Know When to Collaborate – And When Not To!

Early in my career as an information artist, I was asked to collaborate with others on the rapid creation and deployment of a promotional video. Project leaders identified a large number of stakeholders and experts, informed us about the purpose of the piece, encouraged us to be as creative as possible, and invited us all to contribute ideas and insights. Excitement levels were high, and the project was off to a great start.

As the project progressed, one or two stakeholders continued to invite new people to join our collaboration. Latecomers became ardent advocates for concepts already evaluated and discarded, forcing us to revisit earlier decisions over and over again. Some newcomers had huge chips on their shoulders, and for personal or political reasons, found it necessary to disparage all of the work completed so far. A vocal few, despite having no expertise in video production, scripting, or design, had very strong opinions about production standards, scripts, and designs – and leveraged relationships with powerful people to get ill-informed opinions integrated into the final product.

Progress ground to a halt. Months later, when the video was finally complete, management elected to show it to an even larger group of collaborators – many of whom had no understanding of or interest in the project’s goals or purpose. Once again, leadership invited feedback and compelled the design team to integrate any and all of it, even when doing so meant going back into production to re-shoot and re-edit substantial portions of the video that they, themselves, had already approved.

Do I need to tell you how expensive, ineffective, forgettable, and painful to watch the final video turned out to be?

Collaboration – also known as “giving everyone their say” – generates buy-in and builds a sense of ownership. Especially in the early stages of the creative process, collaboration can identify blind spots in our thinking and broaden the scope of the solutions we consider.

Collaboration is an important strategy — it is not, however, the *only* strategy. Deployed willy-nilly, without controls or limits, it can be inappropriate or, even worse, work against us.  Here are five things to consider when defining the degree of collaboration to integrate into projects of your own:

Early in my career as an information artist, I was asked to collaborate with others on the rapid creation and deployment of a promotional video. Project leaders identified a large number of stakeholders and experts, informed us about the purpose of the piece, encouraged us to be as creative as possible, and invited us all to contribute ideas and insights. Excitement levels were high, and the project was off to a great start.

As the project progressed, one or two stakeholders continued to invite new people to join our collaboration. Latecomers became ardent advocates for concepts already evaluated and discarded, forcing us to revisit earlier decisions over and over again. Some newcomers had huge chips on their shoulders, and for personal or political reasons, found it necessary to disparage all of the work completed so far. A vocal few, despite having no expertise in video production, scripting, or design, had very strong opinions about production standards, scripts, and designs – and leveraged relationships with powerful people to get ill-informed opinions integrated into the final product.

Progress ground to a halt. Months later, when the video was finally complete, management elected to show it to an even larger group of collaborators – many of whom had no understanding of or interest in the project’s goals or purpose. Once again, leadership invited feedback and compelled the design team to integrate any and all of it, even when doing so meant going back into production to re-shoot and re-edit substantial portions of the video that they, themselves, had already approved.

Do I need to tell you how expensive, ineffective, forgettable, and painful to watch the final video turned out to be?

Collaboration – also known as “giving everyone their say” – generates buy-in and builds a sense of ownership. Especially in the early stages of the creative process, collaboration can identify blind spots in our thinking and broaden the scope of the solutions we consider.

Collaboration is an important strategy — it is not, however, the *only* strategy. Deployed willy-nilly, without controls or limits, it can be inappropriate or, even worse, work against us.  Here are five things to consider when defining the degree of collaboration to integrate into projects of your own:

1. Are you just getting started? Early in a project, collaboration can be critical. Schedule a conference room, summon every possible stakeholder, and capture every single idea your collaboration generates – your project will be richer for it. As the project progresses, though, scale back the degree of collaboration by reducing your collaborators to a few individuals respected by the larger group.

Structuring collaboration as a funnel – broadly at first, but more narrowly as time goes on – maximizes its benefits while eliminating the “paralysis by analysis” that plagues most committee-driven projects.

2. Is time of the essence? Since collaboration involves more people – with their own schedules and competing priorities – it necessarily demands more time. If deadlines are tight, you’d do better to define a very limited window of opportunity for collaboration (or dispense with it entirely) and then assign responsibility for the bulk of the work to a very small team of trusted individuals.  But if time isn’t an issue – collaborate away!

3. Are there aspects of your project that hinge on special expertise? Everyone has an opinion, but not all opinions deserve equal consideration. Stakeholders may be advocates for approaches or solutions they like – but these aren’t always the best approaches or solutions, and the stakeholders, for all their enthusiasm, may not be positioned to recognize this.

Especially in the beginning, be open to any and all suggestions  — but if there are aspects of your project which require special expertise (video production, for example, or graphic design), collaborate with the experts … and take their advice.

4. Can you welcome all feedback … without obligating yourself to take it?  Collaboration produces many ideas, and, early on – because you never know which ideas might prove to be useful – you should capture (and be grateful for) every single one. At some point, though, ideas must be evaluated … and when they are, some will necessarily be found less valuable (or less appropriate, or less relevant, or less practical) than others. 

Collaboration elicits participation and welcomes input, but collaborating on something doesn’t mean you’re obligated to integrate every piece of feedback you receive. Set expectations early on that, eventually, some ideas will be integrated … and some will necessarily be set aside.

5. Is an innovative approach important? If you’re looking for innovation – game-changing approaches that shatter assumptions and generate unforeseen opportunities – you should greatly restrict the role of collaboration. Despite romantic notions about group brainstorming sessions creating radical new ideas, the best research on creativity and innovation indicates that collaboration tends to reinforce group-think, limit risk, and suppress innovative thinking.

When you need an idea that will appeal to the masses, collaboration can be a valuable tool – but when you want to break the mold, chart new ground, and redefine your perspective, select a very small, very talented team of individuals, give them the goal, empower them to put a solution in place … and stand back!

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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Who Wrote This?

Mark McElroy

I'm a husband, mystic, writer, media producer, creative director, tinkerer, blogger, reader, gadget lover, and pizza fiend.

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