Collaboration killers: the most common pitfalls for client teams working with consultants

Collaboration, always. That is one of our guiding principles at Crux Collaborative. And we live by it. We put collaboration at the center of our process, so we’ve had ample opportunity to experience mistakes (and to learn from those mistakes) when collaborating with client teams.

When we’re scoping and kicking off projects, we’re often asked by clients how their team can facilitate project success and what the most common pitfalls and risk factors are. Here are 8 of the most common behaviors that act as collaboration killers and threaten project success:

1. Not telling the (whole) truth

At the outset of every project, we establish objectives – the business objectives and the user objectives. In an ideal scenario, there is a strong alignment between the two. However, the realities of business are that sometimes what an organization wants and needs to happen doesn’t always align with what users want and need.

In those instances, identifying the friction points is critical at the outset of the project. Knowing about the potential issues and conflicts enables the consultant and project teams to work together to most effectively bridge the gaps. Not having these issues clearly outlined only causes confusion and potential points of failure for the project.

In our experience, client teams sometimes struggle to be upfront about where and when business needs are in conflict with user needs. Not providing all the information to the consultants you’ve hired to do the work can result in an unfortunate scenario where an approach or solution is met with resistance – even though it seemingly meets defined objectives. In the most severe scenario, it can cause entire initiatives to stall or fail.

2. Power dynamics and politics

Every organization has some degree of power dynamics and politics. The most common mistake client teams make around this topic is not communicating or mis-communicating which team members have the ultimate decision making authority.

Collaborative design works best when the people with the power to make decisions are the same people participating in the process. If the people with the power to approve decisions and deliverables aren’t part of the team, it helps no one to keep this information hush-hush or not acknowledge it.

In an ideal scenario those individuals would participate in the collaboration, but if the situation cannot be changed, then at a minimum the project schedule can be planned to accommodate the necessary time to get on the calendar of the appropriate executives, get feedback, make revisions, etc. in order to get approval prior to moving from one project phase to another.

3. Conflating stakeholder and user needs

If you find yourself saying “Well, what I would do…” or “Well if it were me….” SLOW DOWN. The most common mistake project teams make is putting themselves in the place of the user or assuming their needs and understanding are a legitimate representation of user needs and understanding.

We say this with full confidence: You are not the target audience.

Even if you share many characteristics with them, you are not the target audience. For one, you are employed by the organization making the product or delivering the service. Even if you use the product or service, by nature of working for the company that provides it, you have an awareness, understanding, and knowledge of the industry, of the data, of the specifics and limitations that users do not have. It will not result in project success to continually push to have a solution be the one you personally prefer.

4. Not giving your full attention (at key times)

Like many other parts of life, there are times when an project requires a period of intense focus and times where you can maintain an ambient awareness and multi-task. Everyone is busy. And whether it’s the client team or the consulting team, it’s unlikely that the current project is the only one any of you are assigned to.

However, collaboration is an activity that requires focus and attention. At the end of the day, if you can’t give your attention during a 90 minute meeting or a two hour working session, it sends a message to everyone involved, and that message is: “This project really isn’t that important to me.”

As consultants, we pride ourselves on delivering excellent results, but successful project outcomes are difficult to deliver when the person on whom you rely for key information, input, and feedback doesn’t respond to your questions or requests because they are not focused on the work you’re doing together.

Make the time and put in the effort to be present for the key collaboration touch points and meetings. It will make a significant impact on the success of the project and your relationship with the consulting team.

5. Withholding your expertise

More often than not, this occurs when an individual on the client team is used to working with agencies. Quite often, the agency model supports a construct where the “creatives” go away, “solve” the problem, and come back with a “big reveal” and are perceived as the heroes while the in-house teams are given little to no credit or power for the day to day work they do to support, maintain and grow the products and services.

In this model, one of the only sources of power left to client teams is to find things that the agency team missed- to have a “gotcha” moment and point out flaws in the proposed solution.

The agency model is diametrically opposed to a collaborative approach where both teams work together to define and refine a solution and there simply isn’t a “big reveal” moment, but if members of a client team are unfamiliar with a collaborative approach, they may not share all the relevant details in the hopes of being able have their own “big reveal” moment when providing feedback on the proposed solution.

Establishing the ground rules up front about the importance of showing up with, and sharing your expertise is a key component in avoiding this pitfall.

6. Not taking accountability for content

Being familiar with, designing to, and accounting for content will always promote project success. If you work in a regulated or specialized industry, content becomes even more critical.

But there is a key differentiator when it comes to content for regulated industries that serves the needs of data-driven, transactional experiences. Content understanding, ownership, and oversight belong to the client team.

As user experience consultants, we will never be as familiar with the FDA, FDIC, IRS and other regulatory requirements as your business analysts and legal team. We will never be as familiar with the data constraints and dependencies as your development team. We will never be as effective at explaining the complexities of all of this to your users as your internal communications team who specializes in this work. What we can do, is collaborate with each of those teams to facilitate an outcome that meets the needs of your users and your business alike. But that means that we need access to the content and those who create, maintain, and update the content. Early and often.

7. Not paying attention until visual design

We’ll be the first to admit that visual design is the phase of the project when the solution begins to feel the most “real”, but it is not the right phase of the project to be identifying and communicating key requirements, redefining structural elements, or sharing the specifics of a user flow for the first time.

Paying attention to what is being proposed, defined, prioritized and agreed-upon at every phase of the project is a key component of project success — especially from a timing and budget perspective. If you’re not clear what a deliverable is communicating at an earlier phase, it is okay to ask for clarification, or for someone to spend the time to review it with you to your satisfaction.

We appreciate clients who are able to ask for more information and detail. We are happy to take the time to make sure all the details of one phase are clear and understood before moving on to the next phase.

8. Paying too much attention to looks and not enough to functionality

Design patterns are important. Consistency is important. These are the elements that comprise the visual and functional vocabulary of your product and help users learn and use tools effectively. They are also tools in service to the user experience and not the only factors to consider.

It can be easy when looking at design concepts to focus on visual details and forget to consider their function. When possible, we prefer to use prototypes to help avoid or alleviate issues where we are evaluating form and function separately to the detriment of both.

When providing feedback on a design, make sure to consider how the interface is functioning in context of the user’s task – in addition to how the design looks. Just because a 2-dimensional print out of an interface looks long and overwhelming doesn’t mean that it will function that way when a user is able to scan and scroll through the content quickly on a device. Just because an confirmation message looks too subtle on a design comp doesn’t mean that it will feel that way with an accompanying visual movement or animation when it appears on screen.

Collaboration takes practice

Collaboration is rewarding and effective. It is also messy and takes practice. We hope that sharing some of the lessons we’ve learned over the years will help you be more successful in your collaboration as well. Are there any big collaboration killers we missed? Let us know. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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