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Designing for Collaboration 

Tool development for small group organization




Collaboration plays a vital role in innovation and can be made easier through facilitation, frameworks, and tools which direct the thinking process of a group. There is a gap in methods used to address the dynamics of small group formation and conflict mediation, presenting an opportunity space for a design process inquiry. 


The research culminated with the development of a tangible tool for small group organization; a process and a set of questions that initiate strategic dialogue between group members.  


Collaboration tool, academic research paper


Jenny Whyte


How can our understanding of collaborative ecosystems help us to build tools to enhance the effectiveness of small group collaboration?


Our understanding of how to solve complex problems has evolved. In complex problems, we need multiple stakeholders, with a variety of skills and diverse knowledge sets to help generate creativity and new ways of knowing.


Creating mechanisms for working effectively together and maximizing the impact of multiple perspectives however, is no small feat. Integrating the voices of many people to create something new can be met with very real human emotions such as confusion, resistance and power struggles that can easily filter into the work.

Collaborative dynamics are comprised of various layers: the self, the roles are taken on, the relationship between members and the context or scenario they find themselves in. As project teams move through their work, these dynamics are all consciously ‘tetra-arising’; each at the mercy of a multitude of influencing factors. Whether actively considered or not, effective collaboration depends on these dynamics. If dysfunctional dynamics present or challenges are not managed effectively, teams could face compromised design plans, design outcomes, and emotional struggles.


How can our understanding of collaborative ecosystems help us to build tools to enhance the effectiveness of small group collaboration?











Potential issues and layers of influence in small group dynamics were assessed using both primary and secondary research, and numerous theories and case studies for best collaborative practices were considered in tool development.



1. Personal Experience


Having experienced a design education program that aims to teach design thinking and many tools for collaborative thinking, there was time for deep reflection on the experience of collaboration at multiple scales. While the tools and methodologies known for collaborative research investigations and stakeholder engagement are plentiful, the tools needed to facilitate creative collaboration and conflict mediation at the level of a project team dynamic is itself, presented an opportunity space.


2. Literature and Case Study Review 

Potential issues and layers of influence in small group dynamics were assessed by examining organizational behaviour case studies and literature review. Numerous theories for best collaborative practices were considered as part of the foundation theory for tool development: Google's Project Aristotle analysis, Tuckman's Group Development Theory and intentional learning educational philosophy.

3. Student Survey

Primary research with student groups engaged in collaborative processes was conducted using surveys and one-to-one interviews. Pain points were extracted and issues that arise in real group dynamics were noted.

4. Prototyping 

The research insights culminated with 5 key parameters for a tool structure that enabled effective group dynamics.

Design parameters included: communication based, collaborative in approach, addresses invisible culture, considers self and others and versatile to problem set. A process of prototyping and iterative learning created the small group collaboration tool, “Sum of Its Parts.”

5. Prototype Testing 

A prototyping workshop was conducted to test the tool in real group dynamics with students in the Strategic Foresight and Innovation program. The tool proved to enable a holistic structure of intentional inquiry and facilitated versatile conversations exploring the roots of group dynamics issues.





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"The hardest part of working in groups is getting to know everyone's boundaries and expectations; managing the different learning and working styles; understanding my own feelings, then having the capacity to explain that to others." 

- Survey Participant  



As mentioned the research conducted led to insights which in turn developed 5 design parameters to orient product creation. 

1. Facilitates communication  

Generates an information flow between group members to create an opportunity for assertiveness in individuals, but also makes space for others to listen and cooperate. 

Existing communication structures such as non-violent communication and compassionate inquiry, which guide communication and consensuality were extensively considered to guide inspiration for the design of the tool. The use of questions to provoke and inspire was illuminated as a mechanism to guide challenging conversations within interpersonal dynamics. 


2. Collaborative


Encourages groups to work together to address issues and generate opportunities for consensuality.

Individuals can have vastly different opinions, needs, working styles, values, and feeling states that can vary wildly depending on the context. The organizing process of team culture is founded in the deeper layers and can take time, trust, and willingness to understand and be interested in the individuals within the team and what they need in a team culture.


3. Addresses invisible culture  


Considers individual positions on feelings, beliefs, norms, values and additional aspects of culture which may not traditionally be considered as necessary, but come to impact small group dynamics.

While not always relevant to how well a group or an individual might perform, the ripple effects of the norms or expectations created by an organization's culture creates is a very important point of influence. The tool must create what leading organizational behaviourist Richard Hackman calls ‘enabling conditions.’ 


4. Considers self and others


Creates a structure for individual paradigms to be considered and reflected in the group, in order for subjective viewpoints to be illuminated and clarified.

After studying hundreds of the teams operating in the offices of Google, Project Aristotle found that the teams that had the highest success were teams that, as a whole, had a high degree of communication and high expression of emotional intelligence, which in turn created a sense of psychological safety for all members of the group.


5. Versatile


Can be adapted for use in any part of the group development process to build a more nuanced collective understanding of all members’ positions.  

The pain points noted in the survey related to skill development needed for effective group collaboration as well as personal struggle. There is a sense of ‘not knowing’ or ‘trying to figure things out’ both personally and collectively which presented as a source of stress for students. The tool must help cut through this sense of unknowing at any stage. 



A process of defining, designing, refining and distilling research insights culminated with the creation of a small group collaboration tool, “Sum of Its Parts.” The tool enables a holistic structure of intentional inquiry and facilitates versatile conversations aimed to get to the roots of group dynamic issues.

Those who tested the tool all expressed positive feedback for its usefulness. Its design intention to facilitate intentional conversation was made a reality. It did not just provide space and time for personal reflection and inquiry, but also the opportunity to bounce those insights off of each other helped to achieve clarity about what was occurring with the group dynamics.


The structures of communication helped to address an understanding of both personal and collective needs, as well as group systems and behaviour. In illuminating and aggregating these insights, the concepts and learnings found in the multiple interpretations between people are made visible to aid in the process of group sense-making. The shared space for conscious reflection helps groups navigate self-organization in ways that moved collaborative organizational learning from incidental to intentional, all the while building both personal and group resilience.





Graphic Design: Britney Mackey

Communication and collaboration are complicated processes that are dependent on a variety of factors, points of influence and conditions. “Sum of Its Parts” is a holistic framework of inquiry that fills an opportunity space for facilitated and co-created collaborative self-organization techniques. Through the use of a deliberate structure, principles of engagement and flexible goal orientation, intentional conversations between groups are facilitated with ease.

Want to explore how integral communication can better your collaborations?

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