Creativity is not always practiced in the splendor of solitude, and it is not always an individual sport. Creative projects often required teamwork: collaborations among songwriters, screenwriters, architects, advertising agency execs, party planners, or trial lawyers.
The ability to collaborate with other people will often mean the difference between success or failure of any given project. This can also be of husbands and wives, teachers and students, or two strangers caught in an elevator trying to get to safety.
Collaborative creativity is a very different type of creativity than the kind we practice by ourselves. Learning to respect the ideas of others demands great compassion. Learning to watch others succeed and fail requires great patience. And learning to exchange ideas freely with others in a collaborative or group context demands great confidence in your own ability and a trust that your compatriots will not shower you with ridicule.
The guidelines that follow provide a basic framework for creativity in collaboration. They are meant to give you an understanding of working more successfully and effectively as a teammate in a partnership, or as one of a group of creators, all pushing toward a common creative solution.
These ideas are intended to provide you stepping-stones and building blocks. You will walk into collaborations better prepared. You will have more certainty as to what is expected of you and what role you might be asked to play in a particular circumstance.
To quote producer Allan Burns, when describing one of the ultimate freedoms of a successfully collaborative television writer’s room, you will know to allow yourself and everyone else the right to “expect to be respected.”
Most people are incredibly sensitive about their creative turf and react poorly to any comment that is not complimentary or phrased just right. In a group creativity situation, there are probably to be more comments that are uncomplimentary than there will be compliments. In any collaboration, both sides–the presenter and the listener(s)–have to feel free to listen and process and make suggestions and not be won over by an idea.
So there must be a predetermined arrangement among all the participants in the group creativity or collaborative situation, whether among a group of marketing executives, a team of architects, teacher and students, creators and mentor, big sisters and little brothers, or conductor and instrumentalists; everyone has to leave his or her ego at the door.
Repeat: Everyone has to leave his or her ego at the door.
As part of the ground rules, the fundamental agreement must be that all opinions are welcome, positive or negative, praising or suggesting, complimentary or rudimentary. All reactions, as long as they are honest, have a right to be aired, as long as they are done with kindness and respect.
By participating in the room, or the project, everyone participating has to agree on this point. People need to feel that they can contribute without fear of bumping into the next guy’s ego. A polite rejection can sometimes advance the cause of the room brilliantly, and everyone has to know that if an idea is rejected, maybe that was its contribution.
Before anyone begins creating anything in a collaborative situation, everyone in the group must be on the same page in regard to what rules will guide the collaborative experience. The most important of all of these is for all participants to make a promise to everyone else in the group that no one will be ridiculed, made fun of, diminished, damned with faint praise, or in any other way reduced by the experience of working together. This does not mean that everyone participating has to like every idea she hears, it simply means ideas will not be ridiculed on their way out into the world.
One television producer solved the problem by insisting that a sign be placed on the wall of any room in which he was working with a group of writers. It read: “NO LIFE-SHORTENING EVENTS WILL TAKE PLACE HERE.” This is a great guideline to follow in any room where creativity and collaboration are expected to mix.
The purpose of the group working together is to have the creativity in the room build on itself and on the creativity of others in the room. Creativity creates its own momentum, and given the freedom to be creative without any friction or diminishment, the chances are stronger that the room will be delivering bigger and better ideas, more unusual possibilities, more visualization of things that have never been seen before, and ultimately more solutions to the group’s creative mission, whatever it happens to be.
One of the best opening moves in a group creativity situation, especially if it’s conceptual and in the early stages, is to go once around the table with no interruptions. Everyone participating has a chance to state her opening ideas–with the full attention of all the other participants at the table, waiting their turn to speak. You will learn about your teammates, how they think and how they speak, and how well they are prepared to accomplish the task at hand.
Much will be revealed. Those who are shy will be quieter. Those who are arrogant will be more so as well. Once around the table is like a crucible that exaggerates the best and worst of those sitting in it.
—Tom Sturges spent more than 25 years as a senior executive in the music industry, serving as president of Chrysalis Music, EVP and head of creative for Universal Music publishing, and VP/GM of Shaquille O’Neal’s imprint TWIsM Records. This piece was adapted from his new release, Every Idea Is a Good Idea: Be Creative Anytime, Anywhere. Copyright © 2014 by Tom Sturges. Jeremy P. Tarcher; Penguin Group USA – A Penguin Random House Company.