Structuring a New Collaborative Culture

When I was a junior designer, my creative director asked me to design a mascot with the rather uninspiring instruction to reorder the shapes of the famous 2012 Olympics logo. Having little choice but to accept my task, I threw myself into it with all the boundless, panicked energy that comes from needing to impress the powers above, trusting my superior to steer me in the right direction.

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Three weeks later I was distraught, the entire weight of our complete and utter failure to win the pitch resting on my shoulders.

It would be easy to put that loss down to inexperience—after all, I totally missed the brief, and every other pitch was better. But when I think about it a little more thoroughly, I can see that the real problem was one of access. I longed to understand the full project details, but was instead privy to mere bits and pieces of projects, attempting to cobble together an unknown whole. It was like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle whilst looking at it through a keyhole.

Many organizations—faced with the challenge of bringing together multiple projects, departments, and skillsets—fall back on the traditional combination of hierarchy, method, and structure. This can breed a culture of complacency, leading to outcomes that are narrow in their vision, team members who feel restricted and undervalued, and a workforce that operates under ceaseless pressure to either get it right, or get out.

When I look back on my ill-fated Olympic experience, I can see that I didn’t have the full picture. I was unable to bring my own ideas to the table, powerless to create change. I was subordinate; my relationship with my superiors was distant, and the most integral aspects of the design process—research, exploration, and discussion—were entirely absent. It wasn’t collaboration of any kind. No wonder that I lost both the pitch and the plot!

It doesn’t have to be that way. When I co-founded the creative studio Gravita, I learned what collaboration really looks like: multiple minds working together to solve problems. By doing this, our complementary skillsets are free to blend together in surprising ways—unconstrained, we’re better equipped to deliver inventive solutions.

This kind of collaborative culture is possible, whether you’re freelancing, in an agency environment, or in-house. You only need to do three things:

  1. Remove assumptions
  2. Emphasize project roles over job titles
  3. Create a supportive environment for new ideas

Here’s how we’ve accomplished each one at Gravita.

Assumption: the cyanide of collaboration#section2

When I first established Gravita with two other designers, we found that there was real synergy between us. The feedback was exceptional. We had stumbled across a dynamic that worked, even in our earliest projects.

However, the path to uninhibited working was far from smooth, because I started making assumptions about my value to the team. I weighed my own skills against theirs and—deciding that I came up short—assumed my ideas weren’t as good. Agency life had drilled into me that my contributions weren’t worthwhile.

My insecurities created walls. I became terrified of showing my work, afraid of failure. I found any excuse not to contribute. This created frustration and tension in our working space, and hindered progress on my first project.

The only way out of this debilitating dead-end was to lay out my insecurities and discuss them. Once I was brave enough to open up to my colleagues about how I was feeling, and accept a gradual process of support and positive feedback, we were able to move forward.

On our next project, we began by talking openly about how we all felt. I was amazed to discover that I was not alone in feeling apprehensive; having everyone’s cards on the table was cathartic. We sat together as a team and worked out what we could each bring to the task, what we were afraid of, and how we could work together to get around potential problems.

Collaboration offers a vehicle through which assumptions of the self can be overridden. Don’t bottle up what you’re feeling, and don’t be afraid to ask questions you assume others will find stupid. Voicing the concerns you have about yourself opens up an ongoing dialogue—one that can identify your strengths, encourage praise, and allow your confidence to blossom.

Prioritizing roles over jobs#section3

Job titles can be useful, but they’re also confining. They can stifle entire projects and hold back personal development. They’re labels, and just like on a can of soup, they create a clear expectation of what is inside—if anything else emerges, it comes as a nasty surprise.

I had the first inkling it didn’t have to be this way when I was working for a large charity, stuck with the title “web master.” The management noticed how confining this was for me; they gave me the green light to take on new responsibilities that allowed me to branch out. I realized it was perfectly feasible for organizations to adopt this kind of open, flexible thinking.

I’ve found this way of thinking works at Gravita too. We recognize that it’s the role, not the label, which should be the focus of the work. We don’t have job titles at all, opting instead to rotate roles. We sit down over a cup of coffee and see who fancies doing what on a new project, whether that be project manager, information architect, iconographer, or anything else.

Removing permanent titles is liberating. Suddenly, like a long-distance runner, you’re only ever really competing with yourself. It becomes more about self-improvement, less about climbing the ladder. You’re free to bring whatever you want to the table, and to grow as a designer.

Chance favors the connected mind#section4

Ideas should always be heard, regardless of what form they’re in or how complete they are. Instincts and hunches—proto-ideas, neurons sparking with other neurons—need a free environment where they can mingle, collide, and flourish, ultimately producing something greater than the sum of their parts. After all, as Steven Johnson explains in his talk, “Where Good Ideas Come From,” “chance favors the connected mind”—connectivity and flow between people create stronger ideas.

It can be challenging to achieve flow, but it’s very worthwhile. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi defines flow as “the internal state of energised focus which characterises the mind at its most productive.” We look past the separate spaces that we inhabit as individual bodies and come together as minds. It’s a form of intense, unified working where people relax from their inhibitions and see themselves as being fundamentally interconnected on a project.

Recently we were evaluating concept designs for a healthcare project. It just wasn’t quite working, and individually none of us had figured out what was wrong with it. Together, we began passing ideas back and forth, until someone uttered the words “less cold.” Suddenly we could see what we needed: a new and more gentle typeface, a softer and more comfortable palette. It took all of us, working together in a connected way, to hit on the solution.

Flowing mind-to-mind in this way allows us to fuel an idea in a shared headspace. Collaborative thinking enhances the brain’s natural capacity to make new links, which in turn strengthen the initial idea. There’s no place for ego—it’s important to be open and welcome this flow of others’ thoughts.

A new way of thinking#section5

Collaboration means bringing different minds and skillsets together in a way that doesn’t make assumptions about what someone is or isn’t good at. It means dispensing with limiting roles, and introducing a fluidity of thought and activity into the design team. Above all, it means putting interconnectedness at the heart of every action.

So is collaborative working the elusive Holy Grail? Certainly a lot of people aim for it, and like to think that they do it even if there is a wide variance in form. What I do know is that by changing the way I think, I’ve helped bring about a safe, assumption-free space with an even distribution of authority that allows ideas to flow freely.

Collaborative culture helps us discover unique solutions—and continuously redefine ourselves. Designing for the online community means operating in an ever-changing environment, where adaptability is key for keeping up with new technology and scenarios.

A collaborative culture can push us into spaces more conventional practices fear to tread. Everything is open to question. Ideas are heard. People feel empowered to make real change.

Finally, I feel like I’m seeing the full picture.

About the Author

Rosie Manning

Rosie Manning is a brand, UI & UX designer who creates lasting impressions through considered design. She is 95 percent devoted to shaping useful products for the betterment of others, 15 percent raw carrot consumer, and 0 percent good with percentages. She can be found on Twitter @rosieamanning.

5 Reader Comments

  1. Rosie, thanks for being vulnerable enough to point out that a lot of communication problems arise from fear, largely unspoken internal fears. That’s something I struggle to remember at the beginning of a project, every project. Thanks for such great insight!

  2. @Jess — You’re welcome. So true — baking it in to common practice takes time and it’s something the whole team has to fully embrace. It doesn’t have to be as artificial as pencilling in to Google calendar a time for ‘insecurity washout” — if it’s there in your mind, be natural and just share. You’d be surprised how quickly others will chip in, voice their mindset and ease your tension too.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful distillation of what it means to work on a collaborative team and the mindset needed to get there. It takes courage to open up to expose ideas to the team and to avoid negative self-talk and assumptions, but as you demonstrate it can be done.

  4. Great article!It is really nice to know that there are others dealing with similar situations. Having people skills as well as technical skills is an awesome combination.We should all work at it! Read more about my website here: Adjustable electric beds

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