Collaborative Creativity

“Give a good idea to a mediocre team, and they will screw it up. Give a mediocre idea to a great team, and they will either fix it or come up with something better.”  – Ed Catmull, Pixar

What is it that distinguishes a good team from a mediocre team? Do they have more money to hire smarter and better educated people? Sometimes, but not necessarily. Financial and logistic resources are helpful, but they are not constituent parts of every good team.

The secret sauce of a good team is that they have learned to collaborate. Even when they are challenged with a new task that is so different that there are no procedures in place yet on how to run it, they know how to work their way through it and develop new concepts together.

I recently facilitated a team building event with a small HR group that went through the basic process of creative collaboration The team describes themselves as very process driven. Yet, at the end of the workshop they were able to successfully master a task that was completely new, and none of their established processes or procedures was of any help.  What allowed them to collaborate creatively and figure out a way to solve this out-of-the-box problem?

The steps of the process are exemplary for developing collaborative teams. The first part of the team building focussed on developing a deep understanding of one’s own individual strengths. A good team work is grounded in a clear understanding of self, so the goal here was to gain clarity and self-awareness. In a collaborative team each member plays to their strengths. In our exercise, each member got to paint one of their dominant character traits, which is difficult. They had to visually express a very  complex idea.

The second part had a double intention: to become aware of the strengths of everyone else in the team and to fostering an open and candid conversation. In a structured discussion the team got to talk about each visualized strength.

At first, the team participants were a bit shy about sharing their own thoughts and impressions. They were also hesitant to comment on their colleagues’ work. What ultimately helped to foster candid conversation was the realization that there was no right or wrong statement, just different perspectives. And step by step it became apparent that there is a huge value in understanding those different perspectives. This insight helped the participants to become more comfortable with expressing associations and ideas, and allowed them to open up to each other. Casual and safe conversations are key for collaboration.

In the last part the team had to solve a creative challenge together. This was clearly a new situation because there was no process in place that could guide them through the task. How do we develop ideas about something we have never thought about, without the direction from a leader and without an established process of collecting and evaluating information? How do you develop a process when there is no framework?

After a moment of perplexity, the team simply started talking and eventually figured out what needed to be done through conversation. They found a feasible solution, but they didn’t stop there. The gears of thinking were clearly running. And then they developed alternatives and questions, and through that process gained a lot more insights and options compared to the first initial solution they came up with. In their conversation they listened to each other without judgment, and they started to build on each others ideas and elaborate on them. They then figured out how to evaluate those ideas, and what to consider to make final decisions. While reflecting the whole experience the team acknowledged that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Collaborative creativity flourishes in teams that are open to explore possibilities, that have built trust, and that are not afraid to navigate through unchartered territory together.


collaborative creativity - group painting together on canvas


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