How to Not Suck at Collaboration

Learn how to collaborate with coworkers

The Hype

This year was my first time attending the MidwestUX conference (MWUX). I was excited to be a part of an engaging conference that my teammates have discussed ever since I joined the team. Prior to leaving for Cincinnati, I had outlined the talks that interested me most. Day One, I was most excited to hear Karen VanHouten speak on why we overlook the process of collaboration. In her speaker bio, she insisted on aiding us with an applicable system to confront obstacles around collaboration. Her insight and enthusiasm for this topic did not disappoint.

How Do You Approach the Topic of Collaboration?

Karen’s approach as a speaker was different and refreshing. Karen’s talk resonated with the audience because of her ability to be candid and real with us. She did not sugar coat the situations that exist in our professional world. She introduced us to the uncomfortable problems that she witnessed within her own organization. We were all on the same level. Karen described what it is like working on an energetic team with varying personalities, and how it can make it tough to engage everyone to contribute responsibly and respectfully. She created a continuum to represent different personalities that are often in the room—the ‘wallflower’, the ‘mensch’, and the ‘antagonist’ (please note that Karen’s choice of wording here was a different ‘A’ word, but for the purposes of this blog, I will keep it on a higher level). Her continuum is outlined below.

Karen VanHouten's Collaboration Continuum

Karen says, ‘It’s difficult to call foul when we all seem to be playing by a different set of rules.’

Insight: Defining a Set of Rules

Karen is a Culture Architect, and she works to curate her team’s work environment using her background as a researcher, information architect, and UX designer. Her solution to breaking down the barrier of collaboration begins with establishing a Code of Conduct among her team that empowers accountability among team members. She advocates that the team own this Code of Conduct as a means to improve team dynamics and creativity. While these codes were discussed at a design conference, the elements can apply to any area of business.

Code of Conduct

Below I have outlined Karen’s Code of Conduct along with a few points from each code that resonated deeply with our team.

1) How will we treat each other?

  • We assume good intent:
  • I loved the simplicity of this point, it is simple to understand but often times difficult to demonstrate. This is a great reminder that our assumptions frame our actions and relationships.
  • We replace defensiveness with curiosity:
  • Asking why with the intention of genuine wonder is more approachable than engaging with defensive demeanors.

2) How will we approach our work?

  • We assign the right kinds of roles and responsibilities:
  • I thought this code was interesting as it focuses on how we expand our determined roles, project by project. Being able to clearly assign the right kind of roles, whether it be designating a spokesperson or decision maker, allows for transparency and trust during different situations.
  • We recognize the value of exploration for learning’s sake:
  • Sometimes in the business of our workdays, we lose sight of the value of exploration for learning’s sake. It is needed in the Code of Conduct because it can get swept away during our busy times. This is a simple reminder that learning and exploration are the foundation for our work and growth.

3) How will we communicate?

  • We actively work towards alignment, not agreement:
  • Prior to this point, I would have associated our team being on the same page as an agreement but I think a better way to describe it is the term alignment. Agreement implies that we are abandoning our own point of views for the sake of the outcome, whereas alignment implies that we are shaping the decisions on the table. Think: How can this idea work for our outcome?
  • We evaluate ideas based on their merit, not their source:
  • This resonated greatly with me as I know the source of an idea can alter the audience’s viewpoint, whether intentional or unintentional. This brings a focus on analyzing the impact of the idea.

4) How will we make decisions?

  • We trust our designated decision-makers:
  • Verbally designating a decision-maker is key to progress. We must give everyone equal access to voicing their opinion, but if we do not have a dedicated team member to designate progress we will not progress.
  • We are transparent with our decision-making process.
  • Hearing a final decision is not enough. It is important to discuss the reasons behind a decision. Understanding why it is important benefits our projects and our team.

5) How will we define success?

  • Each team member is contributing at an appropriate level.
  • I like the phrasing of this code as it implies contribution is different for each team member and noted at an appropriate level, remembering this will help us define success.
  • This way of working together becomes habitual.
  • This is ultimate success! Having a good knowledge base of the code will aid our team with the skills to collaborate with respect and responsibility.

As a team, we look forward to using this outline as a starting point to defining our own Code of Conduct. I truly appreciated this talk and conference as they both did not stray away from real topics that affect our industry. This conference provided our team with applicable solutions to both technical and social situations that are present in the workplace. I am inspired and can’t wait to apply this thinking. My team and I look forward to next year’s MWUX in Chicago.