Re-designing Collaboration

July 1, 2007 · by James P. Cramer

A rich discussion overflowed well into the adjournment period of our recent Design Futures Council Leadership Roundtable held at Seven World Trade Center in New York City.

A rich discussion overflowed well into the adjournment period of our recent Design Futures Council Leadership Roundtable held at Seven World Trade Center in New York City. The discussion revolved around the new possibilities and emerging models of professional collaboration. At the end of the survey reports and roundtable discussion the idea sharing continued beyond adjournment, through a hurried walk amidst wind and rain, onto the northbound subway and finally to the New York Yacht Club's Commodore room. This lively exchange set the stage for discussion on new collaboration models.

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Clark Davis of HOK moderated the meeting, which was hosted by Skidmore, Owings and Merrill's Phil Enquist and The Beck Group's Peter Beck. This issue of DesignIntelligence captures some of the content shared in New York and further explores collaboration processes that are quickly becoming vital in a design profession morphing toward more team concept orientations.

We are experiencing a time of transition, from solo artist to highly talented collaborative teams, re-designing processes and project management success. Today design leaders and their organizations are challenging the artist's function and making collaboration a top priority. This is often not an easy decision or direction.

The decision-making process in some professional practices is accomplished in silos or through semi-private separate functions without much thought to the new benefits realized from collaborative processes. The cultural DNA of the professional practice often has to be re-formulated, and the tremendous gravitation forces of tradition can be difficult to overcome.

From our research at Greenway Group and the DFC, we know that the solo artist often looks for laser precision and focus, and in this they frequently use separate, often inefficient processes. As a result, the handoffs to sub-consultants, product manufacturers, and contractors are frequently expensive and costly to the total project, quite so in some cases. These processes are not just wasteful but they can generate a far lower level of design quality than more collaborative and talented teams can achieve.

There are numerous impediments to collaboration. They are hidden inside the cultural norms of organizations. For instance, some firms use tightly written job descriptions that narrow, rather than expand, a talented person's role in a firm. Often, these same job descriptions actually work against collaboration models. These well-intended, specific job descriptions tend to anchor people into separate functions, thus, a systematic yet largely dysfunctional system is maintained that controls rather than sets free talent and productivity. It is this restricted talent and productivity that potentially inhibits design firms from achieving the dynamism and flexibility required for managing ongoing production dilemmas. We have found that specific job descriptions are often not good for much except reinforcing and recognizing experience, and they usually miss the big picture in addressing team success. Job descriptions can also be overly self-centered and can ultimately lead to the hardening of the organization's arteries.

Structured, silo-oriented hierarchies also tend to promote a more linear (i.e., traditional) approach to design dilemmas rather than a simultaneous and overlapping systems approach. Moreover, tightly controlled and refined job descriptions can slow the metamorphosis and the teaming models needed with today's successful design management.

The errors stem from a failure to recognize that different approaches are needed to liberate teamwork in organizations. The essence of the studio culture in firms must be about this sense of teamwork. In addition, each team needs a capable quarterback. This activates new models that win. The solution to collaboration success is for firms to discover their optimal DNA teaming process and differentiate it for their own hybrid success, discovering a structure that emphasizes a prime accountability to clients, not inefficient old outmoded habit designers that, at the very best, serve theory.

The DFC leadership roundtable in New York City proves that there is more than enough expertise to work out collaborative solutions and that the urgency to do so is being felt by those who can make a difference. Moreover, collaboration will define the new professional. This professional will do the job of collaborating on each project – without selfish compromise.

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