A continuum of design engagements

This is a personal “working theory”, arising from various situations with virtual and local teams over the past few years, around the notion of “collaboration”…

While collaboration is heavily championed as vital for team and company success, I really see it as just ONE part of a dynamic continuum of team-based social interactions of varying degrees, each with their own benefits for different contexts or purposes. And I’d suggest there’s something more valuable than “collaboration”—it’s something called “partnership”, whereby a solidly mutual, integrative relationship of interdependent success / failure is deeply seeded in the values, attitudes, statements, and actions of the partners. Everyone is in it together, hell or high water, so to speak :-) Committed to the end, period.

If you think about it, there’s a continuum of design relationships that emerges over time with peer teams (engineering, marketing, etc.). The success factors that define that relationship include (among other things) — shared goals, level of trust, types of engagement, contextual factors such as virtual vs on-site, critical dependencies (tasks vs knowledge), and even financial incentives. These factors determine whether your team is enjoying basic coordination, cooperation towards a purpose, collaboration on outcomes, or partnership for lasting value. Let’s take a closer look…

Coordination: This implies a time-based choreography of isolated activities, to ensure dependencies are satisfied and the “critical path” of meeting a deadline is secured. Truly, the basics of project management, representing the lowest bar of team capability to work together.  

Cooperation: This suggests another basic level of team engagement, with minimal viable trust and respect to ensure accountable accurate delivery of artifacts for similarly valued goals.This involves at minimum information sharing & access, leveraging files/content across sources, and fostering feedback and inputs from other people in a respectful, beneficial manner.  

Collaboration: Ah, the golden sweet spot per mass business literature ;-)  This is where everyone is working together in real-time, real-space (virtual/physical), co-location/co-temporal, sharing, discussing, interacting, fully present and committed to the project goals for mutual success. There is indeed a shared bond of “co-creation” and supporting each other with healthy team dynamics, with good conflict and positive argument, whereby team learning and growing transpires.

Partnership: This is the “advanced” level, truly involving a long-term, strategic, values-driven shared mutually dependent understanding of collective success and risk-taking. Decision-making is fully transparent and informed with full recognition of every members’ due value. Co-creation, co-planning, co-interpretation of results for strategizing the next round…this is what it means to be partners, with maximum investment of time and energy for mutually assured sustainable success. 

There is one more thing…Camaraderie maybe that invisible glue (aka “secret sauce”) required for a certain degree of hospitable engagement. Not being “friends” per se, but more about enjoying the presence of others, taking energy from it, giving it back in a virtuous cycle of building a professional, beneficial rapport, with constructive inputs/supportive outputs, Of course, mutual trust and respect are big parts of this, latent concepts made apparent in the actions and results of people involved in the team, bounded by the constraints of time/money/tools/requirements, which shape the relationship, as much as the product development results themselves.

Now, I realize this all might seem like semantic hair-splitting to some. I believe that having nuanced degrees of understanding can help suss out any underlying issues adversely impacting a team’s dynamic. It’s all about clarity—what stage of relationship are you really having and is everyone aware and in agreement about it? Otherwise, a host of unstated assumptions and expectations silently churn in everyone’s minds, leading to unnecessary friction and eventual blow-ups. 

Finally, just a small caveat… This continuum framework implies that partnership is the highest level to achieve, but it not be ideal for every situation! After all, the pragmatics of building relationships does involve varying & limited resources of people, time, and energy. Not everything can, nor should be, a beautiful wondrous partnership. The more transient and ephemeral the results, the more it leans towards basic coordination and cooperation. The more legacy level impact of broad impact, deeply affecting goals and values of a process, team, or culture…even the attitudes of an entire market or customer base, then the more a partnership is sought. It comes back to what’s the level of impact and value, and is it receiving the appropriate level of engagement from the team members involved? Hopefully this working theory offers a structure and language to think through such an important question.

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