Symposium 2013: 01 / Collaboration

Each year, for one day all BNIM-ers from all offices come together under the same roof. We call this day the “Symposium” and it is a time to reconnect as a staff, while taking stock of where we are and reinvigorating our energies and reminding ourselves of our core values.

The goals and approach for Symposium 2013 were relatively modest. Unlike previous years, we wouldn’t be crafting a list of action items and deliverables to pursue. There would be no traditional breakout sessions and reporting back to the larger group.

We opted instead for a “family” conversation, which brought everyone to the table at the same time/place — as messy as that scenario often threatens to be. We designed the day to encourage informal, chance dialogue, and to let conversations naturally flow into the in-between and beyond.

I’ve often said it’s one of my favorite days of the year, and this symposium was certainly no exception. Time and time again throughout the day, BNIM-ers came forward to take provocative positions on a variety of diverse issues, ranging from understanding (and practicing) one’s own work/life balance to exploring design rigor and inspiration. We swapped stories with one another, and shared knowledge and ideas about the profession and the work we do. Perhaps most importantly, we managed to carve time out of our busy schedules just to be together — to share the same beautiful space.

And because we enjoy this conversation and the discussion that comes out of it, we thought there might be others out there who would benefit from the point of views offered by these perspectives. This is the first of five posts that will share our “state of the firm” on five key issues. Each piece is not a summary of the discussion, but rather an editorial by a single participant drawing inspiration from the conversation.

We’re starting with the topic of “Collaboration,” since that is at the heart of what Symposium 2013 espouses, but we'll also be covering other themes in upcoming posts, so check back regularly.

Collaboration: by Joe Keal
Design Excellence: by Levi Robb
Work/Life Balance: by Maria Maffry
The Public Realm: by Christina Hoxie
Long Life; Loose Fit: by Joshua Hemberger

—James Pfeiffer, Symposium Organizer

Setting the Stage for Collaboration
By Joe Keal


BNIM Collaborates with MRY on the The Henry W. Bloch Executive Hall for Entrepreneurship and Innovation

As design professionals, collaboration is inevitable. In many instances, we have colleagues that we have successfully coexisted with over a span of many years – working to establish trust, respect and a great deal of mind-reading. In other instances, we are looking for peers and mentors that inspire us, or do amazing work, or utilize processes that blow our minds. If we are not doing this… well, we should be.

Traditionally, we’ve gone down the road of collaboration in an effort to reach far beyond our own capabilities – plain and simple. By limiting ourselves to our own ideas, what do we gain? Conversely, by aligning ourselves with those that might know something before we know that very thing, we create a future of limitless ideas and results.

As an organization, BNIM is completely comfortable with the notion of collaboration. However, we should continue to shape how the concept of collaboration can shape future shared endeavors. As such, there are a number important factors to consider:

Goal Setting. Make sure there is a goal and work towards it. If everyone is not on the same page, and if the rules are not clearly defined, collaborations stand to fail before they grow wings. Goal-setting creates the appropriate boundaries and fosters expectations. The results of these interactions define a successful collaborative effort.
Communication, Communication & Communication. Frequent and consistent communication leads to personal accountability among collaborators. We may not be governed by the same set of organizational norms (or values, or standards), but we should act as though we are. Collaborative projects should make use of regularly-scheduled opportunities for information exchange. Such updates should shed light on specific efforts that affect the overall goals of the collaboration. With communication, relationships are built and sustained (both positive and negative).
Team Structure. If each collaborative team is considered a singular "being," it should be viewed through the lens of compromise and complementary skills. In a sense, there should be an overall understanding of strengths as well as shortcomings. After all, a combined force should be viewed not as a detriment, but as an enhanced opportunity to learn, inform and execute for all stakeholders. While we are all eager to, at times, flex our individual (or our firm’s) brainpower, it is sometimes worthwhile to sit back and listen before we speak -- and vice-versa.
Leadership. On the outside, a collaborative design process may seem to have a visibly linear organization, but make no mistake, the process begs for leadership and management. Such leadership might come naturally or be can defined prior to the inception of the relationship. Leaders in such an association are present to keep things on track and running smoothly, to promote communication, and to always be looking at the “next moves.” Effective collaborative leadership also recognizes how to make the most of the group’s collective resources and talents in an effort to achieve the end goal.
Protocol. In a teamed relationship, adaptable and flexible processes derived from a larger framework should be aimed at clarifying roles, responsibilities and decision-making ability. If a process is clearly defined from the outset, the rules are understood by all parties during the process, thus eliminating confusion and avoiding overlapping efforts.
Weigh the Benefits Against the Investment. A successful collaboration should be advantageous for all parties involved and meet the provisions outlined in the goal setting phase. Benefits are diverse and might be in the form of increased knowledge, financial gains, or future design work. At the same time, it IS worth asking if such results are worth the initial investments that are made in the first place. After all, we might be in direct competition with some of our collaborators in the future, and an open door policy on our proverbial "bag of tricks" (design process, tools and staff) might not always be advantageous.
Grade Cards. We should never hesitate to employ our critical faculties, especially when it comes to our collaborations. Assessments should openly and honestly seek to analyze both successes and failures of the process, our partners and well as ourselves. In the results we should be encouraged to replicate the positive and do away with the unfavorable attributes so that we perpetuate the idea of collaboration in its best form going forward.

Editorial Response to ‘Collaboration’ from the BNIM Symposium 2013. Other editorial responses to the sessions can be found at these links:

Collaboration: by Joe Keal
Design Excellence: by Levi Robb
Work/Life Balance: by Maria Maffry
Long Life; Loose Fit: by Joshua Hemberger
The Public Realm: by Christina Hoxie

- See more at: