As product designers, we spend our days crafting experiences. We take care to understand people, their environment and their needs to make these experiences as enjoyable as possible. This is a mindset that can be particularly powerful when considering professional collaboration. Take the simple act of meeting to exchange ideas: what if instead of merely arranging your next meeting, you were to design an experience for everyone involved?
The way a collaborative session is designed directly impacts attention, engagement and motivation; it’s the difference between fostering indifference or driving ambition.
Where do I start?
Practice active listening
Talk to those people most impacted by the topic. Ask intentionally open questions and practise the art of active listening. This means making a conscious effort to listen attentively, paying attention to emotion and delivery. A deep understanding of current experiences will allow you to design a customised, impactful session that covers the most pressing issues.
Eg. The team appears to be lacking clarity on product vision and prioritisation, causing frustration and reduced motivation.
Define purpose & goals
From your listening sessions, conclude the key topics or challenges that should be covered. Consider what the session should ideally achieve and how the outcomes of the session might benefit those people involved.
Eg. The purpose of the session is to understand current working practices around product vision definition and prioritisation, identify challenges and define first steps towards improvement.
Considering the discussions you’ve had so far, define what success might look like for this session. Consider ideal outcomes in terms of reflections, discussions, learnings and action points. Defining clear goals will help to keep the session focussed, provide a guideline for reference throughout the session planning and help you to reflect on your achievements.
Eg. Success for this session would be every team member having had the opportunity to discuss the challenges around product vision definition and prioritisation, and define immediately actionable tasks to improve working practices and reduce frustration.
Once you’ve understood the people and the situation, identified the purpose of the session and defined success, you can start to plan your approach.
How should I structure the session?
To find the optimal session structure, think back to what you learnt during your active listening preparation, and the goals and success metrics you decided on as a result. Different structures are suited to different outcomes - here are some examples to help you choose the right one for you.
Good for: Getting acquainted
When forming a new team, allow time to get to know one another. This will help everyone to feel more comfortable working together.
Impromptu networking is a Liberating Structure that helps teams to share challenges and expectations whilst building new connections. The activity is driven by two engaging questions that help attendees clarify and focus their thoughts through structured discussion. The first question should be self-reflective and the second focussed on the wider group.
Eg. What unexpected superpower do you bring to this project?
What are the advantages of shared ownership in a team?
Good for: Understanding objectives, sharing ideas or exploring challenges.
When kicking off a new project or initiative, a shared understanding of goals and success is essential. It helps teams to work together towards the same objective(s) with a stronger sense of ownership and achievement.
1-2-4-All allows time for personal reflection on a topic prior to group discussion. It’s a technique used to gather individual thoughts or ideas and filter those most prominent through discussion. To determine high-level goals, you can ask the group to consider what they personally would like to achieve. These ideas can then be shared to form a collection of goals that can later be developed into SMART goals (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely).
Eg. What would success be for you?
There are also more traditional techniques for defining product objectives such as impact mapping or consumer journey mapping.
Good for: Generating and prioritising ideas in large groups
25/10 Crowdsourcing works particularly well for large groups, inviting participants to come up with their biggest, boldest idea for a solution to a challenge that is then swapped around the room and marked by others from 1 to 5, leaving a total score that can be used to prioritised ideas by perceived impact.
Eg. Score between 1 (this is not an idea you’d get behind) and 5 (an idea you’d like to be involved in making a reality).
For more specific product ideation techniques, this article gives a great breakdown of team set-up, preparation and session facilitation, considering value vs. impact mapping.
What I Need From You (WINFY)
Good for: Defining roles, responsibilities & expectations
When forming a new team, it’s important to understand what you can expect from others and what they can expect from you. What I Need From You is a workshop format that asks individuals what they need from each other in order to be successful in their own roles. This helps individuals to better understand their responsibilities and get clarification on what they can expect from others.
Eg. (from Design) Product team, what I need from you is a clear product delivery roadmap.
What, So What, Now What? (The 3 Ws)
Good for: Reflecting and improving
The 3 Ws Liberating Structure helps groups to reflect on an experience, consider impact and define actions by asking three simple questions ‘What?’ (what happened?), ‘So What?’ (what was the impact?) and ‘What Now?’ (what are we going to do about it?).
Eg. What? Design weren’t included in planning. So what? They didn’t know their priorities. What now? Include designers in all planning sessions.
Fun retrospectives is a great resource for facilitating retrospectives and FunRetro is a great tool for accommodating remote participants too!
What should I do after the sessions?
Session summaries allow you to communicate the value of your time together, allowing the group opportunity to reflect on outcomes and actions. Regular sessions and follow-ups can help teams to form a habit of continuous reflection and improvement.
Applying these experience design principles to professional collaboration has changed the way I plan and facilitate collaboration. Liberating Structures have enabled me to design simple, productive and impactful sessions for multiple cross-discipline teams. The structures have helped our teams to consider challenges in new ways, using the frameworks to guide strategic thinking and develop a stronger sense of ownership.
A big shout-out to Tasman Papworth, a good friend and Agile Companion here at Novoda who has mentored my journey towards more impactful collaboration to the point I can share my learnings with you.