Teamwork and Collaboration Across Departments

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A column by Janet M. Six
May 24, 2011

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss how to foster teamwork and collaboration across departments.

In my monthly column Ask UXmatters, our panel of UX experts answers readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your question to us at: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Vice President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Pabini Gabriel-Petit—Publisher and Editor in Chief, UXmatters; Principal User Experience Architect at BMC Software; Founding Director of Interaction Design Association (IxDA); UXmatters columnist
  • Catalina Naranjo-Bock—User Experience Design and Research Consultant at LEGO; UXmatters columnist

Q: How do you get teams from different departments to work effectively together?—from a UXmatters reader

“Getting teams from different parts of an organization to work together effectively often comes down to a question of having some sense of shared enterprise,” replies Steve. “This is especially true when the members of a project team are predominantly from one part of an organization, while other team members belong to parts of the organization that will see little or no direct benefit from the project.

“Therefore, showing clearly, early on, how the success of the project benefits the entire organization is important. The ways in which you can do that effectively vary depending on the culture of the organization within which the project is taking place. A clear and vivid articulation of the project vision and how it supports the goals of the organization is a good first step. It is also important to connect a particular project with what is happening in other parts of the organization and demonstrate how the success of the project ultimately benefits everyone. But this is just the first hurdle.”

Building a Team

“The second hurdle—and this is common to all teams, whether from the same organizational unit or a diverse group—is to turn a group of individuals into a team,” continues Steve. “There is a lot of good literature available around this second problem, covering things like the right number of members; the ways in which a team reaches decisions—consensus versus majority, for example; how roles are assigned; maintaining momentum throughout a project; and dealing with successes and failures.”

Fostering Collaboration on Multidisciplinary Product Teams

“In my UXmatters article ‘Sharing Ownership of UX,’ I discussed collaboration on multidisciplinary product teams in some depth,” says Pabini. “A key factor in the success of such collaborations is their multidisciplinary nature. People with different backgrounds bring different perspectives to a collaboration, and their diverse inputs help a team to see things in new ways—and sometimes come up with innovative concepts.

“But those different perspectives can sometimes be a source of conflict. Therefore, if you want to be able to work effectively with people in other disciplines and help ensure your product team’s success, you should make a concerted effort to gain sufficient understanding of your team members’ various roles and responsibilities, so you can communicate with them in their own language and respond to their needs. Reading about the other disciplines that are represented on your product team is a great way to learn about those roles and gives you the background you’ll need to understand what you experience on the job. Of course, you’ll learn the most by simply observing how your coworkers accomplish their work and engaging them in conversation about their work. People love to talk about what they do, so encourage your peers in other disciplines to share their work experiences with you, and listen with an open mind.

“I sometimes hear designers complain that their designs don’t get built. While there may be time, resource, and technology constraints that contribute to such problems, the key factor in such unsatisfactory outcomes is a lack of buy-in for the designs on the part of the various members of a product team. The best way to forestall this happening to you and avoid the frustration it engenders is to work in close collaboration with your product team. That means getting involved on a project at the very beginning whenever possible and collaborating with your team on requirements definition, ideation, and design.

Much of a product team’s thinking solidifies during requirements definition and ideation, so it’s essential that you quickly learn to work and think as a true team. Be open to everyone’s ideas, and make sure to incorporate all of the best ideas into your design solutions. Your job is to create a coherent user experience out of everyone’s diverse inputs. When your team co-creates a design solution, everyone takes ownership of it. That means your entire team will fight for the resources to get the solution built and defend rather than fight the design approach you’ve taken. When an entire team gets behind a design, it’s much more likely to get built as designed.”

Conducting Team-Building Workshops

“When starting a project on which different departments will work together, I have found it helpful to conduct team-building workshops that introduce the team to the project and to each other and their way of working,” suggests Catalina.

“The length of such workshops varies depending on the scope of the project, the number of departments involved, and the stage of development. Some workshops may be day-long sessions, while others may last for just one or two hours. The better team members already know each other, the shorter workshop sessions can be.”

“Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind when conducting team-building workshops to enable collaboration between teams,” advises Catalina.

  • “Send a detailed agenda to all participants a week prior to the date of the workshop. Recommend readings, videos, or any other materials that would introduce participants to the project and serve as points of discussion during the workshop sessions. Include participants’ names, brief descriptions of their jobs, and their departments.
  • “Start the sessions with exercises that allow participants to introduce themselves and their expectations for the project. There are many ways to do this that involve more than just going around the table and having everyone talk about themselves. Try to provide participants with tools that enable communication and socialization and allow you understand each team member’s point of view and priorities.
  • “Some PowerPoint presentations—where one person presents and the rest of the group listens—might be necessary to convey important information. But try to make the sessions and activities as hands-on as possible, breaking the group into smaller teams comprising members from different departments. Engage in group design activities that involve discussion, brainstorming, and collaborative work, and be sure to keep a log of the design process a team follows, as well as final outcomes for each team. Provide all the necessary materials for creative sessions, such as markers, sticky notes, and even physical objects like LEGO blocks.
  • “Conduct a series of these workshops and allow a different department to direct the workshop each time. In each workshop, a department should stress its own priorities, but build on what participants have learned in prior sessions.
  • “Keep all the information gathered in one place such as a wiki, blog, or corporate intranet. Be sure to maintain and update the information, as well as a calendar of events and future workshops. Allow departments to take charge of this online space when it is their turn to conduct a workshop, but always designate one person to lead this effort.
  • “Be sure to share conclusions and next steps when a session is ending and post them online. This lets everyone stay on the same page and follow a clear direction that the team has agreed to during a session.”

Aids to Team Communication

“Ideally, product teams should be colocated, enabling them to collaborate face to face. However, in today’s world, dispersed product teams are common, with team members often working at great distances, in time zones half a world away, making synchronous communication difficult.

“When working collaboratively with a team at a distance, using your communication tools effectively can make a huge difference in your team’s success,” advises Pabini. “If possible, use instant messaging and phone calls rather than email to stay on top of things. Relying on two-way communication will help you to avoid misunderstandings. To keep things moving forward, be available to answer one another’s questions when your work hours overlap. For engaging in dialogues and sharing information, use a wiki to capture the wisdom of the team where all current and future employees can benefit from it.

“Even when working with a dispersed team, get together to work in a shared collaboration space periodically—especially for ideation sessions. You’ll find it much easier to bond as a team and achieve the kind of creative foment that results in great products.”

Catalina recommends our “taking a look at LEGO Serious Play, which is a tool that can enable effective communication between departments during workshops and other team-based activities at the different stages of a design process.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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