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Leveraging Collaboration

Creative block getting in the way of productivity? Collaboration doesn't have to be messy. Ryan lays down four simple rules to keep in mind when bringing others to the table.

We’ve all heard the old saying: “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Nothing could be closer to the truth when it comes to business, as well as the creative process. Collaboration and teamwork are key, and in our business especially, it’s important to keep your mind open to new ideas from any resource.

Quite often, Quill is approached by in-house marketing managers who feel like they’re on an island, with the whole company counting on them to produce creative solutions day after day. It’s an overwhelming seat to hold even for the most experienced professional. At some point, when a mental roadblock is hit, you have some choices to make. Do I push forward with what I feel is the best solution that I could come up with myself, or do I call others to the table for collaboration? Both options have their pros and cons. Alone, it’s easy to get things done quickly, but effort doesn’t always create new content, so you’re left holding the bag. On the other hand, if you invite others to join you on the island, it may take a little more time, but in the end you’ll rest comfortably knowing that the solution was the best that could be uncovered by the collective.

Of course, this is easier said than done. One of the biggest challenges with collaboration is the idea of too many cooks in the kitchen. Many times when others are brought to the table, everyone walks away being more confused and overwhelmed than when they entered the room. We call this phenomenon “design by committee.”

At Quill, we’ve set some rules for collaboration and team problem-solving.

Rule number one: Form your action team. Notice how it’s called an “action team” and not a “committee.” Choose a small number of individuals who you know will be able to keep focused and will not cloud up the water in the process. I recommend never exceeding five resources. If too many people are included, it slows down the process drastically.

Rule number two: Keep things on track and goal-oriented. As the organizer, you must lead the conversation and do your best to keep the discussion moving forward and based around objectives.

Rule number three: Don’t ask the big question. If you’re trying to uncover a solution to a problem, never begin the discussion by directly asking for a solution to the problem. Start at the roots instead. It will lead to more creative thought and more considerate solutions. Here’s an example:
Big question to solve: “Why do we struggle to develop creative solutions?”

This is a tough question to answer because it’s simply stated but very complex. If we were to ask this question, everyone at the table would scratch their heads and try to come up with a single answer which could go a number of unexpected ways.

In order to direct the efforts of the group, we task everyone to take 2 minutes and develop four related sub-questions. They’re to be kept short, simple, and centered around identifying the real issue. These questions will point us in the right direction to solve our big problem.

Here were some of the questions that the group came up with:

  • “Why do we not get enough time for projects?”
  • “Why are we not involved in the project earlier?”
  • “Where do we find inspiration?”
  • “When do we take the pencil away?”
  • “When do we agree to client requests when we should be saying no?”

Rule number 4: Keep it short. It should never take longer than a half-hour to gain perspectives and insight. If it’s taking longer than expected, then there may be too many people at the table and the conversation isn’t structured simply enough.

After our meeting, team leads walked away with a better understanding of the root issues and are now empowered to make better-informed decisions. Remember, collaboration isn’t designed to have someone else do your work, but rather gain a better understanding from different perspectives.

Collaboration, like any tool, is best used at the right time and for the right task. Too often, people refer to it for every issue which only ends up with endless meetings, needless debate, and a struggle to land on a solution.

If you’re tired of being alone on that island, I suggest inviting others to the party. Be sure to keep group members intentional, design the structure of the meeting to gain better questions rather than poor answers, and keep the conversation fun and playful. No question is out of bounds. Nothing kills creativity quite like having your last idea shot down like it was worthless. Foster the right environment and your collaboration efforts will make success seem easy.