Building a Culture of Collaboration

Over the past decade at frog, I’ve seen a fundamental shift in the way I work as a designer and researcher, and in what it means to be a creative agency: where we once designed to change customer behaviors, we now must design to impact both customer behaviors and the behaviors of our client companies.

This has required a mind shift in the way we work and the tools we use. For many frogs, this mind shift happens naturally as we seek to deliver successful work, but as a global team we’ve needed to take this shift at scale. Over the past several years, we have been evaluating the tools, techniques, and approaches common across successful programs to determine how creative teams can consistently and effectively impact a client’s ability to make a great vision take root within their organization.

There are many structural, organizational, and technical reasons a great idea may not come to market, and many have been written about elsewhere. I won’t rehash them here, but, as any designer or innovator who has seen a great vision stymied by a rigid internal structure knows, the quality of the insights, product, or service often are not enough to change set perspectives within an organization.

A strong culture of collaboration is one of the most consistent success factors among teams where a vision takes hold. As my teams work with clients today, we often help them build a culture of creative collaboration for great user experiences, at the same time we design that experience for the end user.



Creative Collaboration for Great UX

As an anthropologist and design researcher, I see a culture of collaboration as the social fabric, connections, and shared understandings that make it possible for multidisciplinary teams to collaborate.

Let me ask you to pause here a moment to reflect on what defines the culture of your team today. Think about how you identify when someone is in your ‘tribe’ or know when they fall outside the shared set of beliefs and common purpose of your team.

For me, the culture of collaboration at frog is defined by things like our shared traditions – from Fancy Fridays, to how our global design research team supports each other when we start a new global program; to a shared sense of humor and a penchant to make above all else; to the willingness to work together, and to constantly reeducate ourselves about how each of our colleagues works best.

As you think about what contributes to the culture of your team’s collaboration—both the good and the bad—consider these four levers:

  • Values – What do we believe is important?
  • Goals – Why are we here?
  • Assumptions – What do we believe to be true?
  • Processes – How do we structure our relationships?

Each of these aspects support and reinforce each other within the organization. When one lever shifts, the others can prevent any attempt to change how things exist today.

Success Factors for Driving Change

While working with a range of clients—from the large multinational engineering firms to humanitarian non-profits—we have seen several key trends that move all four of the culture levers: values, goals, assumptions, and processes.

Inspire: Having leadership that sets a clear vision for the future, which is both closely tied to the business goals and the new emphasis, is critical. Executive sponsorship opens doors and provides teams with permission to experiment with and evolve new approaches. There are many ways this future vision may be grounded – sometimes it is a market shift that challenges the company’s survival, or sometimes it is a compelling story of a single user that puts the need in immediate tangible context.

Inspiration is a significant driver for the Values and Goals levers. The key to inspiration, which many companies forget, is that it must be sustained and evolve with the other cultural levers over time.

Support: Organizational commitment tied to the company future is critical, but without a corresponding set of tools and tangible guidance that enables teams to experience a new way of working tied to that vision, it is hard for teams to believe in the change.

Support drives the Process lever and takes many forms, from a new lead for user experience or experiential training, to access to assets, or a competition for budget. The common factor is that it makes the vision tangible and invites others to engage with the vision.

Manifest: Both vision and tangible expressions provide a story and a way to make the story real, but for an organization to experience success, the new way of thinking must fully come to life. Usually the change is first manifested through pilot programs initiated to demonstrate profit or success, which are then expanded and further adopted through new processes.

For many organizations it is tempting to start with Manifest by bringing in a new set of processes as a forcing function to drive change. However, unless these new processes emerge with the support, language, and realities of the internal culture, they tend to feel foreign and often fail. Pilot programs that take a new Process and customize it to the host organization, integrating new Goals and exemplifying new Assumptions, are more likely to succeed than the wholesale adoption of new processes from outside.

Reflect: Designing great user experiences is fundamentally a reflective process of asking what works, why, and how can we improve. In our experience, organizational success is about building a functional and collaborative user experience for your own teams. Actively reflect on what worked, and drive continual learning and refinement of your own processes and approaches.

The work of reflection enables the project and leadership teams to quickly adapt as they examine how the cultural levers of Values, Goals, Assumptions and Processes are moving.

Together these success factors can empower design teams, as their work expands from a focus on the end user’s experience of a product to include the client’s capacity to own and lead with a product vision and new ways of working. At frog we’ve looked back over 40 years of design and innovation and reflected on the practices that work internally to get teams of disparate thinkers—with different goals, languages, and styles—to collaborate effectively. From these insights we generated a toolkit of the best methods and now use it with a range of clients to help them rethink how they work and collaborate. In the spirit of the success factors above, we continually reflect on how well it works.

Watch Turi present during the UX Awards earlier in 2015.


Turi McKinley
Executive Director, Org Activation, frog New York
Turi McKinley
Turi McKinley
Executive Director, Org Activation, frog New York

Turi McKinley focuses on developing frog’s design research, participatory design and creative collaboration skills. She partners closely with companies seeking to develop new skillsets and capabilities for user-centered design and innovation.

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