How to make creative people (truly) collaborate

Lessons learnt while hosting storytelling hackathons

This article belongs to a larger collection of resources about interactive and transmedia storytelling. Check it out !

Since 2013, we hosted numerous story hackathons with my friends from Storycode. A fairly simple concept: to gather many various talents — authors, game designers, journalists, filmmakers, designers, developers, producers, publishers — to develop interactive storytelling projects they’ll build from scratch, being given merely a theme to work with.

Basic one-liners are built upon, improved, revised, transcended over two days or three and turned into a global concept, ready to be pitched in front of decision makers.

This article is not so much about the logistics of such an event but here are the lessons we learnt about improving group dynamics and creative work conditions.

Achieving strong groups dynamics is hard work

One of founding fathers of the study of groups dynamics — Kurt Levin — gave this definition of these to juxtaposed words: a set of coherent activities that, once fulfilled, will lead the group — a social ensemble of at least two people sharing values, aspirations and goals — to reach their objectives.

Levin’s work sparked the idea that — provided the right criteria are met — and according to his own words:

“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

Also implied: gathering a group of people is not the hard part ; making them achieve virtuous dynamics is the challenge, especially when working with creative people. Before they can share a set of values, aspirations and goals, they need to take a few steps towards performance.

Another researcher named Tuckman happened to develop a model describing these unavoidable steps:

1. Forming: individuals gather around an idea, learn to know each other, gage their respective behaviors, personalities, strengths and weaknesses. They agree on common objectives and start making plans to reach them.

2. Storming: individuals learn to work with each other. Most try to impose their own ideas. It is a time for confrontation and exchange of opinions.

3. Norming : the group solves its conflicts and challenges — often under the “leadership” of stronger personalities — and normalizes its organization.

4. Performing : if the stronger personalities let go of some control, and if everyone else steps up to play their legitime role, the team reaches true collaboration and starts to perform. Individuals complete their tasks more efficiently and interactions are more natural.

5. Adjourning : objectives being met, the group can now be adjourned.

If you are in charge of overseeing creative team, you obviously wish to reach that performing stage as soon as possible. But trying to skip steps would be as ineffective as it would be unwise. Every individual needs to learn how to position himself, to solve a number of issues and to build its own work dynamics before he can feel part of a whole.

How to get people in a state of creative flow

For those dabbling in the field of interactive storytelling, you might have come across Florent Maurin’s article entitled Flow theory and interactive documentaries, inspired by the work of the Hungarian researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.

The latter’s academic papers focused mainly on how happiness becomes stronger when someone enters a state of cognitive flow, i.e. a state of deep focus or immersion in an activity.

Besides individual flow, Csíkszentmihályi also defined what he calls collective flow, or group flow, and the conditions in which it is most likely to appear, making each member of the group more focused and creative.

Conditions fostering the collective flow

According to Csíkszentmihályi, strong group dynamics can trigger individual states of flow, even more so if these conditions are met:

1. A spatial arrangement favoring creativity: chairs, paperboards / chalkboards / magnetic boards but no tables! Most of the work has to be done standing, walking, moving; tables are creativity killers.

2. A recreational design: pining stuff on the wall such as diagrams, (live)sketches, drawings…; making people play creative games; starting with a bit of improv… and all the things you can think of to encourage craziness.

3. An open and protective atmosphere: where everyone is allowed to pitch ideas, and where all of these are supposedly good to hear, no matter what.

4. A “parallel workflow”: everyone can contribute according to their particular skills, each member of the group can work independently and is trusted with the part of the work he is good at.

5. Focus groups: contributors and mentors, external to the group, are available to give a relevant and immediate feedback on the project.

6. Prototyping and pitching, as much as possible: ideas, no matter their development stage, have to be brutally confronted to reality; make as much prototypes and presentations as you can afford.

7. Visualizing progress: at any given time, every member of the group should know what has been done, by whom, and what is left to be done.

Obstacles to the collective flow

Perhaps even more important are conditions making the flow impossible to appear, according to our Hungarian friend:

1. Objectives are not clear: even for creative people, it is essential to determine clear and specific goals and the corresponding tasks, more specific than “write something cool, great and innovative”. And to make explicit how the smallest item on a to-do list is essential towards building something greater than the sum of its tasks.

2. No immediate feedback: if anyone in the group has doubts about the quality or relevance of its work, he’d rather stop and wait for feedback. External mentorship is even better than one of a supervising authority but the main point is: feedback has to be immediate, i.e. frequent and whenever the creative people need it.

3. No balance between opportunity and skills: if the opportunity does not match the effort of a talented person, you’ll never get much out of him/her, that’s obvious. But even if the opportunity is great, a project asking too few of a person’s skills will never challenge him/her enough, and this person will never enter a state of flow. So it’s a matter of balance really, not too easy, not too hard, but just hard enough to make the opportunity even more interesting.

So many things to remember it appears. But I found that they come naturally when keeping in mind these 4 majors principles.

4 principles to foster more creative collaborations

Impose freedom

The first task for a creative project manager — whether the idea guy, the producer, or whoever chosen to do that — has to be preserving an open and benevolent atmosphere for ideas.

Especially during the first phases of brainstorming where crushing supposedly bad ideas deprives the group of the possibility to bounce from that idea to another (better) one and establishes undesired feelings of dominance and shame.

But imposing freedom also means that all the creative work has not been done before people are brought into the group. Otherwise they’re just freelancers hired to do a job according to specifications. If you want designers, coders to bring fresh ideas to the table, let them play around a basic one-liner and watch what happens when you’re not pushing your first idea.

Look for complementary skill sets

If you’re creating a newsgame for instance, gathering a journalist, a game designer and, why not, a comics author will probably yield more innovative results than putting three game designers in a room with a journalist.

Mainly because it would establish dominance of the three game designers over the lone journalist. And because among the three game designers, leadership and ego-related issues are most likely to appear, each one fighting for his own ideas.

However, having various profiles coexist and collaborate bears its own risks and constraints such as establishing common goals and priorities, and making everyone’s duties and independence level explicit. Plus a common language has to be found, social links have to be developed between people with diverse backgrounds and interests. A longer process for sure, but a more potent one!

Interact with your environment early

Working in complete isolation from a cabin in the woods with a 54k internet connection until the prototyping phase is probably the worst idea.

It’ll be too late, both logistically and emotionally speaking, to start again from scratch if you get bad feedback at this point. Interacting with the project’s environment is essential to constantly challenge your work.

Gather a few mentors around a drink, get advice from other creatives you trust, from your online community, pitch your idea during events such as Storycode conferences if you can…

Maintain that state of cognitive flow

Once the group has learned to work together, the state of flow is not something you obtain forever. It has to be maintained and fostered by:

  • keeping communication channels opened at all time
  • updating common objectives through concertation,
  • trying to resolve conflicts early and quickly
  • improving the workspace arrangement
  • and most of all by creating, as much as possible, making prototypes and running tests ; it remains the best way to avoid dead-ends and to actually see your project come to life.

So here it is, I hope these few remarks will help achieve greater collaboration and creativity in the future!

Photographs by Nadia Berg during Storycode Paris events.