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It’s easy to think of creativity as a solitary endeavor. But some of the best creative work is collaborative. The following is an exploration of the seven keys to successful creative collaboration.

Reluctantly Embracing Creative Collaboration

I don’t enjoy collaboration. My natural inclination is to generate an idea and let it swirl in my head for awhile until I eventually have a clear picture of what I want to create. Then, I set specific deadlines and get to work. It’s only when I get stuck that I reach out to others. Call it selfishness or call it introversion, but it’s where I am most content.

And yet . . .

Over the last few years, I have grown to love collaborative work. I can always tell that genuine collaboration is happening because the group work no longer feels like work. In these moments, I can sense that I am creating something as a team that I would never be able to accomplish on my own.

The best courses I taught over the last two years were the ones where I collaborated with Keelan and Lynette. My favorite books that I wrote were Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard (a children’s book I co-wrote with my wife) along with Launch and Empower that I wrote with A.J. Juliani. Some of my best memories of student projects with my 8th graders were actually co-teaching projects with Javier.

When I look back at my favorite projects — the ones where I accomplished something I never thought I could accomplish — they were nearly always collaborative. So, while I don’t always enjoy collaboration, it has become something that value on a deep level.

I thought about that on Tuesday night when I met up with A.J. After leading a staff through an all day deep dive into the LAUNCH Cycle, I drove to A.J.’s house. We went to his son’s football practice . . . until we were drenched in rain. And then we headed over to get cheesesteaks. Because that’s what you do when you live just outside of Philly.

The conversation ping ponged between personal and professional. We talked about strategies for future projects but then we also talked about the bigger questions around goals and dreams. And we geeked out on books and sports and podcasts.

Now, here’s the weird thing. A.J. and I have only met each other twice in person. Most of our collaboration has been through Voxer, Google Docs, and Hangouts. We almost never interact on Twitter or Facebook and we will have weeks where we both get busy and never communicate. And yet, A.J. not only feels like a friend, he feels like a family member.

That’s the power of doing creative work together. However, this type of collaborative work is rare in creative work. Often, teams operate out of a place of cooperation rather than collaboration.


Collaboration Versus Cooperation

We’ve all been members of groups where we were asked to collaborate on a project. In the worst cases, the group implodes and suddenly you’re stuck doing all of the work yourself. More often, though, you meet up, split up the tasks, and then cooperate with one another in order to finish the project. Cooperative groups are loose network built on respect and shared norms. You might share some ideas and maybe even have some moments of creative breakthroughs. But this isn’t collaboration. It’s cooperation.

Collaboration is deeper. It begins with trust and a shared vision for what you want to accomplish. You are depending on each other on a deep level. Collaboration is interdependent, with a shared vision and values. Here, the mutual respect evolves into trust and the transparency eventually leads to vulnerability.

The following video is a short exploration of the difference between cooperation and collaboration.

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So, how do we take it to the next level and go beyond cooperation and into genuine collaboration? This is an idea I want to explore in an upcoming blog and podcast series on creative collaboration. The following is a brief exploration of these ideas. Each post will be a deep dive.

The Seven Keys to Creative Collaboration

I’ve been a part of too many projects where things fizzled and neither of us finished our tasks. Or we simply moved along, adding bits and pieces to a project, making compromises until we had something that was actually worse than what any of us would have done individually. In those moments, we failed to reach a place of true collaboration.

But when I think of true collaboration – of those projects that I did with Javier, Chad, A.J., Christy, or Keelan – I notice certain trends about our collaborative work.  So, here are some of those keys to successful creative collaboration.

  1. Ownership: Members need to be empowered from the start. The worst kind of collaboration is the type that feels top-down, where the group follows rigid instructions and works as a team but never has true agency and creative control. But when they are empowered, they are able to solve problems, generate ideas, and create systems that lead to success.
  2. Dependability: This sounds simple but creative collaboration requires members to hit their deadlines and develop creative endurance.
  3. Trust: The greatest collaborative projects I’ve done have been with my wife, who I trust more than anyone and who knows me at such a deep level. We assume the best in each other, even when there is conflict. This piece is critical because out of a place of trust, group members are then able to be transparent and even vulnerable.
  4. Structure: The structure should be loose and flexible but you need to have structure in creative collaboration. This is why I love design thinking. It’s a flexible framework for getting the most out of the entire creative process.
  5. Shared Vision: I’m not referring to vision statements that you put on a wall or slap onto a website. I’m thinking more in terms of a shared desire, goal, and picture of what you will produce. This is why it’s important that group members are given the chance to brainstorm individually before working with their groups in the ideation phase.
  6. Fun: Humor is one of the most overlooked areas of creative collaboration. However, when you look at some of the most innovative teams, they joke around. They laugh. As we’ll explore later, this sense of relaxation and play can actually boost both convergent thinking and divergent thinking.
  7. Candor: This is one of the key takeaways from Creativity Inc., a book by one of the co-founders of Pixar. It’s the idea that groups need to be honest about what’s working and failing through the entire design process.

When collaboration works well, there is a certain group flow experience, where you are totally “in the zone.” There’s this dance back and forth where you get lost in the work and you realize that you are a part of something bigger than yourself. In the process, you create something as a team that you would have never been able to produce on your own. My hope is that we can explore these ideas in the upcoming blog series.

Looking for More?

If you’re interested in getting started with project-based learning, check out my Getting Started with PBL page, complete with articles, videos, and resources. You might also want to check out my PBL toolkit, which includes a set of projects and mini-projects, along with a Getting Started with PBL guide and a set of assessment resources you can use within the project-based learning framework. I will also send you a weekly email with free, members-only access to my latest blog posts, videos, podcasts and resources to help you boost creativity and spark innovation in your classroom. Just sign up below!

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


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