All of us are better than one of us: thoughts on collaboration

One reason collaboration is hard: the more people the more "agreements" become necessary

Anyone who’s been to graduate business school and taken a class in organizational behavior knows that “all of us are better than one of us.” The example I remember from way too many years ago is the exercise of trying to survive in a desolate winter climate after a plane crash. Among them, the survivors have some steel wool, a cigarette lighter, a compass, enough chocolate bars for everyone to have one, a large piece of canvas, a jackknife and nips of scotch and whiskey. (Thank goodness for that, anyway.)

The exercise pits individuals against teams of eight to see who makes the best decisions and survives the longest.  You have to pick which supplies are most important, rank them in order and explain why. No surprise, the individuals die and the groups manage to make it.

The game is supposed to prove that collaboration is good.

So why is collaboration so hard sometimes?

Last week Rishad Toboccawala told a 4A’s conference that his clients’ most vociferous complaint is that their agencies don’t know how to collaborate, either with the client’s organization, or with its other agencies.

Conversely a CMO for a large packaged good firm recently revealed to me in a meeting that his firm maintains multiple agencies in part so they can pit them against one another. Go figure.

Last month I met with a large service organiztion that admitted its number one frustration was the fact that product development and marketing had little or nothing to do with one another. No wonder they had nothing worth advertising.

And at conference after conference I run into companies trying to evolve from traditional advertising agency models to more digitally centric companies but struggle with how to get concept and code to coexist.

Getting better at collaboration, however, is in everyone’s best interest. A look at Pixar’s track record shows us the value of focusing a team of mixed disciplines on a single outcome. Projects like Pepsi Refresh reveal what can happen when five different kinds of agencies (TBWA/Chiat Day, Huge, Undercurrent, Edelman, and Weber Shandwick) work together. The success of companies like Ideo and Made by Many conveys the value of learning to work in larger teams where everyone’s vested in the outcome. We can even see the benefits of including community in the process, courtesy of examples like the Uniform Project and more recently It Gets Better.

At Mullen we’ve been aggressively working to get better at collaboration. We bring together a more diverse group of people. We include all disciplines at the beginning of a project. We assume that an idea can come from any corner of the company. And we try and get each individual involved to understand the roles and perspectives of everyone else involved.

Want to get better at collaboration, as a company and an individual?  Here are some thoughts.

Become a collaborative company

As a company, there are a number of things you can do.  For starters, get rid of walls and departments and silos. Mix people up. Put technology in the creative or marketing department. For example, at Mullen, we’ve embedded tech, mobile, social and some media right in the creative department.
Second, change the teams.  If you once started the process with a writer and art director, mix it up. Include UX or social or mobile.

Third, consider changing your incentive and compensation programs to reward the kind of behavior you want to encourage. People follow leaders. But they also follow the money.

Become a collaborative partner

Inevitably more and more clients will expect their agency partners to work well together. Today’s complex projects often require multiple skills and expertise that rarely reside in one place.  Step one is to embrace a mindset of contribution versus control. Two, try and align yourself with companies that think the same way.

Finally, if you’re the lead, get the other parties involved at the beginning before everything’s figured out. Only then will everyone feel truly invested. Oh, and if you’re the second or third partner, insist on involvement up front.

No doubt this is hard – ask anyone who’s worked on Pepsi Refresh and you’ll hear stories of tension and frustration – but get good at it and  you could actually give yourself a competitive advantage with clients.

Become a collaborator

My tech guys always tell me they hate being asked to build something. They’d much rather be asked, “What should we build?”  Lesson?  Get yourself in the room before all the decisions are made, even if you have to push your way in.  Learn how to make other people’s ideas better and at the same time make sure they know what you can add.

It also helps to see a project or its potential from the perspective of all the other people around the table. That way you’ll be much better at eliciting their ideas and leveraging their skills. Plus you’ll better understand what’s behind the suggestions they offer.

Finally, it goes without saying that your customer should have a voice and a role, too. Whether you’re inventing a new product or supporting a cause.

What do you have to say?  Got any great examples, suggestions or case studies of collaboration within an organization or across different companies?  Please share.  And thanks for reading.


Spot on says this former Wall Street Journal reporter. Even in this wobbly economy and rapidly more complex, connected and bottom up world, most companies, organizations and government agencies are (naturally) reluctant to becoming more collaborative - until a "competitor" provides a better option for those they seek to serve. What's exciting is that there are more tools, methods and situations in which we are evolving smarter ways to collaborate. To make a collaboration a success, consider these 6 essentials:

1. Share a sweet spot of mutual benefit or interest
2. Design collaboration so there's an opportunity for each participant to use best talents
3. Ensure that every participant has a needed role and there are no extra participants
4. Agree on a few rules of engagement
5. Keep reminding yourself when conflict arises that a key to your success is your diverse talents and mindsets so others won't act right - like you - yet will ultimately enable you, collectively to accomplish greater things than you can on your own
6. In the hardest parts know that you are building memories that you want to look back on with relish


When I created my agency in 2001, we called it a 'virtual collaborative.' Which was just a fancy way of stating the obvious - that it takes a team of people to create 'great.' We just used the tools of the internet to smash down the traditional barriers that kept this kind of collaboration from occurring. Of course our concept was way too new for most people to embrace in the early 00s, and now everyone does it. But when you think about it, collaboration is basically essential in every facet of society. From a marriage to running a nation, no man is an island. Unless, of course, they live on one. We just sound smarter today talking about it as a new concept.


Back in about 2003, I think it was, right after I got my big promotion to co-ECD, my ECD partner wanted to break up the organization of the creative department, which was made up of teams. During a pitch, these teams would compete till the bitter end, focusing only on the ideas they had created. I felt the system was fine, a little hardcore competition was good, right? But my partner had a different idea: let the teams compete for a few days, then, when the best ideas had been picked, swarm them with everyone's talents in a process he called furious collaboration. He also wanted the teams to change over time, rather than stay fixed. I was skeptical, but we did it and the result was incredible. Ideas got better, morale improved, work was more fun.