A Quick Guide to Designing Collaboration

Cartoon of two figures facing one another, smiling. One has question marks above his head. The other has lightbulbs. The image represents collaboration, asking questions, and generating ideas.
Image source: nugroho dwi hartawan on Pixabay 

First of all, let’s agree on one principle: Collaboration doesn’t just happen. 

You can’t just schedule a meeting and expect that the people who will be in attendance will collaborate. Collaboration is “the action of working with someone to produce or create something.” (Oxford) 

Collaboration is not getting together and having an unstructured conversation where someone might take notes and at the end you go over your allotted time by two minutes while the meeting lead scrambles to identify actions that should be taken. 

Collaboration is action. It is work. It has outcomes which are produced or created through this work and action. 

And this is why so many meetings suck. It’s why so many people suck at remote work. It’s why so many folks are complaining about being drained after they spend their whole day in meetings and work bleeds into their home life since they can’t get anything done during working hours. 

It’s why I avoid meetings as much as I can and take every opportunity to schedule working sessions, workshops, demos, and other purpose-driven sessions with my colleagues and team members. (Sometimes we do have to have meetings with other teams, but if we are leading them, we design them.) 

On my team, it’s known that: If you need to get something done with other people, book a working session. If you need help on your work, book an Unstuck Meeting. If you want to chat, go for a coffee. 

Any scheduled session should generate value for everyone who attends. 20 people gathered for 1 hour is 20 hours of productive time. By designing the session, you can optimize the use of everyone's time. 

So how do you design collaboration? 

The best thing about this approach is that it works in person and online. So no matter where or how you work, you can use these techniques. 

Step 1: Identify the purpose 

If you don’t have a clear purpose, you can’t determine whether your session is productive or even when it should end. How do you know you’ve reached your goal if you haven’t identified what it is? When I teach workshop design, I ask people to work through this set of questions: 
  1. What are you designing? A meeting, a working session, a workshop, or a discussion? Why is the session happening? 
  2. What are you trying to do? What will you do the next day? What kind of information will you need to do that? 
  3. What is the information gap? What information do you have now? What are you missing? What is the best way to fill that gap? Who can help? 
  4. How should you structure the session? What are your burning questions? What is the best activity to elicit the information you need from the people who have it? 
Some examples of session purpose include: 
  • Idea generation 
  • Sorting 
  • Mapping 
  • Scanning 
  • Designing 
  • Blueprinting 
  • Planning 
  • Validating 
  • Reflecting 
Once you have the purpose, then you can move on to the next 3 steps: design, facilitation and delivery. 

Step 2: Design 

This step requires some iteration to get it right. There are countless structured activities to choose from depending on your purpose. Knowing what you want to achieve will help you focus your energies on the right activity for the task. 

To know if you are selecting the right activity for the session, you actually need to test and iterate. Try it out with another person and see if the structure and flow will elicit the information you need. Dark patterns testing works well here: you can test the activity by trying to think of only wrong inputs and answers, to determine activity fit and plan how you will mitigate disruptions if the conversation goes awry. 

Sample activities: 
  • Brain writing 
  • Brainstorming 
  • Card sorting 
  • Mapping (roadmap, process map, journey map, empathy map)
  • Scanning (environmental scan, horizon scan) 
  • User research (personas, storyboard, scenarios) 
  •  Designing (design jam, prototype) 
  • Service blueprint 
  • Timeline 
  • Structured review (facilitated discussion, walk-through) 
  • Priority setting (ranking, voting) 

Step 3: Facilitate 

This is where so many people struggle. People tend to underestimate the importance of facilitation and lean on their presentation skills. But good presenters do not necessarily make good facilitators. 

A facilitator must lead the activities, keep the conversation moving, and most importantly: remove themselves from the narrative

The facilitator should be unbiased and invested in facilitating a good discussion, not pushing an agenda or defending the work. I teach facilitators that exposition (providing detailed explanations) comes across as defensive in a workshop setting. The facilitator should focus on speaking the least and asking the most questions. 

For example, rather than launch into an explanation, my go-to reply to challenging or negative input is: “Fascinating. Can you elaborate on that?” 

The purpose of a facilitated session is rarely consensus. It’s usually to gather enough information to produce something in the session or to take that information away and produce something after the session. Everyone doesn’t need to agree but everyone should have the chance to contribute. 

Step 4: Deliver 

During the session, I like to document the inputs visually so that the participants can see their contributions and clarify if they are being captured incorrectly, whether that means providing each person with a marker and post-its to document their own thoughts or if that means showing a document on-screen so that they can see their comments being scribed. 

Once the session is completed, take the outputs and document them in whatever form will help you complete the next step you identified when you answered “What will you do the next day?”

Is this a lot of work?

You might be thinking: “Ugh, really? All this work? I just want to hold a meeting.” Really? Based on the title of this post, I thought you were here because you wanted to collaborate. If you want to create space for effective collaboration, the kind that generates outcomes, then you need to do the work. But in the long run, this is less work than the alternative where your day is spent in meetings and you try to get your work done afterwards. 

I know which option I prefer. 😉

If you try out this method, feel free to let me know on Twitter: @spydergrrl.

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