How to Ensure You're Getting the Most Out of Collaboration

A Collaborative Culture Requires That Individuals Are Motivated by and Rewarded for Pursuing a Common Goal

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Innovative thinking. Breakthrough ideas. These are the things that separate the good agencies from the great, no matter what size. In search of these things, agencies create new posts such as "chief innovation officer." They idolize organizations such as IDEO. They create new tools and environments to enhance knowledge sharing and collaboration. The reality is that while most seek innovation, few really know how to achieve it.

We built our agency on the belief that a culture centered on collaboration is the best way to consistently deliver innovation. And to be clear, we don't just mean we've assembled a group of people that work well together. Collaboration is a fundamental guiding principle on which our agency is built. It shapes everything from our work process and environment to organizational and management structure. Along the way, we've learned a few important lessons.

Traditional structures don't foster collaboration
It's no coincidence that radically different thinking doesn't often come from traditional organizational models. These structures encourage competition and reward individual contributions. Organizational hierarchy and rank make it clear that not all opinions are equally important. Collaboration just doesn't thrive in that kind of environment.

A highly collaborative culture requires that individuals are motivated by and rewarded for pursuing a common goal. Egos have to be cast aside. And each individual must inherently trust that all contributors have equally valuable, though divergent, perspectives. It requires rethinking tried-and-true modes of operational management and being willing to invent new ways of working.

Collaboration makes great ideas greater
In our industry we have a tendency to protect ideas. Agencies often squirrel ideas away and spend time perfecting and crafting them before letting them see the light of day. When ideas are finally shared, it is with only a select audience with the goal of keeping the idea pure, unencumbered by any unwanted feedback.

Limiting ownership of an idea ultimately thwarts its potential. It's true that great ideas aren't created by committee, but great ideas can become greater when others with different perspectives build upon them. When ideas are shared early and often, they benefit from fresh thinking. Innovation comes from building, extending and iterating, not hiding and protecting.

Collaboration can't happen just within agency walls
Agencies are notoriously awful at collaborating with other organizations. We've learned that building truly collaborative relationships with other talented and creative organizations greatly expands the capacity to innovate.

Some of our most fascinating ideas happened because we were able to trust other organizations. For example, without the technologists at Tellart, the Real Good Experiment in New York, for client Blue Dot, may not have had the same sense of wonder.

Embracing collaboration may not be easy. Much of what it takes to make collaboration successful runs counter to how many agencies operate today. But, we've found that a collaborative culture generates more innovative ideas more often.

So, if your agency truly does value innovation, seek out new ways to collaborate.

And leave the next chief innovation officer title to someone else.

Erin Keeley
Erin Keeley is the strategic planning director and employee No. 10 of 56 at creative branding agency, Mono, Minneapolis.
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