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.
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.
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.
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