Collaboration, not capitulation

Historically, creative organisations have largely been terrified by the thought of having clients too close on a project.

grenville main dna collaborationHaving them working with you on a project, contributing their thoughts and ideas at will, opened the door to them undermining the creative process at best – and at worst it could mean having to capitulate and execute their naff ideas.

But the times they may be a changing. True collaboration means bringing together a mix of people and organisations and pitting their strategic and creative skills against a common goal; it means everyone contributing equally and transparently. In short, it is joint ownership of both the process and the outcome. Is that what collaboration looked like across your recent experiences?

Unless agencies and client organisations both develop the right skills, processes and attitudes to support true collaboration they are likely to find collaborative projects remain fraught and at times fruitless. Particularly for agencies, this may well leave them stuck, falling behind in a time where collaboration and co-creation is king – or where they cannot deliver on the breadth of thinking and expertise so often now required in a large campaign or programme of work.

So what are the magic ingredients for making collaboration work? This really is a mix of science and art (that you could easily write a book about). But we have three simple rules we have been following recently that we can share.

Firstly, everyone involved has to truly believe that a collaborative effort is going to result in the best possible outcome. Without this as a universally held belief you are in trouble from the start.

Secondly, it's a two way street – you show me yours and I will show you mine.
The more the agency gets to see and understand the inner workings of a client (the challenges they face, the governance structures, the business casing requirements and other internal pressures), the better. Equally, the client needs to be exposed to our underbelly – how we work, what the creative process entails, how evaluations and decisions are made through the process. If either party is too nervous or too busy to let the other side in, to see behind the scenes so to speak, the process will be affected.

Get this one right and several things happen. The agency understands the commercial and political workings of the client organisation, We can then speak their language, and understand the hoops they will jump through to get an idea or an initiative off the ground and embraced by their organisation. And the client team gets to understand and appreciate where the strategic insights that have created the breakthrough have come from. This gives them greater confidence and understanding of the ideas generated and helps break down the ‘mystery’ for them.

The third factor is around the role of clarity and leadership in the process. Whether you are working in collaboration with other agenices or with clients, it is critical to agree roles and responsibilities up front and to identify individuals’ areas of expertise, and agree together the expected benefits, outcomes and deliverables from working together on this project. Getting this right will mean your collaboration results in a 1 + 1 = 3 result.

Conversely, when skill overlap is not considered and is unchecked, leadership and accountability is not made clear, the shape of success is not pre-determined and the process of shared communication and project management is not handled the result might be more like 1 + 1 = 1 – less than a great outcome and experience for all involved.

One example worth sharing is our 'Today' campaign launch for AMP in New Zealand. In addition to the three simple rules above, this particular campaign also netted four other key learnings for us:

* Leaders must know how to follow - yes someone is most accountable, always, but working in a group situation and being the right kind of leader in this environment, means backing the best idea, no matter where it comes from.

* Ideas should be held loosely - bring something, but don't be stuck on it, work off the ideas of others to build the best one together. Don’t get too fixed on, or enamored with, the first set of ideas that come out.

* You need to start before you can evolve - get a start point, then try, try and try again to make it better. Ideate, iterate, evaluate, do this all some more and then decide.

* Make a decision, and hold true - once you have set down your idea, charge every individual in the team with the task of holding themselves and the group true to the direction.

We've found first-hand that it is too easy over time (and as complexity builds in the implementation of an idea) for the essence to get lost. In a collaboration, the group has to own this responsibility, making a commitment to co-creation, a commitment to each other, and a commitment to the idea.

Grenville Main is managing director of customer experience design consultancy DNA, a rabid collector and proud owner of the most obscenely messy desk in each of DNA's offices

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