Image by roger 4336 via Flickr.

Image by roger 4336 via Flickr.

Like most buzzwords, collaboration became buzzy because at its core, it’s important. And like most buzzwords, a lot of people who think they understand it, don’t.

In ideal scenarios, multiple perspectives produce far superior ideas and results than unilateral approaches. But what does collaboration really mean? And how do you make it work?

In my experience, there are five key aspects to making collaboration bear quality fruit. Here are some techniques that can prevent a collaborative process from degenerating into ineffectual bloat.


Strict formal hierarchy is pretty much a collaboration killer. People have to be open to ideas coming from everyone, and junior team members have to feel comfortable enough to contribute.

This is challenging for everybody, but the burden falls most heavily on the senior team members, who must focus actively on creating the right chemistry within a team, reigning in their own instinct to trump ideas they don’t agree with and embracing a more humble, facilitative role than they may be used to.

We’ve forced the issue by making it the responsibility of the most senior person in the room to identify anyone who isn’t speaking up and formally inviting them to contribute.

This approach flips the mental model of the leader in the room from “my job is to be in charge” to “my job is to make sure everyone is participating.”

Being flat means allowing different voices to be heard across the organization. Image via Flickr.

Be flat: Strict formal hierarchy is pretty much a collaboration killer. Image via Flickr.


The whole point of collaboration is to create a better, smarter solution than you could with one perspective. So if a bunch of people with the same general worldview, capabilities and motivations are “collaborating” you’re just indulging in groupthink.

Look for diversity in skill set, department, working style and perspective to get real value out of the hive mind.

One classic example of this is how design-led organizations tend to leave technology out of the conversation until it’s time for implementation.

We’ve been guilty of this in the past, and it took several conscious efforts to involve technology team members consistently further upstream. For a recent large-scale responsive redesign and re-platform project for an automotive client, we forced the issue by moving our developers to sit shoulder to shoulder with our designers in one collaborative space.

We also set a requirement that they be eye-to-eye participants in all creative brainstorm and design review sessions.

We saw it bear fruit in the product, but we also saw a critical, long-term impact on the agency internally: The technology team felt a greater sense of ownership and responsibility of the successful execution and launch of the product.

A common goal

Humans are social animals: Harnessing all of our individual crazy to establish an effective (and sane) group requires structure.

Make sure the common goal is clearly defined and universally understood. This is especially critical when tasking a group to collaborate across organizations. Think about the agency-client partnership – this is why the agency brief exists.

The place we have learned this lesson most is pitches. The pitch process tends to be high pressure with incredibly short timelines. In general, it’s difficult to staff and plan for. Process tends to get thrown out the window.

This is tolerable (mostly), but it’s a disaster when a pitch requires creative concepts and the team is spinning in a room trying to brainstorm everything in the universe. The one piece of process we now absolutely require for pitches is a brief. With a brief in our hands, we have a common goal and a clear direction, even if the ideation process stays messy.

It's important to have a common goal. Image via Flickr.

Make sure the common goal is clearly defined and universally understood. Image via Flickr.

Face time

About once every six months my boss and I forget the critical ingredient to collaborating successfully: Face time.

He and I have worked together for 10 years and know each other just about as well as any two colleagues can. Yet sometimes we completely fail to collaborate effectively because we delude ourselves that we can “collaborate” on a significant undertaking remotely.

In every pitch, project, or strategic initiative we take on where we don’t get at least some significant time to discuss things in person, we frustrate ourselves and everyone else we work with.

Collaboration doesn’t have to mean co-location, but I think it does require some regular meetings in which you share oxygen.

Active listening

For us talkers, it can be hard to shut up. But I think it’s even harder for those who aren’t naturally verbose to make themselves heard. That’s why it’s so critical that people who are prone to thinking out loud consciously stop talking at regular intervals and listen to what others are saying.

Personally, I love the phrase “suspension of disbelief.” My own instinct can be incredibly conservative – I’m inclined to look for the leaks and try to stop them, which tends to kill ideas before they have a chance to evolve into bigger and better ones. Pair that inclination with a touch of control freak and I can be a collaboration assassin.

To mitigate this problem, I challenge myself to listen to every idea as if it’s the one that’s going to be the killer app that makes us all rich. I’ll also try to notice who isn’t talking and make it my mission to get them to contribute more.

It's important to be an active listener. Image by Jim Capaldi via Flickr.

Collaboration means actively listening to what others are saying. Image by Jim Capaldi via Flickr.

How it really works

I probably fail at fostering collaboration as much as I succeed. And so, I’ve learned to set reasonable expectations: 100 people (in my experience) cannot collaborate. Four offices on three continents cannot collaborate on a two-week pitch.

You can’t collaborate with someone you actively and personally dislike. There’s no such thing as a “collaborative” relationship with a client who is available once a month for two hours.

In other words, collaboration doesn’t just happen. It requires goals, methods and boundaries. Whether it happens at all depends on how your organization can support it (or can’t, or won’t).

Collaboration doesn’t just happen. It requires goals, methods and boundaries.

So foster a culture that’s flat. Hire all kinds of people who bring all kinds of crazy. Articulate your goals, hash them out (in-person!) often, and be open to change. Most importantly, listen. If you don’t, the best ideas might go unheard or worse, never spoken at all.

Collaboration may be a buzzword, but it’s hard. Really hard. If you’re being asked to do it, be clear that you need to set parameters for how, on what and with whom you can work to deliver a collaborative process that yields real results. And know that in the end, it’s also really worth it.