The collision of creative minds crafts bigger ideas

Sean Ferguson — Senior Producer of Steelehouse

For a few brief moments, I considered the very real possibility that my best efforts at naming this essay might result in “Collaborative Cultures,” which sounded entirely too much like a blog about yogurt.

Since no one wants to read 500 words about bacterial teamwork, I must turn to the lessons I learned as a young man. I speak of a time long ago. A time of jean jackets and Atari. A time when animated robots ruled my afternoons. I speak of Voltron. My nostalgic metaphor for the importance of teamwork.

Collaboration can sometimes feel like a four-letter word in our industry. Other times it’s a hot piece of sexy jargon. Clients love it. CEO’s love it. Creatives … well it’s a love/hate relationship.

I’m sure we’ve all been crammed into a stuffy room with a pack of unlettered lunatics chosen completely at random by an unjust universal lottery, told to blindly trust each other, and “collaborate.” It starts slowly, building uncomfortably to a tepid crescendo. Random ideas are tossed out, one by one, until only two remain. These two ideas are then wielded like clubs in a frustratingly anti-climactic battle to the death. Winner take all. Everyone leaves mad.

Where was I?

Voltron. Defender of the Universe. A mighty robot comprised of five super awesome lion robots. Voltron kicked all sorts of ass. Of course, all the lions had to work together. Four out of five lions wouldn’t cut it. In my case, I was eternally one short.

The Black Lion.

I built my collection of die-cast lion robots one at a time — red, blue, yellow and eventually, green. I searched, but the 1980s eventually waned and passed — and I never found a Black Lion. I can tell you this, playing with individual lions is not the same as playing with Voltron.

In a similar fashion, ideas can never truly flourish without collaboration and creativity in equal parts. Collaboration isn’t about the best idea. It’s about an idea so big it can only be brought to life by a passionate team of true-believers.

It took me a long time to learn how potent true collaboration could be. My longtime friend, Chris Williams, was the first real collaborator I ever had. Our early efforts were shallow and kitschy. Over time, we learned to trust each other’s instincts. People may see us engage in heated, extremely loud debates and wonder how on earth we could be friends. For us, the debate has become the crucible. We’ve come to rely on it. If an idea can survive that fire, it’s the real deal. Solid. Tested. Whatever may emerge determines our course of action — and we pursue it diligently. Which is why our Christmas parties are always awesome.

This is a concept I’ve tried to carry with me throughout my career. I don’t want to be a solo act. I want to be part of something extraordinary. I want to be Voltron. We all do.

Collaboration, then, requires three principle components to succeed.

The first is Passion. Everyone involved should be deeply passionate their role. You are part of the team because you are amazing at something the group dynamic desperately needs. Be that something. Bring that voice to the table. Don’t try to be everyone else.

The second principle is Empathy. This is a quality many creatives (surprisingly) blow right past. As people are talking, listen. Actually listen. Consider their words without ego. Don’t wait for a turn to speak. Don’t react immediately. Listen and absorb. Look for the meaning behind what your teammate’s words.

The final component is Honesty. With each other and with ourselves, we must always be honest. Are we clinging to ideas or suggestions because they’re our own or because they actually work? Is our idea really so impervious to scrutiny?

Collaboration isn’t something that happens magically or easily. It takes time and trust. It happens in small conversations between meetings. It occurs over lunch or on Slack. It can’t be forced, but it can be cultivated. It may seem like an awful lot of work, however, the results will speak for themselves.

Be patient. Be open.

Be Voltron.

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