5 Creative Ways to Accelerate Collaboration

By Bob Wiele, President, OneSmartWorld

Jonah Lehrer’s new book, IMAGINE: How Creativity Works, 2012, is a good romp through some of the most interesting ways people and companies are finding ways to create and to innovate. I highly recommend it. Here are some of my reflections on what Lehrer writes about and how you and your company can boost creativity and just as importantly, bring new solutions to the people you work with.

“ When the right mixture of people come together and when they collaborate in the right way, what often happens often feels like magic. But it is not magic.”

1. Diversity: The Challenge and the Solution  

As I see it, we have three major types of diversity in our workplace and everywhere we go.

First – we are different by who we are. This is our demographic diversity. We are different by our ages, genders, sexual orientation, cultures and ethnicity.
Second – we are different by what we know and what we can do. We each know different things because of our background, skills and our educational and life experiences.
Third – we are different by how we think. This is our cognitive style diversity. We each think and feel and experience the world differently.

Every new group of people has these three layers of diversity – a big problem when you want to get work done. This is why the ‘forming’ and ‘storming’ stages are such a big issue.  What people need is a common language for working together to help them find common ground across the three levels of diversity. Diversity is also a big solution when you want superior results. Study after study has shown that when there are complex problems to solve, diverse heterogeneous groups will consistently outperform homogeneous groups composed of members who come from the same demography, know the same things and think the same way.

2. The Power of Q: Find the Right Mix of Friends and Strangers 

So here comes the Power of Q to help us. Lehrer reports on the work of Brian Uzzi, a sociologist from Northwestern University who spent five years analyzing every Broadway musical produced from 1877 to 1990. He analyzed the teams behind 2,258 different productions to find out what was the formula for success or failure – when each production includes a combination of professionals – writers, lyricists, librettists, producers, directors, choreographers. Why should we care? Why is this important? Well most of us work in project teams that are put together with a diversity of people with real differences in backgrounds, to accomplish a particular task. These teams are composed of different people who work intensely together and then dissolve – much like a team on a musical production. So what is the best mix for success?
His findings:

People who work on Broadway are very inter-connected. In the 1920’s Cole Porter, Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein all had a decade full of flops – a much higher degree above the norm. These high profile people fell into the habit of only collaborating with their friends – too many repeat relationships that stifled creativity. Great talent was too incestuous and likely resistant to new views and produced mediocre musicals as a result.

Q is the density measure of social intimacy and closeness – the higher the Q the greater the number of people who know each other. Here are the co-relations of Q to success and failure show:
– Low Q of 1.7 or less = more failure as the artists did not know one another.
– Too high Q of 3.2+= more failure – the artists were so close that they all thought in similar ways and crushed innovation

Creative collaboration has a sweet spot – the right Q was 2.6 – a mix of relationships – old friends and newbies together. Comfortable with each other, but not too comfortable. It was associated with a 250 % higher rate of more likely to produce a commercial success than a low Q or high Q team. The Broadway production with the ideal Q factor was 3X more likely to be lauded by critics.

People have a tendency to want to only work with their friends. It feels much more comfortable. And it is exactly the wrong thing to do. If you want to make something great, then we need to seek out new people to work with.

3. Connect for Success

Tom Allen, MIT Professor developed the Allen Curve. What he found is that the highest performing employees with the most useful new ideas were the ones who consistently engaged in the most interactions. Connect to succeed. Talk more to more people and you will come up with more cool ideas. The highest performers consistently consulted/connected with 4 to 9 organizational colleagues. The lowest performers contacted 1 or 2 at most. “ This suggests that increasing the number of colleagues with whom an employee consults contributes independently to performance.” Independently is the key word here. Office conversations are so powerful that simply increasing their quantity can dramatically increase creative production: people get new ideas when they talk to more people. The coffee machine and the cafeteria are the most important places not the boardroom.

4.  Get Close, Literally

People being together can create spontaneous combustion of ideas and solutions. If you’re not close, you aren’t going to win the cigar. You can build great teams by having them work under the same roof and bump into each other. There is no substitute for physical proximity. Steve Jobs created a building where people had to run into each other to get to where they needed to go. The physical design and structure enabled and forced random, spontaneous interactions and connections.

Find ways to bring different people face to face together in different ways to spark collaboration, innovation and ideation.

5.  How to Beat Up Each Other’s Work to Produce a Better Solution

Lehrer describes the Pixar way – how teams gather in the morning to critique mercilessly the work of the previous day. No detail is too small to tear apart. Everything is up for review. There are no sacred cows. Drop your egos at the door. The critical thinking rules of engagement are in play. Decades of research have shown consistently that brainstorming groups think of far fewer ideas than the same number of people who work alone and later pool their ideas.

Red storm it – Have a candid, rules driven conversation focused on validating and questioning everything. ALWAYS come from a place of improvement, not an attack of the individual. Red Storming is focused criticism. It can spark new ways of seeing a problem and can lead to a reframe to a solution. Criticism can act like a multiplier for the imagination.

Screw it up fast – “If it feels easy, then you are doing it wrong. We know that screw-ups are an essential part of what we do here.”  At Pixar the goal is simple – to screw up as quickly as possible and fail fast – to fix it fast.

Plus it – Kindness and mutual support are crucial to long-term success. Use ‘plussing’ when you critique. This way you improve ideas without using harsh or judgmental language that hurt feelings or turn people off. Always include a plus – what you like and what works for you and then a critique. Sandpaper is crucial to refining and improving and removing the rough edges. Plussing often leads to more ideas after the meeting – it is the sandpaper that ignites the mind and stimulates new approaches to problems

Collaboration is a key driver of success. Our focus needs to be on how to get better. Learn from everyone’s assessment of the work. Work to spark new insights on small improvements that can reverberate across a project. The more everyone contributes, the better. When everyone takes responsibility for making the final product the best it can be, then you have a winning formula. Like Toyota, it is from a million small fixes that can add up to a huge competitive advantage.

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