Improving Collaboration in Design Teams

vectorstock_1956574contributed by  Jeff Caldwell

In the collaborative world of design, working together is key. When you’re planning a renovation or creating a new structure, there are many individuals involved in the process, all of whom must come together to create the finished product, from the project architect (PA) and the client to the civil engineers and the landscape architects. So how do you get so many different perspectives on the same page? Can you? Are there ways to encourage effective collaboration and amicable partnerships? The good news is yes. With that in mind, to help you get your key players functioning as a uniform whole, here are key tips for boosting collaboration, communication and, by extension, success in your upcoming projects.

1. Make Communication a Priority

The most important factor in how successfully a design team functions is how well its members communicate with each other and with clients. The finance team could have a certain budget in place, but the architects are making changes without discussing them with finance staff, leading to overspending and tension among the team members. That’s why everyone on the team needs to keep everyone else apprised of developments, changes and concerns throughout the process. How can you make this easier for your specific group?

  • Assess Your Team: When assessing your team's ability to communicate, don't just look at project managers and assume that they're good indicators of the way things are. Decision-making staff may think they're being perfectly clear when actually they’re not as insightful or straightforward as they believe, especially when it comes to technical issues. To truly assess how things are going, garner responses from architects, designers, engineers, the client and so on. Ask for confirmations to gauge comprehension of the team’s goals and projects, and make open feedback an intrinsic part of the way you conduct business.
  • Establish Specific Processes: Put processes in place for your projects in order to establish who does what, and when and how. Give team members a place to go with problems. Provide a format or software for regular collaboration. “A good process establishes the roles and responsibilities, sets expectations around communication with other teams and aids in defining deliverables for the team,” says Mitch Ruebush at Developer Fusion. “Once you have a process you can work at making it more efficient and showing value through metrics and successful interactions with other business and IT processes.” When everyone on your team knows his or her responsibilities and is given the tools and time to accomplish them, your team automatically functions better.

2. Set Clear Expectations for Sharing

There are countless situations in which sharing can cause team conflicts. For instance, designers who have to share their work areas with engineers may be hurting for space yet feel uncomfortable about voicing their concerns. In other cases, a single team member in the same department may dominate his or her peers due to perceived seniority or some other factor. When one person on the team overrides the preferences and needs of the others, it's harder for people to work together.

That’s why you must establish standards for sharing. It's fine to institute a hierarchy based on seniority or performance, but ensure that you set the ground rules early on so that nobody abuses their privileges. While considering workplace preferences, such as meeting times, resource accessibility and other critical factors, never rely on unfounded opinions without making a detailed empirical assessment. Try different schemes and evaluate them based on open group feedback to determine which facilitates superior functionality.

3. Provide Accountability and Reward Do your team members feel that their work actually matters, or do they feel like anyone could fill their role? One of the potential drawbacks to group organization is that some people tend to sit back and let others pick up the slack, particularly if they feel undervalued or unmotivated. If your landscape designers are treated as the unimportant extras in a project, it will affect collaboration. If the engineers don’t give the project architects adequate space to do their job, it will create problems. And while you could write off work conflicts as something caused by the few bad apples in any group, the truth is that the corporate culture you create also plays a major role.

It's important to recognize team members for their positive output as well as their mistakes. So while instituting penalties for failure is largely unproductive, incentivizing people to succeed will often motivate them to work together and compete in a healthy fashion as they build designs and complete projects. Set the tone by showing your appreciation for those who do things right, and others will follow suit in creating a more positive corporate culture. This encourages teamwork across your staff and provides incentive for collaboration.

Whatever structural design project you’re managing, teamwork is critical. Learn how to recognize the signs of cooperation, and facilitate free and open feedback in order to see drastic improvements in the way your staff accomplishes tasks. About the author: Jeff Caldwell is Brand Manager of Litchfield Landscape Elements in Carrollton, GA. Litchfield Landscape Elements accepts shelter design challenges from designers, landscape architects, and architects around the world, creating custom shelters specific to your outdoor needs.