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Does Collaboration Within the Design Team Really Create Better Projects?

by Kevin F. on August 15, 2014

I’ve worked on or been a part of many types of design projects over my career in the design field.  Many of these projects have had great outcomes in the end.  These are the projects we all love to be a part of, the ones everybody walks away from feeling good and happy about the outcome. 
Unfortunately, there are also those few projects that don’t go well.  You know, the miserable ones, the ones everybody can’t wait to end.  The ones that always seem to have problems or in the end just don’t turn out the way you thought they would.  Nobody likes to be a part of the projects that go wrong.  
So, when bad projects are over I generally try to step back and ask myself “What went wrong?”  I also try to ask myself what we did well on projects that are successful.   Even more, I’ve tried to step back and ask myself why things don’t always turn out the way we envisioned them.  After all, we’re designers; that’s what we get paid to do.  Right? 
While every project has its nuances, I’ve come to a few conclusions about why some projects work and others don’t.  It seems very simple, but for me, it gets down to two things: COMMUNICATION and COLLABORATION throughout the design process.
I know this might seem oversimplified, but I’ve found this to be true on most projects.  None of us have all the answers.  That’s why we are part of design teams.  We don’t know everything.  We need to bring a group together that has the knowledge to successfully complete the project.  It’s how we communicate within that group that will make a successful project.  This is true on projects large and small.  It would seem obvious on larger projects where there is a design team made up of people from several offices, countless layers of owner approvals required and numerous agencies the value of this.  Too often, however, we get hung up on the smaller projects.  Maybe we have a smaller budget and we take some shortcuts, try to get by with fewer meetings or don’t give these projects the attention they deserve.  I’ve found this always seems to come back in a bad way later.  The truth is that these smaller projects need just as much attention to detail as the larger ones.
There are many ways to enhance the communication and collaboration on any design project.  Here are a few of them I’ve found successful in the projects I’ve been a part of:

  1. Always have a project kick-off meeting.  This meeting should include all major stakeholders involved in the project and the ENTIRE design team.  Too often only a couple of design team members are present or just the project “lead”.  Bring all members to the table so they can hear the information first hand and voice any concerns up front.

  2. Voice any potential concerns or issues up front.  These always become a bigger deal when they are raised later in the project.

  3. Communicate with any local, state or federal reviewing agencies up front as well.  Often times these agencies raise issues that cause major issues on the project.  If these are known up front there is more time to solve any potential issues or even design around them.

  4. Set expectations with the client up front.  Ask direct questions of the client.  Understand what they are expecting and what they’re most important issues are on the project.  Also understand what their “Critical Success Factors” are for the project.  Critical Success Factors are simply the 3 or 4 things that MUST happen on the project for them to consider it a success.

  5. Have team meetings at regular intervals.  These are critical to make sure the design team is on the same page moving forward.  Issues always come up during the course of a project and this keeps everyone communicating.

  6. Have regularly scheduled design review meetings with the client.  These are just as important to keep the client up to date on any design changes or issues found in the project.  Small issues that go un-addressed with the client become bigger issues later.

  7. Send out review sets at project milestones so everyone is up to date.  These review sets should go to clients, owners, the design team even reviewing agencies at each milestone set in the beginning of a project.  This keeps everyone up to speed on the project and allows concerns or issues to be addressed as they arise.

  8. Have project review sessions or design “charettes”.  These are basically working project meetings that allow everyone to get in a room and work through any issues.  Most times this face to face collaboration is much more successfully than simply marking up a set of plans and sending back and forth.  With all of the technology available to us now, we sometimes forget the value of a face to face dialogue and discussion.

  9. Have a project “close out” or “wrap up” meeting for all parties involved in the project.  This is something that should be done shortly after the project completion while the details are still fresh in everyone’s mind.  This is a great way to get feedback on what went well on a project and what didn’t.

These are just a few suggestions on how we can collaborate better on design projects.  There are numerous other ways to enhance communication and collaboration as well.  Hopefully, you can use some of these suggestions on your next project.  I think you’ll find the result will be a project that turns out much better in the end.