It’s a mighty big world beyond the boardroom, what might be learnt about collaboration by leaving the office? Are there examples of effective collaboration outside corporate? Are there things from the past that could help in the future? Yes, yes, and most definitely. 

Symposiums

The ancient Greeks sure knew how to do collaboration right — coming together to drink, eat, and discuss philosophy, politics, poetry, and topics or issues of the day. Traditionally, symposiums were overseen by a symposiarch, whose foremost responsibility was to decide how strong the wine would be. This important decision hinged on the purpose of the symposium. Were serious discussions required? Add water to wine; limit the intake. Celebration? No water; no limit. This is a key piece of information I really wish I’d known before Rainbow Beach. 

Symposiums weren’t limited to civil discussion however. Alternative entertainment included bawdy singing competitions where one person began a song, and another improvised the ending. Yes, this is the lengths folk went to to stay entertained while waiting a few thousand years for The Voice to come along. There were also rhetoric contests, birthing our modern-day usage of symposium to describe any event where multiple speeches are made. If you’ve attended a typical industry event recently and suffered through several thousand bullet points, you might agree that we’d all benefit from less water in the wine. 

Sport

Ironically, I wouldn’t have remembered to include the often-used sporting metaphor, had it not been for my sports-loving cohorts. One point for collaboration! For me, team sports have always been a confusing array of handshakes and nonsensical locker room rituals. I grew up surfing and snowboarding, which probably explains my lack of team spirit. It’s only recently that I’ve dipped a tentative toe into the strange world of group exercise, and I’ll admit that the parallels with collaboration in a corporate context are clear. Communication; working together for a common purpose; knowing your role and expectations, and those of your teammates: these are fundamentals for teamwork, whether inside an office or on the field. There’s also the fascinating phenomenon of the star player. While these prodigies may be more individually talented than anyone else on the field, court or pitch, it’s not a given that their team will win the game. Behind each individual — a team. For every Michael Jordan, a Scotty Pippen or Dennis Rodman. Such insight and sports-specificness from a non-sportsman in that previous sentence, can you believe? Don’t. I stole it

Warhol’s Factory

Andy Warhol’s New York City studio gained notoriety through the sixties and seventies as a hangout for artists, musicians and amphetamine users. Given that colourful mix, it’s not surprising that it was known for wild parties, artistic experimentation and collaboration — the lines often blurring between the three. Whether intentionally or otherwise, Warhol brought a mix of people into an environment that provided the perfect physical and psychological climate for innovation. In addition to ideas and inspiration, The Factory also provided a safe place for artists to experiment without risk of failure or fear of judgement. Perhaps it’s greatest impact however, was in productivity. According to musician John Cale from the Velvet Underground, “It wasn’t called the Factory for nothing. It was where the assembly line for the silkscreens happened. While one person was making a silkscreen, somebody else would be filming a screen test. Every day something new.” Not only were artists working in The Factory more creative, they were also more prolific in their output.

Artist collaborations

Of all the breeds of collaborations, there’s arguably none more volatile than artists working together. Combine large yet often incongruously fragile egos, and the result is either brilliance or catastrophe. Whether it’s Walt Disney and Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol and Jean Michel Basquiat, fashion designers, musicians, dancers, artists and designers continue to be drawn to the possibility that the intersection of talents (within and between disciplines) might yield something more than what they could achieve on their own.

For artists, the search for an idea is generally the time when collaboration proves most beneficial. This is the reason most seek a muse or network (like The Factory) — to inspire, support, and sound ideas. Yes, the reclusive stereotype is often only half the truth. Many artists are actually very social, absorbing their surrounds and soaking external stimulus — until it’s time to create. At this stage, most prefer solitude while producing their work. The presence of anyone else, let alone another artist with strong or conflicting creative opinions can prove precarious. Occasionally this friction can serve to strengthen the work. Other times though, it merely dilutes the individual strengths — homogenising the work, or breeding angst and/or crippling self-doubt. For every example of effective artistic collaboration, a tragedy can be found to contradict it.

Advertising industry

You could search far and further and not find a better example of how creativity can be systemised, and collaboration harnessed, than in advertising. The industry takes an intangible and transforms it into a commodity, and manages to do it despite artistic temperaments and monumental egos. So, how do they manage the impossible? 

Let’s begin with a quick overview of agency structure: suits above, sneakers below. Upstairs it’s all partitioned business as usual, while the party’s downstairs on the open plan floor. The bulk of the agency, the creative department, is composed of small teams — usually partnerships between an art director (visual) and a copywriter (words). The best partnerships are usually long-term, and frequently see them move between agencies as a pair, not as individuals. Depending on the size of the agency, there may be one or more creative directors overseeing several teams. The creative director bridges the divide between creative aspirations and business objectives. 

Now, on to the process. One of the biggest misconceptions about advertising is that every project is one big rollicking collaboration that everyone works on. It’s not. The collaboration process in advertising is remarkable uncollaborative in many parts, which may just be the reason it works so well. Generally a project will begin with a briefing and an all-in. This is a variation of the well-known brainstorming session, facilitated as a safe environment for flinging ideas without fear of judgement. Following this session, an art director and copywriter take the best ideas and develop them under the eye of a creative director. This is when things turn dictatorial. Not to say it isn’t a team effort, but during this time the creative director has the final say. He/she fights ruthlessly for the best possible execution of the idea, protecting it from from management, account service, other creatives, and even from the client. Thick skins are required, as creative directors are not typically known for their sensitivity in delivering feedback. However, come industry awards, recognition is given to the team, not to individuals.

French salons

Originating in Italy in the 16th century, salons gained popularity in Early Modern and Revolutionary France during the 17th and 18th centuries. The salon was a hosted gathering, partly for socialising, but also with the intent that polite conversation would increase the intellect and refine the taste of those in attendance. It certainly seemed to work. The combination of intellectual conversation and reasoned debate in a social setting held particular appeal to writers and artists, and played an integral part in the cultural and intellectual development of France. 

English coffee houses

During the 17th and 18th centuries, breeches-deep in the Age of Enlightenment, the English coffee houses became hubs for information sharing, ideas and innovation. For the relatively cheap price of a penny, customers bought a cup of coffee and gained admission. Like modern cafes, coffee houses provided a relaxed social atmosphere to meet for conversation and commerce. They paralleled the rise of coffee culture, replacing beer as the morning beverage of choice. This not only proved to be a solid lifestyle choice, but sparked a collective caffeine-fuelled stampede towards knowledge and open-mindedness. This was demonstrated in their approach to diversity and equality. Anyone could participate in a conversation or debate, regardless of social status, class, rank, or political views, as long as they were polite.

The coffee houses also served as distribution hubs for the news. Runners did the rounds of the coffee houses to report major events, and daily gazettes were distributed. Political and philosophical discussion around the news further contributed to coffee houses being considered as alternatives to universities for learning and sharing knowledge.  

Co-working spaces

Co-working may seem like a relatively recent notion, but there’s elements that hark back to the salons and coffee houses of centuries past. Now, like then, people are drawn to working in a flexible, collaborative and social environment. If there’s a pin-pong table — so much the better.

The exact demographics vary depending on location, but most comprise individuals working in a diverse range of industries, specialisations, projects, and towards various objectives. Despite these differences, members often express a strong sense of community and shared purpose. Interestingly, research has shown that this feeling of belonging remains constant regardless of whether a person chooses to socialise. 

Socialising certainly isn’t compulsory (great news for introverts!), but simply being around others seems to make a difference. This is likely the result of a phenomenon in psychology known as the social facilitation effect. This finding shows that the mere presence of other folk engaged in similar tasks can increase our motivation and performance, particularly when the task is individual and can be judged on its own merits. In 1920, Floyd Allport conducted an experiment that revealed people working individually at a shared table performed better on a range of tasks compared to when they worked in isolation. Similarly, Norman Triplett found that cyclists with a pacemaker covered each mile around five seconds quicker than those without. Neither experiment involved co-operation or competition, but both revealed the benefits of being near others. 

Co-working communities encourage a culture of collaboration — it’s normal to help each other out. There’s no obligation, but many members take the opportunities to lend their unique expertise to the community, and feel valued through their contribution. This feeling of worth, along with the lack of the usual expectations and politics found in many workplaces provides a psychologically safe environment (more on this in topic 4).

There’s also the desirable element of flexibility. People can choose the exact structure of their day, from the hours they work to how they work — be it in a quiet space to focus, or a more collaborative space to interact. They needn’t even go there if they aren’t in the mood or issues arise.

Armed forces

The armed forces might not immediately spring to mind when considering collaboration, but perhaps this is merely a misconception that good collaboration can’t involve rules. The military manages to construct a ridiculously efficient machine considering it’s built from such a complex assortment of parts. A cross-section of the armed forces reveals a massively diverse demographic in almost every aspect: socio-economic background, education, ethnicity, age, and specialisation. The foundations for bringing everyone together? A strong sense of community and purpose; clarity around objectives, roles and expectations; a hierarchical framework of rules, order, respect and discipline. This brutally medieval structure sure doesn’t sound like the way we hear modern organisations talk about collaboration, but oddly — it works.