10 rules for modern collaboration

You could make an argument that in a creative organization the single most important skill today is the ability to collaborate. That’s not to say brilliant writing, inspirational design, impeccable craftsmanship and elegant coding don’t matter. They do. But in an age when a problem is as likely to be solved with an app as with an ad, when the bulk of a campaign’s content might be user generated, when a consumer’s experience is only as good as its technology and UX, or when ambiguity and market dynamics call for something far beyond communications, then it’s group talent that really matters.

Some companies have it pretty well figured out.  Pixar, for example, is a shining case study.  We can watch Randy Nelson talk about the studio’s collaborative culture and its contribution to creativity, story telling and execution.

We can learn from Tim Brown and Ideo on how expanded teams come together to observe and solve problems with design thinking. There’s even a well-thought-out system to inspire collaborative behavior.

Or we can borrow from Jump Associates’ concept of hybrid thinking, the belief that it’s not simply about getting multiple disciplines in the same room – they all just talk past each other – but rather training and developing hybrid “thinkers,” individuals who are one-part humanist, one-part technologist and one-part capitalist.

Obviously collaboration has been a big part of the advertising and production business for decades. In fact, adman Alex F. Osborn, the “O” in BBDO invented — or at least pioneered — “brainstorming,” which had been practiced at his NY agency for years, presenting it in his 1948 classic, Your Creative Power.

But the world has grown a lot more complex since the days when a group of like-minded white men sat around an oak conference table and agreed not to criticize each other’s brain farts. We’re no longer simply in search of cleverness, or even positioning. And the range of disciplines and expertise necessary to conceive and execute a multi-channel, immersive, ongoing, engaging user experience takes a new set of collaborative tools and tactics.

Based on a combination of experience, discovery and observation, here are 10 tactics you might want to consider putting into practice inside your company.

Embrace openness

Collaboration begins with the mindset that we should share our ideas early, seeking feedback, reaction and suggestions to make them better. When I started in this business, it was common to hide your concepts from peers, either out of fear of seeing them die too early or having a competitive team steal them. Today, smart companies encourage everyone — even those not formally assigned to the project — to post their ideas on a public wall and to chime in on what they like and why.

Create collisions

Steven Johnson has convincingly shown us that innovation breeds in environments where unexpected collisions occur on a regular basis. While you can force this to happen in a conference room, more and more companies (Mullen among them) have  found it’s more effective to structure a physical environment that encourages collisions. Tear down the walls and mix technologists, programmers, strategists, designers and media together. Create traffic patterns that yield unexpected encounters.  You’ll see more interesting thinking as a result.

Assemble diverse teams

In his studies of creative enterprises and collaborative networks, Brian Uzzi, a professor at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, discovered that when people too familiar with each other repeatedly work together the results are stale. Homogeneity restricts fresh thinking. Uzzi argues for diversity of background and training as well as diversity of gender, race and ethnic background.  So try to mix it up as much as possible. It can gets ugly, but it won’t be boring.

Leave senior people out

Even in the most open cultures there’s a tendency to defer to the senior people in the room. All that can do is deter someone less senior from expressing an opinion or sharing an idea. Peers do a much better job of relating to one another. So if you’re the boss, go find something else to do. And if you’re in a situation where too many senior people dominate, schedule the meetings when they’re not around.

Know who’s in the room

Author and surgeon Atul Gawande writes in his brilliant The Checklist Manifesto that accidents in surgery drop by double-digit percentages when participants introduce themselves at the beginning of a procedure. (Note: half the time your surgical team doesn’t even know each other; that’s true in a lot of companies, too.)

Turns out that if people talk at the beginning of a meeting, they’re more inclined to speak up when the creative director/surgeon does something really stupid, like cut off the wrong leg or leave suchers in the body. They’re also more likely to make a contribution rather than sit there silently and then talk about how stupid those who did talk were after the brainstorming session is over.

More 20 and 30-somethings

I wrote about this a week or so ago. The post garnered more negative comments than positive. But I wasn’t suggesting that 20-somethings are smarter or that we should shuffle off the 40 year olds. Just agreeing with Vijay Govindarajan and his highly acclaimed Ten Rules for Strategic Innovators: From Idea to Execution. I still stand by this recommendation.

Shut up for 10 minutes

Tim Leake shared this idea with me at a recent BDW workshop claiming it works like magic. After briefing the team, make everyone clam up for 10 minutes and write down all the ideas that pop into their heads.After this period of extended silence discuss and riff off each other’s list. It gets lots of ideas on the table, neutralizes the players who tend to dominate and liberates those who might be a little more timid.

Find the number

Two people aren’t enough. Twelve might be too many. In his research of Broadway musicals, Uzzi studied the interactions of key figures — directors, choreographers, librettists and composers — and learned that the optimal team size for any musical creation was seven people, a number that hasn’t changed since the 1930s. It’s enough participants to enable specialization, but few enough to avoid the frustrations and costs of group coordination. Experiment to find what works best in your company.

Let the group decide

Legend has it that as a creative director, Lee Clow could walk into a room with 100 ideas on the wall, scan them all and quickly conclude, “That’s the one.”  Probably a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s what any great creative director is supposed to be able to do. However, no one’s right all the time. At Ideo all the participants are allowed to place a yellow stickie on their favorite few ideas. While a CD may get to make the final decision, he has the benefit of seeing what the crowd of participants thinks are the best ideas.

Value the network

We have a tendency to always celebrate the individual. Whose idea was it?  Who thought it up? Whose name goes on the award?  Even in the world of team sports we’re more interested in identifying the one hero rather than crediting the group effort. But to really encourage results, we should re-think how we assign credit, conduct performance reviews and structure incentive compensation.  After all, we really want people to collaborate, why not reward them if when they do it right.

Got other ideas on how to collaborate?  Please share.  And thanks for reading.


Collective Brainpower: MIT’s Center for Collective Intelligence

Drive change the Ideo Way: Harvard Business Review

Group IQ: The Boston Globe

Photo: borrowed from Business Week


• Speak to a strong sweet spot of mutual benefit when recruiting potential collaborators and remind each other of that mutuality when making choices or experiencing conflict

• Consider agreeing on a few Rules of Engagement to enable disparate participants agree sooner on behaviors that most matter to them.

• Speak to the "us" interest more frequently to the mine or yours


Edward, coming in late on this, but better than never. Made by Many has a great approach which begins with participants DRAWING their ideas for a product or service. This was a revelation to me, takes all of the negative dynamics of group discussion out of the picture and lets people focus on ideas. Even better, apparently it works just fine if you "can't draw" like me. Using a different medium to brainstorm can be liberating


An alternative title: 10 Keys to a Creative Business Culture.


This is really helpful. I'd be interested in some concrete ideas or resources under "Value the Network". As you said, we encourage teams, but the credit always gets focused on the individulal.


These are all great suggestions. I will recommend a book called The Do it Yourself Lobotomy by Tom Monohan. Tom is a truly great creative director and mentor. He's book is a trasure trove of ideation techniques.


WOW! All of these ideas are spot on as far as my own experience goes. I have to say one of the hardest to achieve for my agency is getting "the number". We can get great input with 7 folks, other times we may only have 4. The realities of most current agencies is the new-job-with-the-hot-deadline. Sometimes the people you may want in a brainstorming meeting are already scheduled with another department meeting. I am going to review this list again and make sure it gets passed around to everyone at the agency. Really useful post. Thanks!


Help other team members, whether to articulate their ideas, be supportive and open to their ideas or just to listen.



Excellent suggestions, and I agree-- give the 20-30 year old more air time. They are really smart, and can teach boomers new tricks. I know from experience you can tap into a gold mine when you bring people from different disciplines together and create the right container for deeper levels of conversation. I do this via arts-based dialogue. Lots of activities for better collaboration are outlined in "Orchestrating Collaboration at Work: Using Music, Improv, Storytelling, and Other Arts to Improve Teamwork, a collaborative book on collaboration.


Excellent ideas - all of them. I can't wait to dig deeper into the links/names that are new to me.

What I would add, especially since Pixar is mentioned, is a culture of trust. People are less likely to share their ideas if they get shot down or if politics are at play.

Pixar has a unique culture where management creates the conditions for both creativity and managing risk, yet doesn't interfere.

Their employees stay with the company for years and years, allowing for strong relationships; it is a true community of artists. This is reinforced with onsite classes across a number of artistic disciplines.

Most remarkably, its culture is one where everyone helps everyone else create their best work for the good of the project. In such a trusting atmosphere, ideas can be shared and improved upon.

All of this is foundational to Pixar's artistic and financial success.


I am so pleased to see a blog post with a number in the title alluding to a list of items, with actual relevant examples to underpin them, that I alomost don't care about the content. Which btw, is good.

So thanks for the well considered and useful post.


Great post- too often, I hear "there are no bad ideas in brainstorming." Then why is it that the majority of such meetings are dominated by one or two voices?

Also, on the idea of creating collisions- it's a great way to make sure that employees are aware of all the other happenings in and organization and how each function falls into place.


Advertising used to be an individual appeal. A one-way conversation from a brand, to the mind of a target person. Favorable action occurred when the person did what the brand wanted them to do. Namely, buy a product, service or even idea (politics.) The way advertising agencies were structured were efficient enough in solving advertising problems. AEs would write briefs, and then an art director and copywriter team would go off and brainstorm. Throw in some focus group research, and that's all they needed to come back with the level of work, and results, that clients expected. Everyone was happy.

The reason your formula works is because of how digital media has opened up the UX to allow for open (2-way) conversation. To apply yesterday's problem-solving model to how we communicate today doesn't even make sense*. Of course you collaborate. Of course you open the room up to everyone. Everyone's a potential target now - and they want to contribute to the conversations. The days of a individuals hammering out solutions alone in agony by individuals doesn't work for today's wide-open dialogue.

"When you try to formalize or socialize creative activity, the only sure result is commercial constipation . . . . The good ideas are all hammered out in agony by individuals, not spewed out by groups." - Charles Browder (1957), president of BBDO

The days of Don Draper are dead. And I'm not complaining.

* Note, this is not to say that core concepts are not best created by people who think like copywriters (who think like a person who is alone in the shower.)


This is all great, and while they're inherent in your ideas, a couple others I would spell out might be:

SQUASH HIERARCHY - discourage visual signs of rank (big offices), encourage simple intros at meetings, ie, "hi, I'm Jeff, creative" as opposed to, "hi, I'm Jeff, senior vice president and executive creative director".

EXPECT PARTICIPATION - if you're in a meeting and you've got something to say, you should feel not only empowered to say it, but expected to say it

DEFER TO THE BEST IDEA - if a new hire, fresh out of college or off the streets, has a killer idea and you have some sway, make it be known you think his idea is killer and work with it, even if the senior guy pouts

There's more, essentially adland should model itself on Silicon Valley, where rank is rank, failure is a badge of honor, and perseverance matters more than almost anything else. I'm sure adland has changed since I left in 2006, but I've been back enough times to know that rank is still pulled, failure is shameful, and what you've done matters more than what you're trying to do.

One last thought, and I think I've posted this before on your blog, at some point you've got to stop talking and start doing and I think a great idea to encourage is the notion of "disagree and commit", meaning state your opposing case, but if you see you will not be carrying the day, support the team.


  1. […] 10 Rules for Modern Collaboration This is an excellent post focusing on one of the key traits of successful teams. Collaboration is at the heart of true innovation and these tips are a great way to begin. I particularly believe that Edward’s first point is spot on, embracing openness is only possible when you create a strong culture of team and that’s when you have a chance to achieve something truly amazing. […]