Clever collaborations

    HOW TO

  • Work with people from other professional fields
  • Make interdisciplinary projects a real success

Collaborations across different fields can bring out the best of all worlds. Just imagine how powerful these combinations could be: a field researcher working hand in hand with a cartographer; a sociologist with a programming whizkid; or a thematic expert with a visual storyteller. The promise of such partnerships is almost too obvious to mention, yet truly interdisciplinary projects are rare, not to mention successful ones. Why so?

The reason, quite simply, is that competent professionals in different sectors have little idea how to work together. An engineer won’t instinctively see how an anthropologist can help, nor will the latter know how to turn their findings into something practical. Likewise, a sharp-minded analyst will assume they have little to say about a graphic designer’s visual interpretation of a topic they both know well. 

Truly interdisciplinary projects are rare

Such relationships don’t easily gel: Each party speaks their own language, follows their own process, and uses their own tools. Naturally, one doesn’t feel comfortable commenting on the other’s output. Instead, they minimize their interaction, like an artist who has been commissioned to illustrate a book… but never gets to speak to the author themselves.

Things get trickier—but also far more interesting—when a substantive back-and-forth is in order. If you do venture into a collaboration with people in fields completely out of your comfort zone, here is a step-by-step methodology to help you make the most of it.

Establish solid expectations. When you partner up with another professional, the first thing is to define very concrete parameters. Say you’re asking an architect to design a space or a photographer to capture your thinking: Start by explaining, in as much detail as possible, what you are trying to achieve. “Something pretty” isn’t specific enough. Who is it for? What exactly does it do? Why do you need it? When do you need it for? How much can it cost, at most? This isn’t about stifling the process before it’s even begun; it’s about setting your partner on the right track from the get-go.

Share more than words. It’s tempting, when venturing out of our domain of expertise, to stick to forms of communication that we feel most comfortable with. But our own words, as much as they make sense to ourselves, can be imprecise, even misleading. It helps to complement such guidance with crude sketches. For example, a cartographer will appreciate your amateurish attempt at drawing a map, because it hints at what you would like them to do infinitely better. Graphic designers are grateful for mood boards made up of images that evoke what you have in mind, sparking ideas of their own. Engineers may want a product brief that contains a review of ideas that have been tried before, but don’t solve your particular problem. Build a dossier with whatever material is suited to your purpose.

Learn about processes. Although you don’t need to know much about the disciplines others have mastered, you must at least understand the workflow you’re about to be involved in. Any profession will deliver outcomes in stages, and you cannot wait for the final product to form an opinion. For instance, visual communication typically explores potential “routes,” which you must decide upon early on. In software engineering, a sound starting point involves “user stories” that help programmers grasp what you want their code to do. A data scientist can’t build a good graph without “manipulating” the whole data set. Whomever you’re working with, make sure you ask them what input is most useful, and when.

Pick up the basics. Ideally, you should take things a step further, and acquire at least a beginner’s understanding of your partner’s field. You want to know keywords, figure out fundamental concepts, and avoid the most obvious mistakes. You don’t need to be an artist to understand the use of colors, just as it doesn’t take a webmaster to decipher what makes a good website. In any area, you could at least buy a classic book or two; alternatively, spend a few hours watching reputable tutorials. The more you learn to talk their language, the more you will get out of talented collaborators.

Brace yourself in the early stages

Trust your partner. Even the most gifted professionals reach their destination via a winding process that involves some dead-ends and backtracking. When you work with designers, their first submissions are usually terrifying. Their thinking seems off, and their art clunky; but that’s simply because they are still in the research phase, tentatively trying out ideas. As a rule, you’re much better off with an ugly prototype that does the job—be it a logo, a website, or a map—than with a glamorous end product that entirely misses the point. The first is easy to beautify, while the latter means starting over from scratch. You must therefore brace yourself in the early stages, focus on meeting your core goals, and keep faith in your collaborators’ talents, which may only become obvious toward the end. That also means constantly pushing them to reveal themselves, rather than staying hands-off.

Create a feedback loop. The way to push harder is to invest in attentive, supportive, and demanding feedback. Creatives often complain that their clients’ reactions are typically late and vague, giving virtually no hints as to what aspects of their work should be developed, which should be ditched, and why. Programmers also grumble about feedback that amounts to “it doesn’t work”, as if they should already know what glitches should be fixed. Productive comments, by contrast, will be responsive, thoughtful, explicit, exhaustive, and organized. Take time to review and analyze every aspect of the job you commissioned, clarify what you like and dislike, make instinctive suggestions on improvements, and package all this to make it easy to read and act upon. Ideally, draw in thoughts from a couple of your colleagues, too.

To be part of that winding road to success, make sure you don’t miss any turn. Your biggest mistake, in a multidisciplinary project, is to delay the uncomfortable conversations. By dealing with problems as they arise, you give yourselves the best chances of achieving your goals. As you would at a wedding, speak now or forever live with the consequences.

19 May 2023