Silos are for farming, not web design. Interdisciplinary Teams

Written by Steve Fisher

June 11, 2014

Everyone is a design-thinker and can be part of creating elegant solutions to ugly problems. The stumbling block is often the label we give to people or teams and the artificial barriers we create. Last week I had a great chat with Dave Bellous, one of the Directors at Yellow Pencil, about team leadership. We were looking at a three year engagement that kicked-off with an intense first year for an intra/extra/internet project. The type of project a company like Yellow Pencil is excellent at and fully equipped to handle. The thing that is so hard about a project like this is there are so many moving parts. On a project like this, internal team communication can be as difficult as any external team (client and vendor) communication. It doesn’t need to be this way, but we set ourselves up for difficultly so many times.

It's time to work together

Many of the successful projects I have worked on in the past have been setup using the waterfall method. Nothing wrong with that, unless it creates barriers to communication and overall team unification. I’ve seen so many projects start well and then struggle and go over budget in later phases such as the development phase. At first glance this might seem to indicate that something is wrong with the development portion of the project or the team working at that phase, but that’s not the issue. The issue is really project vision, team structure, and leadership. Let me break it down.

Project vision

Any project that sets out without a vision and succeeds is lucky. While it’s nice to be lucky, I’d rather have a leg up on the house and win every time. A project vision guides all the decisions made throughout the lifecycle of a project without restricting the possibility of growth. I don’t mean scope creep, I mean growing to a larger potential. Something even better than what we were able to picture clearly at the start, without exploding budgets. ;)

When I create a project vision, it isn’t in isolation. No one person should draft this guiding document. It should be collaborative. Typically I involve the client’s project sponsor, vendor project sponsor, key stakeholders, key roles from the vendor side (technical architect, content strategist, designer, BA), and of course the experience lead (me). This creates a sense of ownership, but also brings a breadth of perspective that is healthy and needed. Initially we all see the vision differently, but work to come to a point were we are aligned and thrilled to be tracking together. It’s fun to be on the same page!

Design principles

These are the values that guide all our work on a project. They bring us back to center when we stray off course. Here are the RoQ design principles:

  1. Connectedness Breaking down barriers to connect people to people.
  2. Empathy Focus on compassion and understanding our emotional common ground.
  3. Insight The context of our data matters.
  4. Solutions Everything we do moves organizations towards their goals.
  5. Social Good We are here to make the world a better place.

These guide every decision we make. They aren’t rules to be broken, rather signposts to follow. These are for our company, but I’m a big believer that every project needs to have principles to follow. That way, if a group is making a decision about content modelling, a particular feature, or how to move forward with the development approach, the signposts can guide everyone back to the vision. Again, these should be created as a collaborative effort. Sure, someone needs to take the lead and ultimately be responsible for the final draft, but trust me, together is better.

Everyone is just as important on a project. Some play larger roles, some only share a single idea, but all voices need to be heard and understood.

Lost in translation

What is the best team ever? The team that has great communication and collaboration. Any team can have this, but I’ve found that it’s easier for interdisciplinary teams. To have a BA, technical architect, experience architect, designer, developer, content strategist, project manager all working together throughout the lifecycle of a project... that’s when the magic happens. So many ideas, possibilities, early discoveries (both opportunities and problems), quick conversations, and ultimately a deeper understanding of the project and each other. This is what we need! Unfortunately, we don’t always get what we want.

Too often we end up in situations where a research team hands off deliverables to a design team that hands off deliverables to a development team that... you get the picture. So much communication is scrambled and lost. People usually have the best of intentions, but when we aren’t spending regular time working together, things get lost in translation.

No project documentation is as good as regular conversation.

We create silos within a project when we don’t work together as interdisciplinary teams. It isn’t intentional, but eventually teams start to feel like they are “right” or may even begin to resent other teams that are working on the same project. The research team that so carefully documented all the experience and business needs, feels like they weren’t heard because of the decisions made in development. On the flip side, the dev team doesn’t understand why they weren’t consulted earlier on the project and perhaps really don’t understand what the overall experience is supposed to turn out like and why. If everyone had been working together from the start, there might be a lot more smiles during and at the end of a project. Probably just as many fights during, but the good kind. The kind of fight that means there will be a better result because deeper understanding was the result.

So how do we do this?

Having a project lead is the key to all of this. A person on the project that can guide the vision from the start to the end. Understanding both the experience and technical aspects. This is a role I love to play on projects. It’s difficult, but so rewarding to lead a team and see them accomplish great things. There is a lot of checking in, refreshing the vision in everyone’s mind, tackling conflict head on, and encouraging fun. While ultimately it is about the project vision, it is also about keep people from getting trapped in silos. Collaboration #ftw.

Everyone on a project should consider themselves a design thinker, creating elegant solutions through collaboration.