Collaboration that Unfetters Creativity

At Pixar, writers and directors sit around a table to go over the script during what they call crit sessions. It is an open conversation but there is a process called “plussing,” which means that no idea is shot down and you’re only allowed to make a comment if you are adding to the idea. (The term comes from improv comedy). It’s pretty much the quintessential “yes, and…” protocol. Creativity (and original or innovative ideas) comes from this collaborative set up, where egos are preserved since responses that follow crazy thoughts are “I see what you want to do. Have you thought about….” This is part of the reason Pixar’s movies are so acclaimed*. The creativity is unfettered thanks to collaborative culture.

I am currently consulting in an organization whose purpose is to realize Vision 2030, which is “to create a vibrant society in which all citizens can fulfill their dreams, hopes and ambitions to succeed in a thriving economy.” Having worked in consulting and education in four regions of the world, I can confidently affirm that this is one of the most collaborative and creative environments in which I have ever had the fortune to find myself. That’s not to suggest that other places in which I have worked weren’t equally as collaborative and creative—there is a threshold of quality and enrichment over which we can no longer compare two things as each is a gold standard in itself. Perhaps it is I who is more apt to reflect on practice. The idea that creativity is accelerated through collaborative team dynamics is not new, but how much is collaboration activated by what we bring to the table as individuals: our values, self-awareness, outlooks on life, and how can that contribute to creativity? How can this be replicated in classrooms, PLCs, boardrooms, curricular planning time? How does collaboration contribute to learning?

Collaborative cultures tend to share certain characteristics: moving together toward common defined goals, believing that individual strengths are valued and activated, feeling safety and room for vulnerability and growth. These things don’t come out of thin air; they are activated by the people who come around the table and, specifically, by what these people bring with them and their confidence to voice their ideas. I

Creativity is not preternaturally dependent on collaboration. It takes place when we are alone or when we cooperate with others, but it won’t benefit as much from the synergies of collaboration. As a group, we are at our most creative when we feel safe enough to throw ideas on the wall, where some stick and some don’t; when we know when to step up and when to step off; when we show appreciation rather than envy, ego, or positioning. When the culture silences us through judgment, hostility, or punishment, our creativity is fettered and the outcome suffers. “Hell is other people,” wrote Sartre. (Creating alone, say, as a painter or composer, is different in the sense that creating in the absence of the judging eyes of another person means there are no fetters to restrain us—until the work is displayed or performed, of course, and that fear may be the restraint. The solitary creator may not benefit from the inputs of others, but that is not her purpose. She is not working in a team in these cases.)

We are at our most collaborative—and therefore creative—when everyone feels safe enough to contribute their views, when ideas that hit the mark are acknowledged as such, when those that don’t resonate are used as opportunities to re-focus on the objective. Collaboration takes off when we put our egos to the side and find joy when someone else has a glorious thought. Collaboration is nourished by encouragement, kind words, smiles, always finding something positive to say, making the other feel valued no matter what, phrasing disagreements in ways that are not seen as a personal attacks, ways that project respect and confidence in the individual and the group. 

Collaboration is born from relationships and humility. The rest comes after. What is collaboration if not maxing out the potential of the group rather than the individual?

Where I am consulting, I am stretched intellectually because I am encouraged to be so through the culture of collaboration my teammates enable. It doesn’t matter if you’re 24, 45, or 32 years old. It doesn’t matter if you’re a manager, a contributor, or a consultant. You are at the table because the organization believed in you enough to hire you. You are valued for your ideas, even if not all are spot on. You feel confident and supported because you are part of a group moving as one toward a vision. Disagreements happen, but no one walks away upset. Feel stuck? Bring someone else into the discussion, someone who is only too happy to give up her time without expecting  any credit for it (but credit is given!). Don’t feel you know enough about how to do something? No worries, someone will step in and this is an opportunity for you to say thank you and learn without being judged.

The rest is unfettered creativity and amazing results. 

I am inspired to be a better person because of what I see happening here every day. Once you taste that, you want have it carry over in all parts of your life.

* cf. Cult of Pedagogy Podcast #87

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