Episode 004: Collaboration Killers

Hosted by:
With guest: Gregg Harrison
March 24, 2017

Mahtab   Welcome to Episode 4 of The Crux of It. We're gonna be talking about collaboration and collaboration killers. I'm Mahtab Rezai. I'm the Principal and CEO of Crux Collaborative. We are a User Experience Consulting firm specializing in regulated industries. I am joined today by my coworker, Gregg Harrison, whose job title is VP and whose job responsibilities are too numerous to detail here. Suffice it to say, he is my right hand man, and the only other extrovert in our entire group of consultants. So, in other words, he is my lifeline to sanity.
Gregg   Yes, mutual lifelines to sanity.
Mahtab   Yes. So today we're gonna spend ten minutes talking about collaboration killers. One of our guiding principles here is "Collaboration, Always." And it truly is not words on a wall; it is one we absolutely live by. And as a result we're really sensitive to the things that can hamper and kill collaboration within teams or between client and consultant teams, and we want to talk about some of those things today, what causes them, and how to avoid and mitigate them.
Gregg   Yeah, and one of the things that we see is that collaboration really is a key part of the formula in creating and designing complex transactional systems. We simply can't do it in a vacuum. We need access to the people who understand the regulatory and technical environments in which we're working.
Mahtab   Absolutely, absolutely. I think that's such a key point. We always say: "The clients bring the business expertise, we bring the user experience expertise." and so that collaboration is so important. So, over the …years of doing this -
Gregg   Decades.
Mahtab   Decades. Shh! I think you mean two to three years. No, I'm just kidding. We've identified 5 of the biggest collaboration killers that we've experienced and we want to talk about what they are. So let's get to it! Number 1.
Gregg   So number 1 is the Swoop and Poop and its cousin: Nonparticipating Power.
Mahtab   So if people don't know that the Swoop and Poop means, why don't you define that?
Gregg   So the Swoop and Poop is when we have a team of people working on creating or designing a solution and they're investing their time and their efforts and their energy in creating that solution, and together we come up with something that we think is workable and it has to be presented up the chain of stakeholders in an organization. And sometimes, within the organization there are people who weren't involved in creating that solution, but have the power to change it based on their subjective whims, or what they think is gonna be best. And it can be really discouraging for the team because, you know, again, you've been involved, you're invested, you've created this thing and then somebody who has had no involvement comes in and alters the direction based on their personal opinion. And it can be really frustrating and discouraging.
Mahtab   Yes, absolutely. And, you know, so Swoop and Poop also comes the from this idea otherwise known as The Seagull, which is where it comes from.
Gregg   Yes, exactly.
Mahtab   It's this idea that you're just going about minding your business and then a seagull, or person in charge, as it were, flies in, swoops down, just poops all over the idea, and then takes back off again, so ... And that's why we call it. Its cousin is Nonparticipating Power. So, one way, obviously then, to mitigate this is to fight and make sure that you get the decision makers as part of the team who's creating the solution.
Gregg   And that's gonna be the most effective way to deal with it. They're gonna have the most knowledge and information and be the most valuable on that team anyway, so if we can get them in the room and they feel like they've been involved in the process and they feel ... It's like the IKEA Effect, right? So, there's these studies that say people who create - if you create your furniture, if you build it from scratch with your own two hands, then you feel more attached to it.
Mahtab   Or at least you assemble it.
Gregg   You assemble it, right.
Mahtab   Yeah, yeah. We can bring the components, but they have to be involved, absolutely.
Gregg   Right, and they feel ... They actually will advocate on behalf of a solution that they created rather than pooping all over something somebody else worked on.
Mahtab   Yup. And in some organizations the decision maker - there's too much hierarchy.
Gregg   Yeah.
Mahtab   The decisions makers are simply too busy to be involved in, what they call, the “tactical” project meetings. And in those cases that's not ideal, but it's important to acknowledge that and then to really build in checkpoints and reviews, and particularly to accommodate for those in project timelines.
Gregg   Yup. And I would also advocate on behalf on making them formal check-ins. So again, to whatever extent possible, the people who are responsible for approving things feel involved in the process and feel like their opinion is being considered as these deliverables are being developed.
Mahtab   Absolutely. That's a key one. Alright, so the second collaboration killer that we've identified and have experienced...
Gregg   Oh, it's “Extreme Personalities”. So, on either end of the spectrum, on one end you've got the headstrong boss in the room, and on the other end of the spectrum you have somebody who is too timid or shy to share their experience or to share their perspective. And so that can be really challenging, especially when those people are holders of key information.
Mahtab   Absolutely, and another thing we've done when it comes to prioritization exercises where, you know, when the highest ranking person in the room says, "This is my priority," other people might just sort of, like, quiet down, or not say anything, or fall in line, is we'll give everyone in the room three stickers -
Gregg   Yup.
Mahtab   - and when we have a list of priorities, a list of audiences, a list of features, and then what we'll say is, "Everyone go put your three next to the three that matter the most to you," and that way you see the collective themes of the whole emerge, even if there's one person who far outranks everybody else, or if there's a person who's just simply too quiet to speak.
Gregg   Yeah, and along those same lines, we also create worksheets. So if there's people who aren't comfortable necessarily speaking extemporaneously, we can still capture their thoughts on paper and worksheets and we take that information and review it following the sessions and make sure that those themes are also incorporated.
Mahtab   Alright. Number 3.
Gregg   Okay! Unclear Expectations. Lack of inputs. I think when you're working on a project that whose success depends on multiple inputs from multiple different people, it's really important that those people understand what those inputs are.
Mahtab   I think that one of the main things that we are always working to do ourselves, and working to help our clients do, is to get really clear about what the objectives are and how we're gonna measure success or failure, ‘cause I think if you're not careful it can be really easy to have these projects that are really ill-defined -
Gregg   Right.
Mahtab   - and just say things like just "intent to improve" or want to "modernize," or whatever it is, and don't indicate, like, what does that mean in reality? How will we measure whether it has been improved or it has been modernized? So I think one of the things, when there's these projects or these collaboration killers, is if it's really unclear and anything can go in any direction -
Gregg   Yup.
Mahtab   - then people aren't willing to really dig in -
Gregg   Yup.
Mahtab   - just ‘cause it feels fraught.
Gregg   Yup.
Mahtab   It feels like a recipe to fail, individually and as a team.
Gregg   Yeah.
Mahtab   Let's do number 4.
Gregg   Yeah. So that's when and people "Don't Have Skin in The Game", or they don't care, or there's competing priorities within the organization about how things should be moving forward.
Mahtab   And I think when we see this is, again, I think this intersects in a way with that Nonparticipating Power.
Gregg   Of course, yeah.
Mahtab   But I do think that sense of, sometimes you get people on a project team who aren't directly contributing, so that's when you get into, like, these bloated meetings where it's hard to work together, where it's hard to really, truly collaborate, to problem solve, where you get into the thing where then people aren't sure, comfortable speaking up and engaging ‘cause there's just simply too many people there...
Gregg   Yup, absolutely. It's along the same lines if, you know, when we ask for feedback, we really encourage our clients to consolidate that and speak with one voice. And it's the same thing in any other meeting when you have different people representing the same organizational perspective and saying different things, it can get really confusing and time-wasting.
Mahtab   Absolutely. Alright, and then last, but not least...
Gregg   Politics and Hidden Agendas. This is something that we've run into quite a bit, and this is ... sometimes organizations are big and sprawling and different people within those organizations want different things and have different priorities.
Mahtab   So one thing that you can do to try and help when there's politics at play is to try and get at the "why" and make sure that you're really getting at the truth – and to create an environment where it's okay for a client to say to you: "In reality, of course we have to make this user-centric, but the reality is that this project is moving forward because it's the pet project of so-and-so." or, "Because we just had this acquisition and we need to highlight this product." or, "We have this product and it's not demoing well and we need to make the demo sexier, so this gonna be all about putting some flair…"
Gregg   "Some zip and flash and bang -"
Mahtab   Yes.
Gregg   As we've heard literally those words, "Zip!" "Flash!" and "Bang!"
Mahtab   Yes… on the interface. Yeah, "…in order to get it to sell." And when we know what the actual objectives are and what any of the politics at play are, it is so much easier for us to work with clients to make sure they are able to meet those objectives – and to balance the needs of the user.
Gregg   Yeah, it's just the matter of everybody having the same North Star and collectively understanding what that is and what we're working towards here.
Mahtab   So getting to the truth of it is really important.
Gregg   It's kind of a human behavior thing, too. It's really - This is, like, where your EQ comes in and just really… reading clients as best you can and sort of understanding what's beneath the surface and there's really no way to ... there's really no way to do this easily. You've just gotta kind of feel your way through it and ask a lot of questions.
Mahtab   Yeah, and build the trust -
Gregg   Create an environment.
Mahtab   - so that they're able to know that they can actually be truthful with all of the dynamics of the situation and not just give you one lens or one viewpoint.
Gregg   Right, or telling the way they think they want things to be rather than the way they actually are.
Mahtab   Absolutely. Alright! So, those were the Top 5 that we have encountered. Hopefully that was helpful and you recognized a few you've encountered.

Let us know if you have feedback about what we shared. If you have other questions or topics you'd like us to answer or discuss on the podcast, our contact information is on our website.
Mahtab   Thank you for listening. You can find us on SoundCloud, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher and on our website, Bye!
Gregg   Bye!


Hosted by: Mahtab Rezai
Principal & CEO

Mahtab has spent nearly two decades as a user experience designer, researcher, strategist, leader, and mentor. She has designed user experiences for companies ranging from startups to the Fortune 50.


With guest: Gregg Harrison
Vice President

Gregg’s passion for all things digital started two decades ago as a project manager in the Big Apple. This was back before any of us knew what this whole interactive thing was about and well before we knew it would some day be considered old school to use the word “interactive”.
View Gregg’s Bio


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