The shared language of collaboration

Innovation Sabbatical and Shared Language

Imagine trying to teach a classroom full of kids who not only speak a different language from you but no two of them speak the same language. The result would be a lot of miscommunication—and not much learning would take place.

A shared language is crucial to collaboration of any kind, whether in a classroom or on a construction site. And while everyone involved might speak the same actual language, if they don’t use the same terminology for the same things, miscommunication can happen and projects can be derailed.

The importance of a shared language is just one of the findings that Hollis + Miller designer Sandy Cochran discovered when she was chosen for Hollis + Miller’s Innovation Sabbatical, a 3-to-4-month block of time where employees are released from their projects and given the time and resources to pursue research that will benefit the firm and the industry.

Sandy Cochran, Client Leader

Cochran traveled the country to research integrated design, interviewing not just experts in the architecture and design field but also a variety of people outside the industry, including NFL staffers and product manufacturers. She started with some key questions in mind:

  • Where would we end up if the first question is asked a differently?
  • What does the final product look like if everyone has the opportunity to contribute from the beginning and continuously throughout the entire process?
  • When you start to blur the lines between disciplines, can the team innovate more effectively?

Through her travels and research, one of her key findings was the need for a shared language. 

Shifting perspectives

The integrated design approach incorporates all of the stakeholders in the project from the very beginning. This means experts from a variety of fields bring ideas for discussion. But with a wide variety of backgrounds coming together to review a project concept, they may not be viewing the project from the same perspective. This can lead to communication barriers when the team members are attempting to describe concepts.

Creating a shared language means not only defining the terms but also shifting the stakeholders’ perspectives. Cochran relates it to her own dealings with other departments within Hollis + Miller:

“When I work with engineers, I have to look at the challenge from their perspective so that we can collaborate and vice versa. Not everyone sees a solution in black and white,” she said.

In the report she created from her research, Cochran puts it this way:

“When different specialty disciplines are working together, the type of communication they share and tools they incorporate can save time and frustration amongst the team members or make it very difficult for the team to work efficiently. Cross-collaboration and fluidity of the conversation breaks down if the manner in which the team is communicating is within silos. The team members need to be willing to challenge their normal operations in the interest of the project. This will mean learning new communication platforms and even altering their perspective on solutions.”

Creating a shared language not only improves communication, it also allows stakeholders to put themselves in the shoes of the others at the table so they can see the project from all sides.

Better communication benefits everyone

When people are confronted with a new project that’s outside the realm of their own expertise, there can be a steep learning curve. A shared language can cut down on the disorientation that situation can create.

Tim Walsh from digital product agency Dockyard likens that feeling of confusion to stepping into a foreign land:

“With any new project comes a glossary of new terms often referenced while explaining a project’s goals. If it’s an unfamiliar industry, this can be confounding, almost like being in a country that is foreign to you.”

However, when companies make it a practice to create a shared language at the beginning of any project, it reduces that feeling of uncertainty, allowing team members to get up to speed quickly.

A shared language also reduces errors created by miscommunication, according to Ling Wong of project management software creator WorkZone:

“Confusions arise when team members don’t have a common understanding of terminologies used in interdepartmental communications. Not only will there be frustrating back-and-forth but also the risk of miscommunication that’d derail an entire project.”

When it comes to integrated design, Cochran found that a shared language was necessary for integrated design to work because it is about much more than just getting everyone to the table.

“As I started to talk with different professionals from various disciplines, I quickly realized there was much more to this topic than just providing a place at the table for everyone to sit,” she said. “Over and over I was directed back to the questions that were being asked and then how they were being answered.”

A shared language goes a long way toward making sure the questions being asked are indeed the right ones so the answers can be the most useful.

Language is just the first step

Cochran’s months of research led to much more than just discovering the need for a shared language for integrated design to work. Her research looked at everything from leadership to budgeting to research flows. What she found shows the benefits and challenges involved in integrated design throughout the design process, no matter what the end product might be.

Cochran said she hopes her Innovation Sabbatical research goes a long way toward the adoption of innovative integrated design. And encouraging everyone to speak the same language is just the first step.

Look for additional insights from Cochran’s Innovation Sabbatical in future articles.

Recommended Posts