Collaborative UX projects. Lessons from Youth Leadership Treks

Insights for effective project leadership and collaboration. Four months of youth development treks with Raleigh International.

Volunteering as an Adventure Project Manager with Raleigh International is an excellent way to develop yourself by developing others.

The delivery of 20 day / 300km youth leadership treks with teams of fifteen 17 - 24 year olds can teach you so much about managing diverse teams in challenging situations.

In particular the people skills that are necessary to collaborate with compassion on successful UX projects.

Lessons for collaborative UX projects

  1. Leadership: adapt positioning and style
  2. Gamestorming: the power of play to educate and align teams
  3. Iteration: 'plan, do, review', creative agility and abrasion
  4. Velocity: more haste, more speed
  5. Celebrate success

Leadership: adapt positioning and style

Leading from behind
Example: leading from behind. Day roles and tasks delegated to the Venturers. A clear view of progress and accessible to provide experience and advice as needed.

Adapting your leadership style to the context and objectives of the project was one of the major lessons for Project Managers.

Our default position was democratic facilitation of the Venturers to promote 'youth leadership'. Unless the team was at serious risk, the onus was on coaching the Day Leaders as they ran the trek.

This did not mean that we surrendered our leadership responsibilities. We were still direction setters and vision makers for the team. Rather it meant that our focus was on allowing our Venturers to emerge, lead and innovate. Wherever possible they were responsible for identifying problems are collaborating to create solutions.

In this sense Adventure Project Mangers are servant leaders. They support initiatives and create conditions for individuals to make the best use of themselves and resources.

Leading from behind means sharing power and authority and promoting iteration, discovery and collaboration.

This is an excellent fit for digital work because it is predicated on empathy and trust for co-workers. Trust and empathy reduces conflicts, politics and violence in our dealings with others.

Leadership takeaways

  • Leaders still need to set the ultimate vision, direction and take responsibility for projects. Yet they can adapt their style to suit the needs of the project.
  • Leaders can create cultures where a collective process of iteration and invention can flourish. They don't need to create all solutions, everyone should have their chance to shine.
  • Leaders should balance creating teams that can execute project deliverables whilst still fostering a sense of collaboration and ownership.

Gamestorming: the power of play to educate and align teams

Gamestorming workshop
Using a game as a change engine to explore communication, leadership and team working skills. The objective in this game is for a leader to coordinate the delivery of the water (cup) into the bowl. However they must work through intermediaries to create and execute a solution.

Experiential learning is a personal development precept that runs throughout Raleigh.  All volunteers learn by doing, whether leading, managing or participating in tasks and projects.

Sometimes the activity in question, like navigating a team, is exercise enough. Other times games and play can work as an engine to create to specific discoveries and results in the group.

These can be team icebreakers, or simplified systems that mirror real world interactions. In all cases information and power is distributed equally across the group.  This can speed things up and  create engagement.

Games are excellent for digital work because they can distribute information and expectations. Icebreakers can warm-up focus groups. Similarly role playing processes, like user journeys through a system, can build empathy for customers.

Gamestorming takeaways

  • Successful adoption depends on the creating the right mindset across the group. It's not a game if people feel coerced. Furthermore people who don't accept the process can disrupt and undermine it for others.
  • Start small and at the beginning. Trying to introduce games later in a groups development is possible. But is easier if games are part of a groups culture from the outset.
  • Align with reality. Choose games that enhance existing relationships, practices or solve current problems.
  • Create a safe space. The participants need to feel comfortable to try out new scenarios and to see there results.

Iteration: 'plan, do, review', creative agility and abrasion

One of the core tenets of expedition is the 'plan, do, review, apply'. Raleigh-speak for agile innovation.  It is like aspects of the Agile Manifesto in many regards.

Yet, like designing for simplicity, adopting an agile approach can be difficult. Individuals can find it hard to let other people build on their solutions. Teams can become grounded in a quick-fix for a problem and never find incremental improvements.

Our role was to help run design workshops, ceding control to the Venturer's as practices embedded and the team matured. Oftentimes these were scrum-like. Short, focussed, sessions to collaboratively solve a pressing need for the team.

Iteration takeaways

  • Use games and play to set expectations and behaviours. In particular during the forming and storming phases of team creation.
  • Create a safe space, where people feel they can contribute without fear of judgement. Emphasise that the solution only is critiqued, not the individual. Facilitate as needed.
  • Embrace creative abrasion, an environment where diverse and conflicting opinions grate against each other. This can help to foster new ideas and improvements.
  • Acknowledge contributions. Identify individual efforts and emphasise that successful solutions have many fathers.

Velocity: more haste, more speed

Trekking is an excellent medium to understand project velocity. It's perhaps the only project type that includes actual team movement at recordable speeds!

One of the eternal lessons for the teams was the need to create, agree and execute plans. Whether chunking expedition supplies into food drops, or arranging a daily task rota, planning was key.

A failure to plan had clear implications for the team. Not planning to leave on time meant walking in equatorial heat. Not having understood the route meant getting lost and having reduced rest time at the end of the day.

For digital projects missing critical steps early in a project is as important. It might feel less experiential, but the costs and impact on velocity can be real.

Examples could include: not running, (or including!) user research activities, creating or validating real user requirements, or taking a content-first approach. Steps like these may pass unnoticed at first but will have real longer term implications for successful delivery.

Velocity takeaway

Invest time early on to build a project vision, team or strategies which will make the project more likely to be realised. Subsequent project speed is less likely to be hindered and the net velocity may be higher.

Celebrate success

Forging a high performing team from a diverse group of strangers is a goal common to all Raleigh projects. One of the main ways to keep the team motivated is to break down project milestones and celebrate their completion. Another is to identify individual contributions and to champion those.

In the workplace we may be working with a core of people we know, or we may beYour team many be diverse or homogeneous.

Celebrate success takeaways

  • Celebrate success often. Perhaps it's a hill completed, or a sprint polished-off. Encourage the observation of small wins.
  • Champion individual successes. It might be a trail section well navigated, or the managing a difficult stakeholder. Praising individual achievement, whether publicly or privately, can focus the team and motivate the whole.
  • Repeat success celebration when it's important, even if it's been done before. Perhaps its been a particularly big day on the mountain, or an effort to a push code to production. Remember to acknowledge the achievement.
  • Celebrate in public where possible. It will normally be of greatest value to the individual or to the team as a unit.
  • Reward behaviours through celebration. It might be adhering to the Risk Assessment, or conducting a paired approach to copywriting. Identify and reward people who are doing the right things.
  • You're never too tired to celebrate. If you can celebrate on trek, you can celebrate in the office, or down the pub.


Individual technical competence, as a Mountain Leader, or as a UX Practitioner, is important. It is also a given. Being able to lead, manage and play-nice with others can be much harder. Yet is can be the difference between affecting successful outcomes in projects and having enjoyable days at work.

Focussing on people orientated projects, instead of complex digital work, has been insightful.

Youth Leadership Trek in context

Raleigh International is a leading sustainable and youth development charity. During three month expeditions groups of one hundred 17 to 24 year olds from the widest range of backgrounds and life stages work together on worthwhile environmental, community and youth leadership projects.

These projects are transformational journeys that develop crucial people and personal skills, values and attitudes. The most challenging – and so most rewarding – project is Youth Leadership Trek. The team is wholly self-sufficient, carrying their own food, water and shelter.

It is up to the young people, facilitated by the Adventure Project Manager, to design and iterate their own solutions to get the whole team successfully to the end of the trek. The focus is very much on the team's journey rather than the destination.

Further Reading

Raleigh International

People skills for digital workers

By Rik Williams

I write about how to collaborate to design simple, usable and inclusive information experiences that make the lives of customers easier. Read more in Categories and Tags.

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