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Forget the watercooler: Use these 5 tactics to collaborate creatively from anywhere

There are two consistent challenges to collaboration says creativity strategist Natalie Nixon, PhD, but there are simple strategies to tap so you can collaborate and innovate even virtually.

Forget the watercooler: Use these 5 tactics to collaborate creatively from anywhere
[Source photos: Good Faces/Unsplash; Luke Peters/Unsplash; Helena Lopes/Unsplash]
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Collaboration has never been easy. And collaborating in a hybrid work environment is especially daunting. It requires us to tap into our creativity more than ever. Few people like to collaborate—at first. It feels like a pain and you may think to yourself, “I could do this sooo much faster by myself.” But there is an African proverb which states, “Alone faster, together further.” This is the crux of what we must keep in mind whenever we drag our feet around the idea of working through a process with others. When we don’t collaborate, we risk being myopic and burdened with the ailment I like to call “my-beautiful-baby-itis” which is falling in love with our own assumptions. When we do collaborate, we stand to gain fresh perspectives and multiple innovative solutions to a challenge.

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Collaboration is fundamentally about relinquishing a focus on self. It requires adamant attention to process and cultivating the ability to ask new questions to others, to yourself, and about an approach. The etymology of the word is literally “to work” (labor) “with” (co). When we collaborate we labor together. Collective labor is an ideal in our American democracy, and collaboration remains aspirational in some of our work environments.

There are two consistent challenges that arise around collaboration.

The first is know-how. We don’t teach skills for collaboration or model it in our work environments on a consistent basis. Thus we don’t actually have the best techniques at hand in order to collaborate well. Sure we have been admonished since pre-school to share and listen- but consistently doing this requires a mindset shift and practice. 

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The second is expectations. Collaboration is hard. Let’s just state that out front. When I was a professor I often assigned group projects. Many students dreaded this, especially if they didn’t get to work with a pal, or had a prior bad experience where they ended up doing most of the work. But perhaps we shouldn’t act like collaborating will be tons of fun. Let’s call out the difficulties in advance. Set expectations low. As Alice Walker wrote, “Expect nothing, live frugally by surprise.” 

When we were working in person on a regular basis, we could rely on water-cooler moments, or catching up with someone spontaneously in the hallway to pitch an idea or ask a question. But you can’t force serendipity. So how do we make collaboration work in the context of digital interfaces, in ways that we experience a flow state?

One way is to improvise. Sometimes people are intimidated by the idea of improvising. But it has very little to do with your ability to do an impressive jazz solo. Improvisation is about being adaptive, emergent, and self-organizing. This is what great jazz impresarios like Ella Fitzgerald have done (listen to her famous 1960 impromptu scat of Mack the Knife in Berlin); what comedic improvisers on shows like Saturday Night Live do; and it’s what freestyle rappers like Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes have done.

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Don’t be intimidated. I bet that on any given day, from the time you wake up to figuring out what to cook for dinner, you’ve improvised. You have had to hack your way toward the goal of supporting a partner, a child, or a client. Hacking is a form of improvisation and we do it all the time. What we need to keep in mind in order to be better improvisers, and thus better collaborator is to not let perfection be the enemy of good. 

Collaboration is best when:

  1. You work with people who are different from you. Jerry Hirshberg called this creative abrasion. When he was head of design for Nissan he regularly insisted that colleagues from sales, manufacturing, or finance join in on the problem solving, He understood that while collaborating could cause friction, the net result of friction is energy. So why not convert that energy into something productive and galvanizing?
  2. You practice acts of translation. Unpack jargon that you and your colleagues use. Is your organization suffering from a malady of alphabet soup, so much so that you barely remember what the acronyms stand for? Then, simplify, translate and consequently invite others to play and join the problem-solving process.
  3. You ask good questions. Inquiry and curiosity move you away from being self-centered. They are fundamental to relinquishing a focus on self so that you learn from others and add value to a stale process.  
  4. You improvise. Creativity is a great outcome of collaboration and improvisation is one of the key elements of creativity. Embracing improvisation introduces serendipity and happy accidents. 
  5. You are kind. Don’t be a jerk. Flow, sharing, and actively listening are a lot easier when we are in environments with people who are genuinely interested in what we have to say.

Try incorporating any one of these five tactics to increase collaboration and you’ll be on your way to a workday that flows and generates more innovative results.

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Creativity strategist Natalie Nixon, PhD is a global keynote speaker, the author of the award-winning The Creativity Leap: Unleash Curiosity, Improvisation, and Intuition at Work, and the president of Figure 8 Thinking.