Cultivating Creative Teamwork

teamworkBy Tane Ross

Many students enrolled in the CCA DMBA program come from creative careers. These careers often require teamwork and collaboration which involve collective problem solving, applications of specialized expertise in visual and conceptual realms and communication skills. However, many teams that we encounter in more traditional businesses feature a hierarchy of leadership and defined processes.  Through my recent experiences in the DMBA program, I’ve become interested in defining a method that stimulates and fosters design thinking in teams to generate outstanding outcomes.

On the first day of class, our professor had us self organize into groups for our Innovation Studio course.  We had only known our classmates for a couple hours, yet we seemed to gravitate toward certain people.  I was lucky to match up with three positive and fair classmates.  For the rest of the semester, we were charged with creating an innovation around General Motors by imagining the company’s future.  The possibilities were endless.

As if the defined assignment wasn’t vague enough, there was also an underground one involving how to work in teams that are leaderless, creative, and business oriented.  I now call this mixture of group qualities the Egalitarian Creative Team.  My team naturally became one, we were successful because there was an underlying, never fully verbalized, agreement that our team had from day one.  We would each be fair and we were equal.  This agreement was unspoken and organic to us, possibly because the context of the educational environment fostered fairness.  I wanted to explore a method for teams to intentionally cultivate similar agreements and processes that would foster great collaborative energy.

Defining Egalitarian Creative Teams

  • There is no defined leader and no one who has power over the other teammates. Having no leader implies a level of respect and trust for each member.
  • Creativity is the realm in which the team operates by applying Design Thinking. This is a creative process of building up ideas, outside the box exploration of the subject and iterations of concepts.
  • The overarching goal for the team is equally shared across all members. Everyone should want to create an outcome that is the best it can possibly be by developing great ideas.

1. Intentionally get to know your teammates
Understanding each team member’s personal goals provides insight into who in the group has the strongest or most specific feelings about the outcome.  Do they want to include the project in their portfolio, do they want to demonstrate specific skills, enter the project in contests etc?   In my GM group, we didn’t have this conversation until well into the ideation process, after a couple of us started butting heads.  I was surprised at the range of expectations that surfaced when we did talk about what each of us wanted from the experience.

Discuss how much risk the group wants to take.  Is being bold and risky part of the goal?  Talking about risk early on includes it as a lens in which to judge ideas later in the process.  This can be important to avoiding “group think” and “design by committee.”

In our communications course, Live Exchange, we took an online test called Strength Finders.  Each person received 5 core strengths which ranged from Ideation to Empathy, Structured to Futurist and so on.  Sharing our strengths accelerated the process of understanding my teammates points of view and how to best work with them.

2. Viewing the Project from the same point of view
Each person contributes to the project but the project should become greater than each individual.  Understanding that the project itself is an additional teammate with a life of it’s own, is invaluable to the creative process.

Writers and artists have said that the work of art becomes a living thing and the artist is a vessel to communicate what the piece is saying.  This can be true in a team environment as well if the teammates allow it to happen. In my own experience this happened after our group realized that our solution wasn’t fitting with goals and objectives that we all desired and we went back into the ideation phase to generate a new, better idea.  Before this crisis point, we were 4 people brainstorming, after this crisis, we were one team coming together to create something more than what one individual could bring to the table.  Our solution reflects all of our points of view in one cohesive outcome.

3. Being aware of how you will communicate
A conversation about judgment and ego is important.  An agreement can be made that each team member will work to keep the ego out of the process.  Pettiness and bias are human traits that can kill creative productivity.  Egalitarian teams create the opportunity to let go of the need to defend one’s self in the eyes of authority. In my experience over the semester, I felt that I behaved differently in my GM team than I would at work, simply because I didn’t have a realm of responsibility to “oversee” or “protect”.  This was liberating in fact and helped me realize that being overly concerned about my “power” could hinder my overall performance.

A conversation about listening can strengthen the group as well.  Listening without judgment is essential to getting to the best idea.  In Live Exchange, we practice active listening without needing feedback.  There is a difference between active listening and not speaking (while your mind is making judgments, thinking about what you will say next, being defensive, etc).  Active listening involves not doing anything else but listening.  Teammates who practice active listening truly respect the group.

4. Agree on the collaborative process
If the team is egalitarian, each team member should understand that leadership is a shared responsibility, where the leadership hat is worn by different people at different times.  Perhaps there is a process involving a rotating moderator who leads each meeting or maybe the team agrees to work organically, like my GM group did, where leadership roles shifted numerous times during a single meeting.

If one method isn’t working because one person is “taking over” then establish a defined process of speaking in turn, time limits or other more structured environments. Sometimes the quietest people have the best ideas and your group wants to make sure they are heard.

5. Form a strategy for brainstorming and ideation

Ideas are too valuable to be left to fend in an unconscious environment.  Ideas can be lost if the group is not listening for them.  In my GM group, we generated a lot of ideas, some great, some not so great.  One observation during the process is that a few ideas were dismissed because of how and when they were presented, not necessarily on the quality of the idea itself.  Therefore idea generation (the creative) should be separated from idea elimination (the logical).  A strategy of collecting ideas without judgment should be established.  A note taker writes down everything without priority.  At another time, decisions about these ideas should be conducted in an orderly, logical way.

6. Form a strategy for judgment or idea elimination

How are ideas sorted?  A strategy could involve a matrix, blind voting, needs assessment ranking and/or gut feelings.  Taking the time to establish and then follow through can allow good ideas a chance regardless of who originated the idea or when and how the idea was communicated.

Teammates should explore and learn to understand their gut responses and communicate these honestly.  This involves self awareness.  Many artists rely on gut responses, but this is successful after they’ve developed a vocabulary for understanding the physical sensations.  Where is the response coming from?  Personal association, social association, a vision of the future, a vision of the past?  How does it feel?  Right, odd, off, warm, cold, icky, delicious?  Discuss how these responses can be useful to the team and the decision making process. 

7. Agree to take a close look at your hero ideas

After the team’s ideas are whittled down to a handful of the strongest contenders, a three dimensional exploration of each idea should follow.  This is the time when “group think” or “design by committee” should be recognized and remedied. This involves looking at the ideas through the different lenses of risk, market forces, stakeholder needs, customers, future contexts, team goals and more.  Asking tough questions about the realities of each idea is key to not only ensuring a viable outcome, but also to live up to the agreements the team made to each other.   It’s easy for teammates to fall in love with an idea which makes it difficult to view the idea’s flaws. I was guilty of this a few times during the semester, but in the end, I trusted my teammates.

Talk about the process and how the project has evolved on it’s own.  Maybe the ideas alive at the end don’t fulfill many of the team’s goals that were discussed in the beginning – not a bad thing.  This means the project may have evolved beyond the team.  Yet recognizing the process is important because it might actually be time to circle back and re-examine old ideas, brainstorm again or further explore an idea with potential.  Stepping back and looking at the entire landscape of the team and the project is part of being creative.

The rest is play!
After the team has established these structural processes and agreements, the rest is play, with the child’s mind.  The environment is safe for teammates to explore their creativity.  They know their ideas can exist and can trust that the process will result in a great outcome.  Like the Montessori approach to teaching and learning, the creative side can play like a child in self-directed discovery, while the adult part is observant and listening.  The creative space that is left is for the team to explore together and will hopefully grow to be greater than it’s parts.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

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