True collaboration is about more than just bringing people together


You hear the word collaboration banded about a lot nowadays. Done correctly it can be extremely powerful, but generating real innovation from a team of diverse individuals is far from straightforward. So what steps can you take to ensure your gathering of brilliant minds delivers equally brilliant results?

I have always been interested in collaboration. The idea of cutting to the chase and delivering real innovation by putting all the experts in one room together has a lot of appeal. Surely this was a better, more agile way to get breakthroughs in the creation of businesses, products and brands.

So I created a product called Creative Burst. For me, this  was more than a glorified workshop. Its core ingredient was collaboration.

It promised to deliver:

  • talented people working together towards a common goal.
  • diverse teams that matched creative talent with subject matter expertise.
  • timeboxing and working in sprints to ‘hothouse’ spontaneous ideas.
  • creative work that was twice as effective in half the time (and often half the budget).

The benefits to the client, in principle, were:

  • reduced time-wasting and ‘office politics’.
  • the flexibility to change the scope throughout the project (since no scope was defined at the start).
  • the opportunity to learn how to create and innovate.
  • the development of something tangible that could be shared, tested and built upon.

At first, everything went well

Selling in Creative Burst was relatively painless. Many prospective clients and partners expressed enthusiasm - and the few that we actually delivered worked well. But over time, the cracks started to show.

Why wasn't it perfect?

It wasn't the process or principles behind it that let it down; it was the people. And, in particular, their attitudes towards collaboration. You’d think that getting a load of brilliant minds into a room to develop ideas would be, well, a ‘no brainer’. But that wasn’t always the case.

Problem #1 People can be very risk averse

Sadly, when put on the spot among a group of semi-strangers, many people will choose to play it safe. Indeed, the best thinkers are among the most sensitive. Yet true collaboration can only happen when people are prepared to stick their neck out and take risks.

Problem #2 Other people are inclined to force their views on others

In many ways this is the opposite issue to problem #1. Yes, we want opinions and ideas, but we also need people to open up to new possibilities and different thinking.

When you throw in all the other issues such as office politics, social pressure, oneupmanship, it’s easy to see why people say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee.

So what’s to be done? How can we achieve genuine creative collaboration?

If we’re going to get the best from all the people in the room we need to create an environment where a) no one feels threatened and b) no one can dominate the discussion. Does that sound easy? I can assure you it’s not, but there are steps you can take to make it easier.

What I’ve learned about collaboration

You need a moderator.

Some people will talk for ten minutes non-stop and only make a valuable point right at the end. Others will make their point so elegantly and concisely that everyone misses it. That’s why you need a moderator:

  • to ensure everyone gets a fair hearing.
  • to move the discussion forward.
  • to ensure you capture all the ‘gold’.

You need an agenda.

Without a focus, it’s very easy for minds to wander - brilliant minds especially so. Everyone in the room needs to know:

  • why they are there.
  • what the overall goal is.
  • what success might look like.

You need a safe space

Nothing will be achieved if individuals are afraid to speak, or to adopt a position based on gut instinct rather than absolute fact. So you need to set out some ground rules. In particular:

  • attendees need assurance that they will not be ridiculed.
  • attendees need to confirm that they will bring an open mind.
  • attendees need to commit to leaving their ego at the doorway.

You need tea and refreshments

It sounds obvious, but if you want the ideas to keep flowing, you’ve got to ensure everyone is fed and watered and biscuited.

And finally

You need to embrace the unknown. Go into the process with a clear and open mind, ready to take any risk, ready for any possibility. In the words of Robin S Sharma “As you move outside of your comfort zone, what was once unknown and frightening becomes your new normal”  

Danny SomekhComment