Why do we leave collaboration to chance?

Written by 
Mariano Battan
April 21, 2022
Two people in body shaped cages trying to reach each other

Below, watch The Problem With Innovation at Work, the live keynote delivered by Mariano Suarez-Battan on March 30, 2021 at The Economist Innovation@Work event in London. The blog post below was adapted from this live presentation.

Over the last two years we took part in this global experiment. Working from home, our kids were jumping on our heads in the middle of meetings — at least mine. And it was challenging. The first few months … wifi, video, the lights, all of that was problematic.

But we carried on.

I was talking to the CFO of a unicorn EdTech company about this. He was sharing how his organization kept going, and in a way, what he noticed was that individual productivity went up. Yet, when it came to strategizing and solving complex problems, he felt something was missing.

Team productivity had gone down.

They of course tried adding more tools to the toolbox, but that didn’t completely fix things. Seeing this negative impact, the immediate answer is to go back to the office. We hear this from all of our customers all the time. Go back to the office. Go back to the water cooler.

The water cooler, that totem of innovation that provides ideas. Because over there that one time we had that great idea, the one that transformed our company. But was it really like that? Or was it people talking about Game of Thrones or some other gossip?

When it comes to innovation, I believe we can do better than that. We must.

Our nostalgia of the office space might be hurting us. Because even when we had the technology to make it hybrid, even when we had a beautiful innovation center, meetings still weren’t that great. The highest paid person in the room typically dominated the conversation. We jumped into solutions before actually thinking about the problem. We didn’t spend the time to understand each other. And don’t forget about the introverts in the back or the muted person joining remotely — that wasn’t working either. 

All those collaboration moments in the office, most of that time was wasted in poor meetings … where ideas were unheard and people felt disconnected. 

The biggest problem with innovation at work is disconnection. 

And whether it's at home or even in the office, disconnection is the force that prevents teams from coming together to collaborate and drive team productivity up. 

Disconnection is the force that prevents teams from coming together to collaborate and drive team productivity up. 

If we want to solve the problem of disconnection, we have to become intentional about inspiring teams to connect and innovate. We need to be deliberate about how we spend time together.

It’s not where you work. It’s how you work.

We don’t leave product design to chance. We don’t leave industrial design to chance. We don’t leave space design to chance. So why are we leaving collaboration to chance?

For eleven years you have been on this journey with us. As you know, innovation at its core is about people and healthy teams performing collaboration. Going through guided creative problem solving together. Going from imagination to activation. Mural helps teams connect with each other and work on innovation wherever they might be in person or remotely. We believe that there’s a fundamental new discipline that is here to help us.

“Collaboration Design” brings purpose and intention to the collaboration process, inspiring teams to connect and innovate through being deliberate about how teams work together. Taking direct aim at the isolation and disengagement many people feel, this craft supports relational intelligence and psychological safety in group interactions. Using playful, provocative methods of visual thinking, collaboration design helps teams take ideas from imagination to activation.

A collage of visual thinking MURAL templates and people leading collaborative experiences with teams.
Collaboration design is a new discipline from Mural which brings skillful guidance into collaborative experiences through field-tested practices to inspire and connect teams—no matter where or when it happens. It makes collaboration intentional by applying proven methods, workflows, and behaviors that increase engagement, improve productivity, and elevate new ideas and solutions.

Collaboration designers are the people who told us years ago we should come to meetings with agendas. They also understood that agendas are brittle, so they were paying attention to how to bring us back towards the meeting goal. They are the folks, and there are many of you already, who told us that it's okay to draw, even if our drawings are ugly, in order to express what’s in our heads … so others can understand what we mean. So we can become aligned. Collaboration designers are the folks who lead ice breaking exercises and warm-up exercises to bring connection to teams.

People have been rolling their eyes at collaboration designers. That cynicism needs to stop. Because disconnection is real. Through an intentional approach we can generate connection and begin to heal teams. 

It will take a beginner's mind and change. Culture change is not easy, but it can happen. 

Collaboration design at scale

Five years ago, Autodesk had to go through a big cultural transformation and digital transformation about how they delivered from boxed software to cloud software. Customer needs had changed, and they understood they had to change their whole business: how they shipped, how they delivered software through the cloud, how they charged different subscriptions versus licensing, how they served their customers. 

They had to change everything. 

The user research team at Autodesk had a deep understanding of the customer needs. They were synthesizing findings and then presenting them to the rest of the product organization. But it wasn't connecting with their software architects and the work was falling short. 

The lead on the user research team was determined to change their approach. Luckily, she found the system of innovation created by the LUMA Institute (LUMA).

LUMA enables people to be collaborative problem solvers through equipping them with 36 design methods. LUMA chose these methods from the design thinking and human-centered design methodology. The LUMA Institute teaches them in a systematic way one person, team, and company at a time.

After her first workshop, she felt ready to embrace the LUMA methods and used them with the software architects to understand their customer needs together. Using methods like Experience Diagramming; Rose, Thorn, Bud; Affinity Clustering; and others; they were able to diverge through possibilities and then converge into decisions and plans to action. They were able to change the design of their architecture and have a successful model to deliver their product through the cloud.

A series of cards that each depict a LUMA Institute method for designed collaboration.
Each card above represents a LUMA method. These methods can be learned and then combined in different ways to move work forward. They make it possible to design collaboration at scale.

The VP of engineering noticed the difference around customer empathy and speed of problem solving. She decided to deploy this way of working across the product organization. The LUMA system would serve as a “common visual language.” She helped catalyze a movement, and now teams in product embraced LUMA to design their collaborations. 

The movement didn’t stop in product either. Others noticed the difference too. So in addition to product teams, now LUMA methods are being used in operations, program management, sales (for customer discovery) and also the C-suite! Rob Dickins, Chief of Staff at Autodesk, said, “LUMA and Mural help us make better decisions faster.”

Around 3,000 people are now formally trained in collaboration design, using the LUMA methodology. That's 25% of Autodesk’s workforce of 12,000. They don’t leave collaboration to chance. They’re designing it. They have the know-how so they walk into a meeting and they know which methods to use to tackle any problem. 

They feel confidence. Autodesk found that the people who engage in LUMA methodologies are significantly more engaged than those who just improvise. 

The Collaborative Intelligence System™️

We paid attention to the data too. The insight that Autodesk gave us was also true at IBM, SAP, Intuit, USAA, and many other of our largest customers. They were not praising the “whiteboard.” They were talking about how people were connecting, collaborating, embracing methodologies, and ultimately making innovation culture happen. 

We also realized that we were making our customers stitch together their methods, their collaboration insights, and their collaboration spaces (in this case, murals), and of course, the conferencing systems like Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and more. 

It took a lot of effort to deploy collaboration design at scale. So we decided to make a change to that. We designed a new category of software called Collaborative Intelligence. Collaborative intelligence is a new systematic approach designed to connect teams to unlock their genius, taking insight and ideas from possibility to action.

As a pivotal first step in formally launching collaborative intelligence, Mural recently acquired LUMA Institute. As with Autodesk and so many other companies, LUMA has pioneered helping enterprise teams around the world innovate and do their best work together for over a decade. Also, LUMA and Mural have worked together for years. As a part of Mural, LUMA will help advance collaboration design through the development of the Collaboration Design Institute™, coming later in 2022. The acquisition of LUMA represents the first public step in our mission to support collaborative intelligence for the new hybrid workplace.

Collaborative intelligence
A new systematic approach that connects teams to unlock their genius — taking insights and ideas from possibility to reality.

In launching this new category, we also recently shared a blueprint for Mural’s Collaborative Intelligence System. It has three central components: the Collaboration Design Institute, Collaboration Spaces, and Collaboration Insights, and you can learn all about it here as well as in our recent press release

The near-term future for collaborative intelligence will include the formal launch of the Collaboration Design Institute as well as many new product enhancements. Stay tuned.

A blueprint for MURAL's Collaborative Intelligence System™️

Change takes time, but it starts with one team

Culture change takes time. It also pays off. 

IBM commissioned Forrester to study what was the financial impact of their IBM Enterprise Design Thinking Practice. They saw that in the teams that deployed enterprise design thinking — their methodology — they saw better customer experiences, because of better connection with their customers, faster time to market because they didn't have to rebuild since they were designing just right, early on, and they had better cross-team collaboration. IBM saw $18.6 million in productivity increases and $20.6M cost reduction. 

Collaborative intelligence is working already today. It’s making people feel connected, and also leading to big ROI.

Thinking about 25% of all employees trained in Collaboration Design and tens of millions of dollars in ROI might feel overwhelming, but in all of the stories from our customers there is a thing in common: change always start with one person in one team. They take the chance and become role models.

Maybe you can be that person for your team or company.

Because imagine if you had the skills, methods, the space to tackle any problem. Imagine your teams had the trust, confidence, and enthusiasm to make work feel like play!

Disconnection at work is caused by not being intentional about how we use our time together. This is the biggest problem that we see at work today. I believe that you can solve this problem.

Become a part of this movement. Join us. Start learning how to design collaboration. You can practice collaboration design with something as simple as leading a team check-in to build connection at the beginning of a call. (If you haven’t yet, sign up for a free Mural account.)

Want to talk? Reach out.

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About the author

About the authors

Mariano Battan

Mariano Battan

I co-founded Mural, where we are making creative teams become better design thinkers through our collaboration software. We started Mural because of a game we were designing. Ask me about that.