Global teams face a paradox today, where possibility meets puzzlement. Technology enables us to collaborate in unprecedented ways, from video calls to shared real-time documents. Yet much remote collaboration feels flat, shallow, and frustrating. People use terms such as “co-creation,” “cross-cultural,” and “cognitive diversity.” But most attempts to think together are heavily dependent on written and spoken English, when not everyone thinks in English.

What if we took a fresh look at how we might work together across borders? What if we started to design our own remote design work: How might we be creative together when we are far apart and in different cultural contexts?

Students from Stanford, Mexico City, and online spaces talk about their learning experiences in the class.

In the Spring 2018 Design Across Borders class, participants from all over the world learned how they can be empathic, creative, and agile as a team, even when they are halfway across the world from each other. The initial framing of the broader design challenge: Create ways for human rights supporters to collaborate digitally in changing opinions around the issue of refugees and forced migration.

Over the course of four intensive days spread over two weekends, Stanford students teamed up with staff and activists of Amnesty International in small multinational teams. There were larger gatherings of participants at the Stanford d.school and the Amnesty Americas office in Mexico City. And at different points, various team members also worked from Lima and London, from Buenos Aires, Boston, Beirut, and Berlin.

Here is how we promoted creativity and collaboration amongst our geographically distributed participants working on culturally diverse teams.

Start with your attitude

What surprised me the most was how well it can work if you approach it with the right attitude, with the right tools, and if you have a common understanding, you can actually get a lot done.
— Dharshani Lakmali Jayasinghe, Student

It’s easy to have a passive attitude that blames technology or is overly reliant on technology. For example, you could say: "I’m going to wait until Internet bandwidth is perfect," or "I’ll wait until somebody else develops a magical VR or holographic technology that enables remote design." What if we instead took an active attitude, a gritty and creative attitude that keeps finding better ways with tools we have now? For example, how might we interact in more three dimensional ways when we are far apart? What if you did a video call on your phone and used the back camera instead of the front camera, to be “remote eyes” for your teammates far away? With an active, curious, generative attitude, you might be surprised at what you can do!

Build relationships first

To collaborate more deeply, to truly tap each others creativity, we need to build empathy and trust amongst teammates. This is particularly true when we have never met each other in person, when we are far away from each other and in different cultural contexts. We can create ways to get to know each other in more visual ways, that are less language dependent, and invite more curiosity. One is called “No Words Conversation,” where participants are paired up across different locations. In one day, each person uses their phone to shoot photos and/or short videos from their regular, daily life. Participants took pictures of themselves, their surroundings, their activities, their meals, the people in their life, etc. The next day, using the pictures and videos they shot, the two people have a “No Words Conversation” over WhatsApp. They try their best to “listen” and “relate” to each other entirely through pictures and video. (When done as an initial icebreaker, and with multilingual instructions, this exercise can create a first interaction that feels more “equal” because it doesn’t matter how well you speak English.)

Multi-channel mindset

 Image credit: Jim Kalbach / MURAL

Image credit: Jim Kalbach / MURAL

We use different technology tools in remote collaboration, such as video calls, messaging, email, and visual workspaces. These tools are more powerful when we think about how we can use them in concert with each other. Perhaps we can think of them as different instruments in a band - how can we use them together to create a groove? For example, when ideating, we are not only creating post-its, collecting images, and sketching in MURAL, we might also be talking, listening, and seeing each other in Zoom. Consider having a conversation about tools - which tools and you’ll be using, and when - at the beginning of the project. And be flexible. Shift if something isn’t working.

Our students were able to develop storyboard prototypes in their geographically distributed teams. In joint presentations recorded in Zoom, they summarized their user research, key findings, prototype concepts, and experimental design. The presentations were shared with the Amnesty Innovation Lab for consideration.

Glenn Fajardo connects to create. As the Director of the Co-Design Practice of the TechSoup Global Network, he collaborates with NGO Partners around the world to build, test, and iterate new capacity-building programs more quickly. Formally trained in nuclear engineering sciences and public policy, Glenn also plays electric bass and likes to cook in other people’s kitchens.




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