Stop! Collaborate and Listen.

As agencies shift to a global and mobile working style in a gig-based economy, the need to create a more collaborative work environment has become the norm. Thought being: If we tear down walls for an open-concept workspace and select the right communication tools and apps that allow people the freedom to work from anywhere, we’ll increase productivity, creativity and—hopefully—employee satisfaction.  

But, is it even true?  

Does a magically collaborative work environment create a happy space for everyone?  

Let’s stop for a minute here to consider what “collaboration” even means. 

Turns out, this hot workplace trend is DARK. And light. Let’s focus on the light side first.  

col•lab•o•ra•tion

noun

1. the action of working with someone or create something.

2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy.

A new(ish) study featured in Forbes indicates there is a lot of good that comes from collaboration in the workplace. Some upsides to collaboration: Engagement levels go up, fatigue is low, success rates are high. And those participants asked to act collaboratively? They tend to stick to their task(s) a whopping 64% longer than their solitary peers.  

Those are all incredibly convincing findings in favor of working together. But, in the spirit of collaboration, I tapped some of my co-workers with a collaboration Q&A in an effort to further understand how they (and fellow collaborators) really felt about this topic. Here goes… 

Q: Tell me what comes to mind when you hear the word “collaboration.” 

This one question would have made for a great brainstorming session. (D’oh! Next time.)  

Project Manager Lauren Petersen’s mind immediately drifted to music and the collaborations between artists like Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks. Still others thought of fashion-house collaborations that have become so mainstream Vogue magazine is writing tips on how YOUR fashion collaboration can stand out against the rest. And, of course, being an agency that’s often united in the kitchen with a love of deliciousness, cronuts came to mind.  

Then there was the physical action of collaboration involving whiteboards, sticky notes, conversation, coffee, hard candies, and potentially hard feelings.  

My personal favorite answer? The fact that every agency seems to have branded collaboration with a name like “synEnergize”.  

This response from Account Planner Evan Jayne strikes me because it’s: 1. HEEElarious and 2. True.  

Even though there were a LOT of responses that hit positive notes (teamwork, solutions, goals), there again is that dark side of collaboration lurking. So, perhaps collaboration is not for everyone? Let’s explore further… 

Next Q: What does collaboration mean to you? 

The answers here were as varied as the individuals themselves. Most agreed with Director of Production Management Jamie Bolles on the premise that collaboration entailed (again) “working together for a common goal.” Yet, one teammate discussed the vulnerability in these group settings and how difficult it can be to share work or ideas that are incomplete and allow others to weigh in.  

That got me thinking—is there a formula to successful collaboration? Turns out, yes. 

In his book, Superminds: The Surprising Power of People and Computers Thinking Together, Thomas Malone of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology outlines three factors that determine the success of a collaborative group effort.  

Being able to gauge the emotional state of others was key; equal participation from all parties—vital; and, the more women in the group the better.  

This last component, let’s call it the “Female Factor”, is one I can definitely relate to as I currently collaborate with nearly all women on a daily basis. And, perhaps since we as a sex are emotional and evocative by nature (read: we communicate to be heard, supported, and understood), we’re more comfortable with the vulnerability inherent in group efforts.  

But, as Malone’s book title indicates and trends dictate, there is more to collaborative success than the people who are working together. According to The hyper-connected workplace: Will productivity reign? 2018 Global Human Capital Trends by Deloitte Insights, “Our research suggests that in today’s networked organizations, a combination of technology, physical space design, new leadership approaches, and new work practices must all come together to achieve this goal. This requires collaboration between HR, IT, and the business to build an integrated, customized work environment.” 

So, successful workplace collaboration takes… a large collaborative effort? I feel that. Our leadership team here at Hacker feels this success also lies in clarity of roles. If all collaborating members—whether they’re teammates, clients, vendors, partner agencies—are confident in their contributions, then everyone involved can be open to the process.  

Which leads us into… to the dark side. 

Q: Is there a downside to collaboration?  

Let’s pause here first to consider that collaborating with others allows people to see the critical thinking path of others. This is GREAT! Right? Being able to listen, take in another point of view, and fire up (or, maybe even change) your own critical thinking. Right! But, here’s the danger: “groupthink”.   

When critics are reluctant to point out a plan’s defects for fear of being ostracized by the group, well then, we have a big #FAIL, don’t we? That’s what a lot of my fellow collaborators answered… in different ways, naturally.  

For most, “collaboration” was synonymous with “compromise.” Squeaky wheels, loud voices, senior stakeholders, or perhaps just people who don’t work well with others were all identified as factors that tip the scales of justice (so to speak) in collaborative settings. And, one astute observer recognized that too many people weighing in too early on a project often spelled disaster.  

But what about that second definition of “collaboration”? 

2.traitorous cooperation with an enemy. 

Well. Here’s another fact about our current gig-based economy. Clients are more apt to ask different agencies under their employ to work together on projects. So, in this rapidly evolving landscape, teams that once were in heated competition are now being asked to compromise, come together, and collaborate—work together for a common goal. This can feel traitorous. Unnatural. (Been there). But, at Hacker we always go back to clarity of roles. By clearly identifying your expertise for others whom you may not have ever worked with previously, you soften the need to “protect your territory” (or, scope of work).    

Or, better put from one of my favorite collaborators Art Director Fallon McBride, “It’s important to remember to 1. respect the people you are collaborating with and 2. trust that they know what they’re doing. If you don’t… the collaboration means nothing.” That goes for ANYONE and everyone, no matter how many times you’ve worked together or how closely.  

And finally. 

Q: Does collaborating on a project make you happy 

Let’s start with Evan who says that collaborative projects always make him happy in the end. Then, he takes it another amazing step further with, “To me, collaboration is kinda like baking a cake from scratch. It’s messier and there are more variables than the Betty Crocker Mix, but the end result has the opportunity to be much more elevated. When you work independently, you know what you’re getting into. It’s faster and cleaner. But it can be bland.” <Me nodding on my way to the kitchen for an afternoon treat. Please be cake, please be cake, please be cake.> 

Lauren’s music mash-up makes me smile as I do believe that seemingly opposing contributors coming together is true magic. And a good reason why it’s sooo on trend right now. As for her own “happiness factor”?  Lauren says, “Yes! I think some of my best experiences working on projects come from the team working together to solve a problem. I was lucky enough to participate in two pitches at the end of 2018 which both ended in success. It felt super rewarding to be part of a team where everybody had a part to play and came together to create a successful end result. I think it also provides ample opportunity to learn from one another, which is another benefit of collaboration.” Indeed! 

Our leader on the production front, Jamie, who collaborates with people outside of our office walls all… the… time… upholds my own ideal vision of “team” when he says, “We come together to come up with the best possible solution.” YEEESSSS. As for Jamie himself? When asked if collaborating on a project makes him happy, his response is, “Yes. For sure.” <fist bump> 

And, I’m infinitely thankful to be kept “in check” by a woman I collaborate with on nearly every project who feels that, “Behind every great collaboration there are at least two people who are good at what they do, and use their talents to create something great.” Fallon. I see you, woman. And, I hear you when you say, “My happiness doesn’t matter in the end. I may not be happy during certain parts of collaboration [but,] I am happy to collaborate.” 

Look. Clearly, we have a consensus here at Hacker that collaboration does (in most part) make us happy. But, there are rules and restrictions that mean maybe collaborative efforts don’t, in fact, result in positive experiences for every contributor. Knowing that not everyone is “into it” is a great filter to keep in mind when setting to task because, like it or not, collaboration is required in this gig-based economy. So, get ready to get uncomfortably messy, like Evan. Find some magic, like Lauren. Embrace it full on, like Jamie. Go cronuts, like Fallon.  

And, remember these basics:  

STOP. First start with clarity. 

COLLABORATE with an open mind. 

LISTEN to those experts around you.     

Thank you.