Collaboration – where do you begin? Six steps for your design team to get collaborative

A couple of days ago I concluded the three day Design for the Long Haul workshop with the team of teachers from an elementary school in Toronto. The ideas around learning design-thinking, collaboration and empathy mapping were relatively new to most of them. But they were up for the challenge.

As a methodology, design-thinking is inclusive, it challenges long-held assumptions and creates new possibilities. To be effective for the long haul the process needs to be sustainable and embedded in the culture.

In this workshop, each stage, each day, builds on the last. A lot of time is spent on core practices, modelling a culture of empathy and collaboration, these are the foundations. In terms of empathy, the ‘user’, the subject of the design is the focus. For me, the essence of learning design is to create an ‘each-learner’ culture, especially the hard-to-reach, asking

How might this student experience success?

How might this student feel they belong?

Collaboration is the vehicle that drives the process of design and it needs to be fit-for-purpose. A family of four can’t easily get around in a sports coupe, or a city transportation system can’t rely on whim of the drivers to get people to work on time. The vehicle needs the right specifications, as well as systems and processes that make it all work.

They were still unable to truly achieve the desired outcome because they confused pleasant, cooperative behaviour with collaboration.

HBR Blog, April 2015

This remains one of my favourite quotes. When we are truly collaborative there is curiosity, disagreement, uncertainty and humility. Letting go of our own ideas, being open to something new and accepting the decision of the team is fundamental to success.

Merely bringing people together around a whiteboard, a pile of post-it notes, and a problem to be solved isn’t necessarily collaboration, either. In her recent post on Medium, Jaya Ramchandani outlines eight practices for successful collaboration, each deserving further elaboration (Read the article here, it also includes a helpful planning tool)

The first on the list is “Start with mutual trust and respect”. Each person on the design team puts aside agendas, believes in the process and has faith the outcome. Meirink et al researched teacher learning and collaboration, finding that that effective collaboration, in a trust-based context, encouraged the teachers in the research to let go of existing beliefs and try something new. This is a huge step. Reaching that level of trust takes time, ultimately leading to interdependency amongst design team members.

From Meirink and colleague’s research, I adapted these levels of collaboration.

I have been thinking about all this as I reflect on the workshop this week. Whether the context is empathic design of learning, rather than content delivery; an irritant problem that won’t go away; or a strategy for professional growth, when collaboration is relatively new, how do you begin?

  1. Create the ‘Design Team’ – a committed group of people who genuinely want to explore a new way forward
  2. Put aside the way you’ve typically worked, and ask those who usually have all the answers to play along
  3. Seek agreement from each person to trust the process (and each other)
  4. Identify the common problem and reframe it into a question:
    ‘How might we…so that…?’
  5. Agree on a strategy or tool to facilitate the process (open dialogue will just lead you down the same old path)
  6. Stick with the process – prototype and test solutions (until the design team agree on the way ahead)



Ashkenas, R (2015), There’s a difference between cooperation and collaboration HBR (Blog), April 20, 2015

Meirink, Imants, Meijer & Verloop (2010) “Teacher learning and collaboration in innovative teams”, Cambridge Journal of Education, 40:2, 161-181

Ramchandani, J. (2019) “Successful collaboration starts with eight simple practices

A beginner’s canvas for making collaborations work”
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