Collaborate Better Handbook

Understanding Your Colleagues

Unlock collaborative potential


Collaboration comes easiest when we have a good rapport with our colleagues. Each of us approaches our work from different perspectives informed by diverse life experiences. And while diversity of perspective is a powerful asset to any team, if we don’t understand our colleagues and how they see the world, communication miscues can trip up partnerships.

In this chapter, we’ll take a look at how Design Better Podcast guests have honed their skills at reading people and the specific techniques they’ve developed that unlocked their collaborative potential.

Diversity fuels creativity and innovation

Benjamin Earl Evans, formerly the product inclusion lead at Airbnb, helped us see just how essential diversity is to healthy teams where collaboration and creativity thrive. Different perspectives inspire debate and, at times, disagreement. And although this might occasionally slow down collaboration, Evans told us that’s not a bad thing. Creative tension and debate drive innovation:  

Diversity’s just a central part of creativity. When you have homogenous teams and everyone thinks, feels, or acts in similar ways, yes you get to ship products often quicker. It’s actually somewhat easier to collaborate in those environments because there are far fewer things to disagree on as you collaborate together, compared to a much more diverse team. But the solutions and insights you get from having a team that is from such diverse backgrounds, that’s where real innovation comes from. And in fact only recently I was in London doing a talk on innovation and something occurred to me: diversity and inclusion has always been the core of innovation. If innovation is about taking two ideas that are different and overlaying them and mixing them, then that means the more you do that, the more opportunities there are for innovation and the more creativity there is. Benjamin Earl Evans, Airbnb

Though universal agreement may feel comfortable, it’s not the best way to drive creativity or innovation. Disagreement is an essential component of a healthy collaboration. Embrace it and the diverse perspectives your colleagues bring to your work.

Diverse perspectives have additional benefits, too. Steve Johnson and Rochelle King, close collaborators at Netflix, have consciously invested in making their design and creative production teams diverse. The return on their investments has been good for the business:

I have actually seen, when you ask about the ROI of inclusion, I have seen a measurable impact on our numbers because we have made decisions that came out of suggestions or insights that we would’ve never gotten if we hadn’t had folks on our team who could authentically represent those perspectives. —Rochelle King, Netflix 

Netflix serves a global audience and a profusion of cultures. Diversity on the teams designing the platform and making production decisions helps the company better understand customers and create content that’s attractive to different customer segments, and has inspired productive collaboration for years at this wildly successful company. 

The ROI of diversity compounds when spread to teams at all levels, including the executive suite. As Steve Johnson told us, the diversity in your organization should mirror the diversity of your customers: 

Beyond building diverse teams, there’s something else we need to build to have healthy collaboration—rapport.

Building trust and developing empathy

Early in my career, I had a myopic view of collaboration. I wanted to jump straight to work without getting to know my colleagues personally, which felt like a poor use of my time. Boy, was I wrong about that. 

A healthy rapport with colleagues is foundational for any collaboration. The people you work with are more than fellow employees or project partners—they’re people with hopes, fears, flaws, and virtues. Taking time to get to know your colleagues will help you see that, like you, they bring good intentions to their work. And, like you, they have blindspots and make mistakes. When work gets stressful or collaboration gets hairy, a strong rapport with your colleagues will often help you weather the challenges you face together and make it easier to get your work back on track.

Now that I’m much further along in my career, I recognize that building a good rapport with other people isn’t a poor use of my time—it’s the first step in any collaboration. 

As you rise through the ranks in your company, getting to know people from teams you don’t even work with or who have recently been hired is increasingly important. Steve Johnson constantly impresses his colleagues in the executive suite at Netflix with how many people he knows in the company. He spends a lot of time with employees throughout the organization to make sure everyone feels welcome and comfortable enough to bring their best to their work:

If you are the newest person to the company that is new in their career, you’re the folks that we’re going to sit down with and we’re going to have conversations because we know that is going to be meaningful. And it’ll hopefully bridge that gap to where, when I see you in the hallway, you’re still going to talk to me. 

I would be in an elevator having conversations with people and my boss is like, “How do you even know them?” You’ve got to take the time to talk to everybody. Because at the end of the day, without the people who are doing the work every single day, the company collapses. 

I promised myself when I was younger, never believing that I would get to where I am today, if I ever get there, I’m going to remember what it’s like to be here. And I’m not going to treat people the way that they’ve been treating me. And that literally is my first principle of the way we work with people. And if it’s an extra hour on the phone, having a conversation with a designer who’s struggling because she just started and she doesn’t quite know if this is the right place for her, that’s an hour very well spent. —Steve Johnson, Netflix

Steve’s investment in people helps Netflix retain talent. It creates opportunities to connect people to new collaborators, and it allows him to share the mission and strategy of the organization that will help unite the efforts of many teams. At an executive level, investing in people is the most important part of your job. 

Getting to know your colleagues

Spending time with colleagues can help you build rapport, but sometimes you need a more detailed understanding of what motivates a key partner’s behaviors. Ryan Rumsey, author of Business Thinking for Designers and founder of the executive training company Second Wave Dive, told us he uses design thinking methodologies to learn how to work effectively with colleagues: 

As I began looking for patterns in behavior, I realized I didn’t know what motivated my colleagues. I didn’t know what skills they were capable of performing, what they paid attention to, or how they were responding to my cues. To better anticipate the behavior of my colleagues, I had to get to know them better. —Ryan Rumsey, Business Thinking for Designers 

Ryan told me and Eli we should ask two key questions when we’re trying to figure out a colleague:

You need the answers to two basic questions: “Who are you working with?” and “What are they trying to achieve?”

And his book offers a tool to help arrive at the answers, which we now have available in the form of a Freehand template (Fig 3.1):

Empathy Maps are a great visualization tool to quickly capture “good enough” answers to these two questions. The exercise helps you to understand partners in a new way so you can empathize with their perspectives. —Ryan Rumsey, Business Thinking for Designers 

Empathy maps often bring the goals of your collaborators into view. Do you see any intersections with your own goals? If so, you can start to articulate concrete ways to kick off a productive collaboration. 

Finding opportunities to align your goals

Discovering what goals your collaborators are aiming for and what values guide them is an important part of getting to know your collaborators, especially if you’re trying to develop a good working relationship with someone from a different team.

Abigail Hart Gray, director of UX at Google, starts partnerships with engineering partners by looking for the intersection of her goals with theirs. Finding that overlap provides an opening to a mutually beneficial relationship: 

One of the things that I always like to do is find out what other people care about. What are the metrics that they’re trying to affect? We can design towards anything. The great thing about design is that there’s no one solution. So when you find the places where you can all agree, that’s the way to start building a relationship and building trust. You want to show them that you care about the same things they do because there’s always a lot of overlap.

—Abigail Hart-Gray, Google 

Trust is more easily formed when you share goals with your collaboration partner, even if your backgrounds differ. Though you may not fully understand your partner’s area of expertise and working methods, you know you’re moving toward the same outcomes. This frees you both up to operate independently, occasionally coming back together for alignment meetings.  

Jehad Affoneh of VMWare has also aligned his goals to those of his partners to develop collaboration, but his approach is a little different. He pays careful attention to the primary goals of the business, observes who in the organization drives those high-impact initiatives, and then aligns his work accordingly. Jehad isn’t trying to curry favor; he’s ensuring his limited time and resources are directed to the work that will provide the most support to the business.

In my experience, it’s been less important to measure the impact of design on the end business goals. It’s very important to keep them in mind. It’s very important to understand them and understand how we’re heading in that direction. It’s very important to know what your work is driving. But I think the thing that’s been most important is how do you link your goals to the goals of those in your organization who are driving that business?

I have conversations all the time with the leadership team in my organization, with engineering, project management, as well as the overall executive team about what they’re trying to achieve. I know the overall business vision of VMware and what we’re trying to achieve there and that’s important. But what are they trying to achieve and how you can help them achieve these things becomes what’s important. 

The middle layer is, how do you as a design leader or design organization help the executive team that you’re closest to? It could be your VP of engineering, it could be your VP of PM. It could be your CEO, COO, depending on the organization. 

—Jehad Affoneh, VMWare

Eli talks more about aligning goals and teams in Chapter 5. For now, we’d be remiss not to mention what we’ve heard from our guests about the most popular tool for team coordination: OKRs.

Coordinating teams with OKRs

When it’s time to get all teams tightly coordinated, ad hoc partnerships between team leads isn’t sufficient. You need a codified system of objectives that all ladder up to the core business goals. Objectives and key results (OKRs) are designed to do just that. 

There’s an art to crafting effective OKRs. When done right, OKRs help an entire organization stay connected to the vision and strategy of the company while still empowering teams to retain decision-making agency. 

Marty Cagan, founder of Silicon Valley Product Group, has advised many major companies and described the recipe for success when operating at a large scale. For him, OKRs are a key ingredient:

At scale, we need to make sure that the teams have that context, which is normally a combination of the product vision, where we’re going in the next three to five years, product strategy, product principles, product objectives, those are what the leaders need to do. And there’s actually a technique that’s very popular for this. This is what OKRs are for. There’s objectives at the organizational level and the leaders provide objectives for the teams. That’s where the problems to solve come from. Those are the objectives. So leaders still have a real job to do. In fact, I would argue it’s more that they do their job in an empowered team model because in a feature team, they’re basically just command and control and it’s technically . . . it’s easier for them to just tell a team what to do.

—Marty Cagan, Silicon Valley Group

OKRs invite broad collaboration across teams and at times challenge us to think beyond the parameters of our teams. The best way to collaborate across teams is often to invest some time and effort in learning more about other disciplines. 

We have an OKR Planning template available in Freehand which can help you and your team to plan how each team’s OKRs map to the company objectives, to gain alignment and better focus in the coming quarter.

Blurring boundaries across disciplines

When we spoke with Sara Seager, astrophysicist and MacArthur Fellow, she had just wrapped up a call with a multidisciplinary group planning to send a probe to Venus to search for bacterial life in its atmosphere. Sara works on big, complicated projects. Sometimes, to see how all of the pieces fit together, she has to dive into areas outside of her formal training, especially when she finds herself in a leadership role. 

She doesn’t concern herself with staying inside arbitrary lines. If she sees something worth exploring, especially if it might help her find other life in the universe, she wants to pursue it:

It’s not just in science, but also from what I see from the outside in so many startups. If you have a great idea, you want to pursue that and you can bring in other experts. But in order to lead that group, in order to make it happen, you yourself need to have some deep conceptual knowledge on the topic. 

I still do pursue new topics. And now it’s a lot easier, I think, to pick up a new skill, to learn a subject or refresh on one that you might’ve learned something about before.

I think there’s a certain willingness to take a risk and to fail and to look bad. There’s a lot of times when I won’t say, “I don’t know what I’m talking about,” but let’s say it’s in chemistry and the other people know I’m not a chemist. They’re not expecting me to be an expert on it, but you know that you might ask a question or say something that just seems really dumb. ’Cause it might be, you have to be willing to put yourself out there in order to make the idea happen. So again, it’s like that tension between how much do you want to do this? And how much are you willing to risk? —Sara Seager

Sara’s dedication to learning and progress over looking smart makes her an effective collaborator and leader. She happily blurs boundaries, which makes collaborating with her easier. 

Blurring boundaries has its risks, though. It’s important to be informed on the many dimensions of your work—but don’t try to snatch control over the process. Dan Mall, founder and director of SuperFriendly, told us that designers sometimes slip into this damaging behavior in their pursuit of excellence:

I think one of the biggest and most common areas where design sort of has a pitfall is that lots of designers tend to want to own everything. It’s this very possessive version of designing. And what that does is it creates everyone else as subservient. It’s like, “Well, developers are just going to build what I designed, what my vision is and copywriters are just going to fill in the design of what I’m doing. And I have everything in my head.” It tends to affect the culture of the way that the team works. 

I work with a lot of in-house design teams and that first conversation about design is, What are the things that belong to other people? The first line of collaboration is, What are the things that you should own and need to own, and are the good things for you to own? And what are some things that you really can rely on somebody else for, that they would do a better job or their environments are more native to the process than yours are? That tends to be the first difficult conversation. But if that goes well, these are signs of good collaborations.

—Dan Mall, founder of SuperFriendly

Effective collaboration depends on a delicate balance of power. When the balance slips, tension builds and things can get ugly. Educate yourself about the different areas of your business, but leave plenty of room for others to bring their talents to the work, especially those who have deeper expertise in an area than you. 

The rapport you’ve developed with your colleagues and the efforts you’ve made to understand what’s important to them will help you ride out tense times. You’ll be better equipped to assume good intent from your partners and they, in turn, will assume it from you. 

Kudos to you for investing in your professional relationships. Now, there’s one other group of people you need to connect with to be successful: your customers. We’ll find out how you can do that in the next chapter.


About the Authors

Eli Woolery
Senior Director of Design Education / InVision

Eli Woolery is the Senior Director of Design Education at InVision, and co-host of the Design Better Podcast. His design career spans both physical and digital products, and he has worked with companies ranging from startups (his own and others) to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to his background in product and industrial design, he has been a professional photographer and filmmaker. He teaches the senior capstone class Implementation to undergraduate Product Designers at Stanford University. You can find Eli on Twitter and Medium.

Aarron Walter
Author and co-host of the Design Better Podcast

Aarron Walter is the co-host of the Design Better Podcast, and author of Designing for Emotion. He was the Director of Product on the COVID Response team at Resolve to Save Lives, and prior to that, the VP of Design Education at InVision. He founded the UX practice at Mailchimp where he helped grow the product from a few thousand users to more than 10 million. He’s the author of a number of books, the latest of which is a second edition of Designing for Emotion. Aarron’s design guidance has helped the White House, the US Department of State, and dozens of major corporations, startups, and venture capital firms.

You can find Aarron on Twitter and LinkedIn.