Applying design research methods to improve a creative team’s ability to collaborate

Daniela Marzavan and I collaborated at the DGTF 2014 UnConference to explore how to help creative and innovation teams improve collaboration and trust through using creative empathy tools. Daniela lectures in ‘Design Thinking and Human Values’ at HTW Berlin and is a guest lecturer at the ELISAVA in Barcelona. Currently Daniela is at the Bauhaus-university Weimar conducting her PhD research on Design Thinking within organizations, and we were really interesting in drawing from both theory and practice.

Beforehand: The Space


Daniela and I improvised standing tables for the group work, as we wanted people to feel they could explore and move around the space. We shared Richard Sennett: Together 2012’s four elements of collaboration (sympathy, empathy, dialectical and dialogical) with the participants of the workshop.


After this, we asked groups of participants to create a team ‘ship’ – a model boat that would make tangible their team’s spirit of fair co-operation. Made of paper and cardboard (that I had recovered from a skip the day before!), the teams built a spaceship, dictatorship and friendship raft. Here are the ships below…

The Spaceship


The spaceship does not only act in water but also in the air or on the ground. It is round and can turn in any direction anytime. The team members have an eye inside and an eye outside the organization, always reconnecting to their team after reflecting on the impact of their work to the outside world. The leader is not in the middle of this construction but rather underneath acting like a ‘booster’ that infuses energy, direction or inspiration when needed. He/she leaves the ship quite often, ensuring a sense of ownership for all crew members.

The Dictatorship


This group created the dictatorship to show dialectical and sympathetic collaboration. There is one leader convincing everyone else through arguments and examples of his expertise. The ‘red men’ go out in the world and conquer, pitch ideas and sell products and services. The rowing team-members are invisible but do an important job. Changing course is a difficult endeavour in this team as it needs complicated communication patterns, and personal resentments might get in the way.

The Friendship


This group created the friendship to show their dialogic and empathetic collaboration. The crew feels like home, and actually lives on the multifunctional ship. There is no real distinction between work and life. People feel safe in this friendly and familiar environment. A roof can be rolled out as soon as there is danger or a storm in sight. Solidarity plays an important role on the ship. Crew members help each other and can collaborate freely with the people they need for a project, then change teams again.

Conclusions and Where Next?

During the workshop the participants decided that there was not only one quadrant of communication patterns, as teams often shift through different stages of communication depending on the phase of a design process. For example, if you were doing a social innovation project inside a favela in Rio, the design team starts out being sympathetic to the people living there and then develops empathy. The building of each ship enabled the workshop participants to share and externalise their experience of collaborating in the design and innovation teams they have worked with in the past. The people that created the dictatorship felt it showed how traditional studio design teams collaborated, whereas the spaceship shared the culture of how interdisciplinary creative teams work alongside one another. Daniela and I feel that this workshop format could be a starting point towards driving organizational change through co-creation, giving people the tools to have a voice in creating an environment where their team feels creatively confident. In 2015, Daniela and I intend to set sail for Brazil, taking the Team Empathy workshops on a tour around Brazilian innovation organisations. Our aim is to develop empathy tools and co-design new organisational models that increase team collaboration and strengthen creativity, trust and pride. we intend to share what they learn on their journey – so watch this space!

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