Collaboration. Collaborative. Collaborate. It’s an idea that’s mentioned all the time in business. You may even request it from your agency, and if not prompted, it’s promised by agencies as a matter of course. But what’s really meant by collaboration these days? Is it now just a buzzword?
With all the talk about collaboration, we are questioning whether everyone is referring to the same thing. Is the definition today the same as it was a decade ago? In the branding and design industry, collaboration typically meant firms and clients rolled up their sleeves together. They both dug deep into consumer needs from different perspectives and shared insights. Collaboration implied trial and error – development of ideas, testing and evolving – together. Clients and firms relied on each other equally to generate ideas and poke holes in them, uncover opportunities and address potential issues. Is it the same today?
We’ve received comments after recent work sessions. Our clients and third-party partners alike have said that it had been quite some time since they’d done something like that, something truly collaborative. We were surprised, but in some ways it makes sense.
The immediacy of business culture and high expectations for time to market have taken a toll on real collaboration. Most brand owners say they want collaboration with their agency partners, but the reality of business has forced the definition of the relationship to change.
Business problems need to be solved now or yesterday. Rebranding projects that once had 9-12 month timelines are being shortened to 3-6 months. The assumption is that there is little time for collaboration to take place. This breakneck speed leads to pitfalls and forces teams to be reactive. Quick, band-aid solutions are executed with little time spent on understanding and addressing bigger problems, which continue to lurk in the shadows. Some clients are even forced to step out of the process and just wait for suggested answers by the agency.
What Collaboration Could Be
Even if you feel it has been lost, collaboration can be rediscovered and proven successful between clients and agency partners. We’ve seen it happen. We’ve lived it. Here’s my advice, cultivated over the last 10 years at Trinity and my time in branding before that.
Hardwire it into the Approach and Your Team Members
Build collaboration into your workflow. Install collaboration as a step in the process; don’t just talk about it as a cultural value. This doesn’t mean that a major work session is required every two weeks. As long as people are sharing ideas and others are building on them, collaboration is taking place. An agency may need to do the heavy lifting, but brand managers and other experts should be tapped to build on ideas.
Also, team members need to be okay with giving the entire team credit for an idea. If people hold back on ideas until opportunities arise where they feel they can get more credit, then collaboration suffers. And it’s okay if ideas aren’t fully baked when they are shared. That’s the point of collaboration. Let someone else finish the thought.
Collaborate When It Counts
It isn’t necessary to hold a big meeting or work session for every decision within a given project. If so, a minor decision of whether to change the version color from blue to purple on a package may blow an entire timeline. I’m sure some of you out there have lived through this.
Instead, collaborate when it counts. If clients and agency partners can work together on defining the problem and internalizing the strategy, the smaller decisions easily become non-issues.
Beware of Consensus Building in Disguise
So-called collaboration could become a pitfall if it’s really consensus building in disguise. If your company culture does not require a consensus for decisions, think twice before reengaging the full team. Involving too many people will bog you down and dilute ideas.
To make quality decisions you need to have heard the different viewpoints of the business context so that ideas can be vetted thoroughly. This will come from the process of collaboration and will build trust from key stakeholders. With that trust you have the proxy for consensus.
Furthermore, involving fewer people in these late stages, allows the others to pay attention to their day jobs.
Keep an Open Mind
This phrase gets used a lot for good reason. It works. Ideas can come from anywhere. Also, clients and agency partners need each other. Both are experts in their own right and their knowledge is complementary. Rarely can one solve a branding or design issue without the other.
The conduct of the group is vitally important, too. Shooting down ideas too quickly can not only stagnate progress of the group, but more so it can thwart a group’s willingness to be open and really engage. So be respectful.
Learn from Every Situation and Every Person
It’s inevitable. You will face a similar problem in the future. Learn as much as you can from all parties involved, so that you can more effectively address the issue in the future.
Typically designers take few business classes in school, and marketers are taught little about creative methodologies. Both have a lot to teach each other.
Without collaborative dialogue, we risk wasted resources due to unfocused efforts and time spent heading down the wrong path. We also risk outcomes that are less rich because diverse experts aren’t given an opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas.
Collaboration is possible in today’s “I-need-it-now” culture, and I would say that it’s even more necessary. It just might look a little different than it did a decade ago.
What advice do you have for collaborating in today’s fast-paced world? As mentioned, ideas can come from anywhere. Please share.