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The Power of Collaboration.

Collaboration is a buzzword for a reason: it’s important. Here’s how to put it into practice.

Patricia Korth-McDonnell

February 6, 2015

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.


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.

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).

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.

*This article was originally published by Sparksheet.