do you strike this balance? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Becca Finnegan is a User Experience Consultant with a mixed background, having studied History, Politics and Marketing. She loves working in a collaborative environment, always advocating a user centred design approach.