Jocelyn Tsaih
1 August 2017

Creative collaboration: do many hands always make light work?


Jocelyn Tsaih
1 August 2017


Collaboration has been having a fashion moment. It’s “the stuff of growth,” says Sir Ken Robinson, and the “defining characteristic of creativity,” according to the Huffington Post. Last year, R/GA New York redesigned its whole office to help cultivate collaboration. Even our governments have been operating in coalitions. But while many modern businesses chime about their collaborative cultures, few talk about how it works in practice. Studies show that without processes in place to promote harmony, working with others can actually inhibit creativity rather than enliven it. Whether your ideas get sidelined, shot down or outright stolen, working with others can come with all kinds of hair-tearing frustrations. To find out how to get collaborative working right, we spoke to creatives working in pairs, trios and larger collectives.

Creatives are actually particularly resistant to receiving ideas from others. One study found that people who consider themselves artistic are much better at giving ideas than taking them, especially if the input comes from someone outside of the creative department. The research team, including Kimberly D. Elsbach, Brooke Brown-Saracino and Francis J. Flynn, describe artistic types as needing to put their “unique stamp” on a piece of work that expresses their signature style. Input from other people can compromise that.

“Egos get in the way and someone will only see the bad in another person’s idea, and then bring up their own idea which has nothing to do with it,” says co-founder Harry Fowler, co-founder of London-based, three-man design agency Yawn.

According to the trio, which specialise in branding and packaging design, egos are particularly a problem in larger groups where there are hierarchical structures. In these too-many-cooks situations, ideas can end up losing their potency as everyone tries to make their mark. “An idea can get diluted the more sets of hands it goes through,” explains Yawn co-founder Joe George.

These problems exist in the tech world too. “Two big things that inhibit creativity are fear and ego,” says Andrew Keller, global creative director of Facebook Creative Shop. People fear how their ideas will be received while simultaneously believing theirs are better than others.

However, the previously mentioned research found that creatives’ resistance to other people’s ideas is less about ego and more about identity. “A healthy percentage of people in creative roles self-identify as ‘artists’ and react in unproductive ways when they feel that identity is being threatened,” says the team behind the study in a Harvard Business Review article.

The key is for this sense of identity to be managed and looked after by the right team processes and culture. To an extent, the idea of the solo, creative hero is just a myth that we’ve constructed to serve these fragile identities. Our awards systems, that hero-worship the creative team over those in accounts, production or strategy, help to uphold this unhealthy belief system.

In reality, creativity is never truly an individual exercise as we cannot completely free ourselves from being influenced or inspired by others. Plus, the fact that “No man is an island”, as the poet John Donne told us, is especially resonant today when technology keeps us connected to one another constantly.

If compromise is an art form, so is collaboration. Here’s how to master it.

Make it impersonal

For Facebook’s Andrew Keller, the answer to healthy group dynamics is not to act as if there is no such thing as a bad idea. “That cultivates a too nice, kid glove approach to brainstorming. So instead we believe there are bad ideas, but we LOVE bad ideas. We learn from them and they help us identify good ones.” A further tactic is to suggest that all ideas come from outer space. “Own the idea but don’t worry about it’s reflection on you,” he says. This means people can judge the idea, but not themselves or others, helping to loosen up people’s inhibitions.

It’s not just about untangling ideas from people’s identities, but aligning teams around a shared goal. The work then becomes less about individuals and their careers and more about a higher cause. Various collectives cite this as one of the most important elements of their collaborative practice. “We all have the same aim which is to collectively have the best output we possibly can,” says Luke James from London-based Bread Collective, a network of designers that together create attention-seizing murals and installations. “Knowing that we’re all striving for this makes it much easier to swallow your pride if necessary.”

Julien Vallée of Vallée Duhamel also champions the role of flexibility in order to achieve a shared goal. The two-man design studio produce dreamy, candy-coloured films and installations for clients from Google to MTV. “We realise that whenever we thought we had the exact same vision of framing, composition or lighting in a scene, there will always be a difference when it comes to the moment of making the decision on set,” says Julien. “Sometimes it makes it better than you expected, and other times you don’t agree with the other on the spot, but understand later that it makes more sense. There’s always a balance and we are pretty flexible with that.”

"We LOVE bad ideas. We learn from them and they help us identify good ones.”

Andrew Keller, Facebook Creative Shop

Embrace differences

As Andrew Keller outlined, collaboration is not about being “nice”. In fact, it is fruitful because it creates tensions. “It would be pointless to be working together if we agreed on everything,” agrees Ed Kaye of directing duo the Sacred Egg. During their 10 year long partnership they have worked with H&M, DJ Fresh and most recently MailChimp on their witty and surreal “Did you mean MailChimp?” ads.

Ed’s creative other-half Alex explains that their differences makes the work more interesting. “Ed has developed amazing instincts and is very good at listening to them. I take much longer,” says Alex. “Eventually I started to think that maybe that difference itself is what makes for a challenging and therefore creative relationship.”

In fact, it’s scientifically proven that groups of people with varying skills and backgrounds work better than homogenous ones. Led by psychologist Doris Fay, a study analysed groups of UK healthcare workers and found that multidisciplinary teams introduced more innovations over the previous year than those with shared skillsets.

This idea is slowly being embraced by the creative industry. For example, Adam & Eve DDB open up their annual brief for the John Lewis Christmas ad to everyone at the agency, allowing anyone to have a go at the script whether they work in the finance or creative teams.

Similarly, CP+B London ECD Dave Buonaguidi looks to hire hybrid creatives. “Right now, I am seeing lots more single creatives who are multifaceted: coder, strategist, writer, photographer, bloggers, and as an employer it makes everything much more interesting.”

Allow time for solo work

Studies also show that our minds are only open to receiving ideas from the subconscious when we are relaxed. This is why people often come up with their best material in the shower, cycling to work or when they are about to drop off to sleep. “Having a personal environment where you can get lost and be wrong and pivot and dream and accept ideas from the universe without the social pressures that naturally come in a group environment is very important,” Andrew Keller explains.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about how to be welcoming to introverts, people who might not want to come to a hack or share their ideas with a large group,” says James Turner from creative collective Glimpse, that famously replaced the ads in a London tube station with photographs of cats. He explains that one of the collective’s best ideas (the Picnic Project) came from a member that was very shy. They only felt comfortable enough to suggest it during a private conversation over lunch. Now James shares briefs in advance of a meeting so people can develop and execute their ideas remotely.

Encouraging a degree of solo work is a crucial part of the process for Bread Collective, too. “It allows individual exploration and for people to interpret concepts and develop aesthetics in their own unique way,” he says. So the need for creatives to express their identity isn’t a bad thing at all, teams just have to make room for it. As Yawn’s third co-founder, Charlotte Robson, puts it, “it’s all about finding a balance.”

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