Many hands make light work.
Teamwork makes the dream work.
Two heads are better than one.
We’ve all heard the adages about working together. And in our hyper-connected, silo-busting world full of Slack messages and co-working spaces, they’re nothing short of gospel.
Businesses talk about the importance of a collaborative culture. All. The. Time.
It’s a popular core value.
Office spaces are designed for it.
Software is purchased to facilitate it.
Leadership is hired to transform it.
It’s prioritized across teams, departments, and entire organizations. And it’s regarded as a “defining characteristic of creativity and innovation.”
The trouble is, effective collaboration is much easier said than achieved. And there are oh so many way ways for it to go wrong. A lot of times, it just doesn’t work.
Yet for some reason, how it’s done in practice is rarely talked about.
There simply aren’t enough resources dedicated to helping teams get it right. And getting it right is urgently important. Especially if you’re in the business of creativity.
When a creative team really gels, ideas flow freely, the output gets better, and people feel more connected to their colleagues and the work. It’s incredible. And rare. And all too often treated as a happy accident.
So, let’s stop thinking of collaboration as an ambivalent buzzword and start sharing actionable ideas on how to make it happen, make it efficient, and make it deliberate.
This guide is meant to do just that. It was created to be the handbook our team at Article Group needed — but couldn’t find. We hope you find it useful, too.
If you’d prefer to view this guide as a deck, you can find that deck right here.
This is a resource for people who work with other people
It’s a curated collection of outcome-oriented processes and proven methodologies that will help teams work together in both day-to-day workflows and ideation.
Our hope is you bookmark it and come back to it often. After all, building and maintaining a collaborative culture is an ongoing project.
We’ve drawn on our own experiences as creatives, asked people and agencies we trust what works best for them, and highlighted the strategies we’ve found to be most effective. But there’s so much more to consider! You’ll find links to relevant reading throughout and at the back of this deck we’ve compiled a list of our favorite resources for further study.
The five fundamentals highlighted here are the underlying foundation of great collaboration. Many would argue they make up the “most essential” part of this essential guide, as it’s impossible to collaborate effectively without them.
1. Psychological Safety
A shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking
The safer members of a team feel with one another, the more likely they are to admit their mistakes, ask for input, take on new roles, and contribute fully — without fear of embarrassment, rejection, or punishment.
Juxtapose this type of culture with one where employees feel too intimidated to speak up or share a new idea. It’s hard to imagine those employees being engaged at work.
Watch: Building a psychologically safe workplace TEDx talk by Amy Edmondson
2. Trust and Reliability
Can you count on each team member to meet their deadlines and do good work?
Trust is what transforms a team into more than the sum of its parts. When you willingly rely on others to do things that impact you, you choose to believe in their abilities and integrity, relinquish control, and expect good results.
“From my experience working with teams and collaboratives, I’d argue that lack of trust is the number one reason collaboratives fail,” writes social impact executive Amy Celep. “Trust is everything.”
3. Clear Roles & Goals
When everyone knows exactly what needs to be done and how they fit in.
The team as a whole will perform to a higher level of effectiveness when each team member knows:
- What is expected of them
- Which aspects of their role are most important
- How their work contributes to team goals
- How their performance will be evaluated
However, it’s not just a case of individual role clarity; each team member must also be clear on the roles of all other team members, the goals of the group, and how each role will contribute to achieving those goals.
Further reading: The Biggest Mistake You (Probably) Make with Teams
4. Shared Purpose
Each team member genuinely believes that the work matters.
There’s a great story about President John F. Kennedy visiting NASA headquarters in 1961.
While touring the facility, he introduced himself to a janitor who was mopping the floor and asked him what he did at NASA. The janitor replied, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon!”
The janitor believed (rightly) that his work mattered, and that purpose gave his work meaning. We’re all inherently eager to play a part in something bigger and having a shared purpose helps us connect and rally around a common belief that what we’re doing is important.
Further reading: A Shared Purpose Drives Collaboration
5. Tools and Tech
Ensuring digital spaces are designed for teamwork.
Tools that foster collaboration and information sharing are becoming ever more important. But in our age of distraction, they can also add to the noise.
“When it comes to solving problems, connectedness is a double-edged sword,” says Harvard Business School Assistant Professor Ethan Bernstein
Slack, for example, is often criticized for being an added distraction, but it can also transport office culture into an online space, letting everyone participate in their own way.
The key is to take control of your own experience. Make your own decisions about how tools like Slack help and hurt your work style and adjust your usage accordingly.
Eight approaches businesses can implement to make a positive impact on how well people and teams work together.
1. Start from the beginning
The underlying reason collaboration is easier said than done is because we forget that effective collaboration relies on each individual contributor’s ability to form effective relationships, according to Dr. Julie Gurner, a psychologist who specializes in team building.
“Where a lot of companies go wrong is by not prioritizing collaboration skills right from the beginning — in the hiring process,” said Gurner.
If you hire people who have a history of doing great things as part of a team, they’ll be more likely to work effectively on your team.
Related: How to Hire Collaborative Employees
Related-ish: Cluster hiring a ready-made collaboration
2. Create synergistic workspace(s)
According to Kyle Sheth, interior designer at Staach, there are two important things to keep in mind when creating workspaces that promote teamwork:
- Different types of meetings and collaborative activities require different levels of formality
- Different spaces facilitate different levels of thinking and brainstorming
Organizations that want to promote effective collaboration need to provide a variety of different spaces within the office. From high-top tables everyone can stand around to desks, lounge spaces, and when possible bar spaces.
“People inherently want a combination of privacy and openness, so opportunities for collaboration should be accessible but not forced,” echoes Staach’s founder Seth Eshelman.
3. Improve meeting culture
The average employee attends 62 meetings per month. The time and energy we put into meetings make them one of the most critical, yet overlooked aspects of building a strong collaborative culture.
According to the experts at MindTools, there are
3 key elements to an effective meeting:
- The meeting’s objective is achieved
- The meeting took a minimum amount of time
- Participants feel that a sensible process has been followed
Further Reading: To Build an Inclusive Culture, Start with Inclusive Meetings
Related: The science and fiction of meetings
4. Encourage authentic relationships
Team members who have established relationships work better together. You can’t force relationships — but you can take steps to facilitate the building of relationships:
- Give people the opportunity to work face-to-face: This is crucial for teams with remote members.
- Create a desk-swap program: Changing seats can encourage new and deepened relationships.
- Demonstrate vulnerability from the top down: When leadership shares things about themselves, it opens the door for others to reciprocate.
The emerging field of social physics has shown that spontaneity is key. More than scheduled beer nights and laser tag, simply lengthening a lunch table leads to a greater exchange of ideas and higher productivity.
Further Reading: Five Practices To Build Authentic Relationships At Work
When the same people call all of the shots, individual contributors start to feel powerless — as if they have no influence or impact.
And that kills passion on the team.
When you give different people the opportunity to prove themselves with an important task, team members feel more valued and they understand that their role is important. You also avoid burning people out when you spread out important tasks.
As productivity gurus remind us, delegation is a skill in itself. When you let go, it’s important to put team members in a position to succeed — by playing to their strengths, giving clear instructions and using a feedback loop to improve the process each time.
6. Celebrate creative conflict
Great minds don’t always think alike — but they’re often afraid to say so.
In a recent survey, 64 percent of 400 respondents indicated that they would rather compromise their argument in order to avoid conflict. But when your
teams feel empowered to argue like they’re right and listen like they’re wrong, beautiful (even groundbreaking) things can happen.
- Ask, “What do we need to disagree about?
What assumptions do we have that might
not be true?”
- Don’t think of different opinions as a tax, look
at them as an investment
Further Reading: Fostering a Culture of Productive Conflict
7. Codify feedback
“When collaborating to generate or kill off ideas, you need to establish very clear rules about how to give one another feedback,” advises Ewan McIntosh, author of How to Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen.
McIntosh uses a feedback model he learned from educator Ron Berger. Whenever you give — or receive — feedback, make sure it is:
- Kind: Start from a place of empathy. Acknowledge the positives, the effort, and the improvements while providing suggestions.
- Specific: If something’s not exactly right, be specific about why.
- Useful: Offer ideas on how to make it better.
At Article Group we like to say, “when you poke a hole, fill it.”
Related: The Feedback Analysis framework from The Essential Guide to Creative Frameworks
8. Eliminate the extra crap
The goal is for collaboration to be effective — not excessive.
According to research, the time spent in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more over the last two decades.
The best collaborators remember that saying yes to something always means saying no to — or participating less fully in — something else.
“Too often a business leader asks, ‘How can we get people to collaborate more?’, says management theorist and professor Morton Hansen. “That’s the wrong question. It should be, ‘Will collaboration on this project create or destroy value?’ In fact, to collaborate well is to know when not to do it.”
Further Reading: Collaborative Overload
Five actionable ideas and exercises to improve day-to-day teamwork.
1. Rollercoaster Check-in
Use this to: Create a shared picture of the feelings in the group
Step 1: Draw a wavy line that resembles a rollercoaster, across an entire flipchart/whiteboard. Make sure to include loops, steep sections, and shallow sections.
Step 2: Ask each team member to draw themselves on the rollercoaster, depicting how they’re feel right now, then share that feeling with the group. Have everyone do this, one by one.
Step 3: When everyone has checked-in, look at the rollercoaster as a team and share/discuss any thoughts that emerge.
2. Pre-Agenda Check-in
Use this to: Help your team to better understand one another.
This is something we love to do at Article Group. Every creative team meeting kicks off with everyone answering the following question: “What’s on your plate?”
We talk about what’s going on in our lives, both inside and outside of work, to give our team (and the CDs) a good understanding of our capacity and where we’re at emotionally.
You could tailor the question to your group, or ask:
- What’s one thing you hope to accomplish today?
- What one word best describes your mood at this moment?
Further Reading: For More Productive Meetings, Do a Mindset Check-In First
3. Team Innovations
Use this to: Remove constraints and promote innovative thinking
Consider hosting quarterly “Team Innovations” where each member of the team is asked to prepare and present an original idea (either for the agency or a client).
Ideally, the team will group-select a winning idea and put it into action.
This exercise gives members of the team the chance to share their ideas without any budget or creative constraints (which encourages innovation) and it’s a way for people who might not typically work together to get to know one another, too.
4. Group Timeline
Use this to: Strengthen relationships
To create a sense of unity, give the people on your team a chance to learn more about the company and one another.
Create a timeline (either physically or virtually) that extends back a period of history for your team or company.
Pin on important organizational dates, like product launches and mergers. Then ask everybody to pin up a few important moments in their own lives.
Team members will learn more about each other, their generational differences, and their breadth of experience. This is a fun, cultural exercise that promotes collaboration and understanding.
5. Find the Connections
Use this to: Foster relationships that support better communication and collaboration
This is an easy-to-implement interactive exercise that works well in virtual meeting spaces.
- Divide your team or department into small groups
- Ask each group to submit at least one thing every member has in common
Finding points of commonality will help team members see each other as more than coworkers, and realize that they’re more alike than they realized.
This goes a long way toward creating a culture of psychological safety in your team.
Creative Ideation Techniques
Seven methods designed to improve group brainstorming.
1. Work Alone, Together
Use this when: Brainstorming with a group
Within any group of creative collaborators, there’s a tendency for individuals’ ideas to become increasingly similar over the course of a group brainstorming session, according to Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at UT Austin.
Markman suggests giving people time to think by themselves prior to the brainstorm. That way, everyone has a chance to take his or her thought process in a divergent direction first.
Further reading: Idea Generation: Divergent vs. Convergent thinking
Related: Double Diamond framework
2. Question Bursts
Use this when: The answers just aren’t flowing
At the MIT Sloan School of Management, senior lecturer Hal Gregersen often asks his MBA students to spitball questions that frame complicated issues in a fresh way.
Gregersen has had so much success with the approach that he’s developed a full brainstorming model called “Question Bursts” built on the idea.
He explains, “while everybody is sitting around and waiting for a eureka moment, and becoming discouraged, asking them to brainstorm questions gives them a confidence-boosting sense of control and steers the session into a direction you never would have found otherwise.”
Further Reading: Here’s how ‘question bursts’ make better brainstorms
3. 6–3–5 Brainwriting
Use this when: You want to make sure everyone participates
Six people sit around a table and write down three ideas. They pass their stack of ideas to the person on their right, who builds on them.
This passing is done five times until everyone has had the chance to build on each of the ideas.
Afterward, the group can get together to evaluate the ideas generated
This method, based on written (rather than verbal) idea generation, allows individual work during divergent phases of creativity and group work during convergent phases.
Related: Brainstorming is dumb
4. The Disney Method
Use this when: You need to analyze a problem, generate ideas, evaluate ideas, construct and critique a plan of action
A creative method based on Walt Disney’s famously unpredictable personality in meetings, the Disney Method asks participants to think differently in groups:
Outsiders: Groupthink to gain an analytical, external view of the challenge
Dreamers: Brainstorm ideal solutions. Use divergent thinking to conceive creative and radical ideas.
Realizers: Act as pragmatic realists and use convergent thinking to review the ideas left by the dreamers. Select the best idea and construct a plan for it.
Critics: Review the plan made by the realists and identify weaknesses, obstacles or risks. Seek to improve the plan.
5. Worst Possible Idea
Use this when: You want to get the creative juices flowing and encourage those who aren’t always confident expressing themselves
Instead of asking for good ideas and putting your team under pressure, start by asking for the worst possible ideas they can come up with.
This highly effective method relieves any anxiety and self-confidence issues and allows people to be more playful and adventurous, as they know their ideas are most certainly not going to be scrutinised for missing the mark.
Use this when: You need to dramatically increase levels of engagement, energy, and collaboration during group sessions
Gamestorming is exactly what it sounds like — using games to collaboratively unlock ideas.
A great example of Gamestorming is the Concentric Circles activity often used in classrooms.
Participants sit in two circles, one smaller and one larger surrounding the smaller one. The inner circle discusses ideas and brainstorms while the outer circle listens, observes, and documents the ideas and conversation points without saying anything.
This forces some to listen and others to engage in brainstorming.
Further reading: Gamestorming: “A toolkit for innovators, rule-breakers and changemakers
Use this when: You have a great idea and need to pressure-test it and anticipate all of the ways things could go wrong
This framework asks teams to think about why an idea might die — so they can take mitigating steps before it does.
Step 1: List rock values — the brand/company/team values that aren’t going to change anytime soon.
Step 2: Identify whirlpool ideas — these are new and exciting but potentially risky
Step 3: Complete the conflict section — write down exactly what people will say to kill your idea (we don’t have time, it’ll cost too much, another team should do this, etc)
Step 4: Identify the gray compromises — solutions that initially sound good but ultimately drag you back toward the rock values, preventing you from achieving the whirlpool values
Step 5: Redevelop your ideas so that they prioritize the whirlpool ideas you’re not willing to sacrifice — while still honoring the potential concerns and avoiding conflict.
An inspiring book about the nature of collaboration, rooted in neuroscience, complete with tangible tools for improving collaboration.
An actionable guide that offers insight on how to give (and receive) candid feedback.
HBR’s 10 Must Reads on Collaboration
10 of the most important HBR articles on collaboration.Especially helpful for large teams of 100+ people.
How to Come Up with Great Ideas
A scannable resource for the education sector that translates well for creatives and helps readers learn how to achieve ambitious visions through swift innovation.
Written by a three-time Navy SEAL platoon commander, this interesting read reveals how to put together teams that can accomplish any objective — by leveraging an unexpected set of values and priorities.
The Smart Solution Book
An easy-to-use resource that can help teams switch up the way they problem-solve and brainstorm.
Resources: Web Sites
Essential management, leadership, and personal effectiveness skills. Plus creativity tools.
Tips on how to effectively generate ideas with your team.
Research, ideas, and practices to make work better.
Tons of great content on how to improve the way teams work together.
Science for Work
Interesting research and insight from an independent, non-profit foundation of evidence-based practitioners dedicated to making work better.