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Creative Collaboration

Team Collaboration: How to Maximize Productivity (& the Tools to Help) -  Lifesize

Collaboration is one of the five core values of Simple Modern. We believe that teams produce better results than individuals, so collaboration plays a significant role in the day-to-day structure of our company. We view every interaction with our teammates, manufacturers, partners, and customers as an opportunity to work together. This environment of collaboration plays a critical role in our process of creating world-class products.

We define collaboration as solving problems by incorporating the strengths and ideas of the entire team. Collaboration is almost always helpful, but this is especially true in creative endeavors. Research has shown that in procedural jobs, the best performers are usually 2x as effective as an average performer. In creative endeavors, the best performers are a shocking 10x more effective than average. When talented and collaborative teams focus their effort on creative work, extraordinary things are possible. As Steve Jobs once observed:

“The total [is] greater than the sum of the parts. That’s how I see business: great things in business are never done by one person; they’re done by a team of people.”

Working in an environment where everyone’s perspective is valued and encouraged has several benefits

  • Leverages the gifts and talents of the whole team to achieve a common goal.
  • Allows leaders diverse feedback sources to incorporate into the decision-making process.
  • Amplifies everyone’s voice to be heard and helps develop junior team members into leaders.
  • Creates awareness of different points of view
  • Encourages bonding and communication among team members

In this setting, everyone contributes to the team’s effectiveness by bringing their individual experiences, perspectives, skills, and strengths to the table. It also results in better decisions and products.

Collaboration Strikes Back

Creating a movie is an excellent example of the collaborative process. For starters, the story can be about literally anything real or imagined. This wide range of possibilities creates an expansive creative canvas to collaborate. What is impressive to me is the sheer number of people that are involved in helping to make the movies that we love. If you look at the top 20 grossing films from 1994-2014, you have a subset of 1,000 different movie projects. These films averaged 3.5 writers, 7 producers, 55 people in the art department, 32 in sound, 55 in camera/electrical, and 156 in visual effects. That’s over 300 people before you even start counting actors and the countless other people involved in the production. These numbers can swell into the thousands. Iron Man 3 sported an enormous cast of 3,310 people!

When a movie is released, we see one cohesive story, but that comes from countless collaborative conversations and brainstorming sessions throughout the production process. When Toy Story premiered in 1995, Critics universally praised its humor, graphics, and creativity. Its path to glory was far from a foregone conclusion, however. In 1993, Disney canceled the film because of how cynical and unlikeable Woody was in the original screening versions of the film. Steve Jobs and Pixar were able to convince Disney to allow them to work on redoing the film. The ultimate result of the creative process was a timeless classic.

One more example of how the collaborative process often produces a better result is in the dialogue of a film. Below is a famous scene from The Empire Strikes Back:

This iconic moment is even more remarkable because Harrison Ford’s line in the script was “I love you too.” Ford intuitively understood that Han Solo would never have responded to Leah quite so conventionally. He insisted that the line should be “I know.” Ford’s suggestion was such a collaborative improvement that the crew never filmed the scene with the original line.

Collaboration and Leadership

My natural bend is to have a big tent mentality towards leadership. I like to incorporate the thoughts and voices of others. But over the years, as I have held various leadership positions, I have struggled with the balance of knowing when to make decisions and when to encourage collaboration and dialogue.

I have learned that enabling collaboration requires humility. It starts with creating an environment where the conversation is not guided by title and role but by the merit of ideas. Leaders may have the authority, but collaboration involves a conscious choice to bring others into the decision-making process. As others share their perspectives, leaders must then ask, “How do I turn these voices into a decision?” Leaders have the authority to make the final decision; they also have the responsibility to make sure other people’s voices help inform the decision-making process.

It is important to note that there will be instances when collaboration does not result in a consensus opinion. Input from more people can lead to better decisions, yet more voices can also result in conflicting thoughts and ideas. Though challenging at times, the lack of consensus may produce additional clarity for the leader. Ultimately, a leader’s responsibility is to create a collaborative environment and then chart a course weighing all the feedback if the group cannot reach a consensus.

Collaboration benefits leaders in several key ways:

  • The collaborative process can “stress test” proposed decisions to see if they hold up while also sparking creativity and new ideas.
  • It gives the leader credibility when they value the entire team’s perspective. Because they have shaped a decision, teammates will have more buy-in to the path forward.
  • Even when a leader enters a discussion with a strong opinion, it can be helpful to bring the idea or proposed decision in front of a group for feedback and peer review.

Steve Jobs: Champion of Collaboration

In many cases, the best collaborations are serendipitous and unplanned.  No one understood this better than the late Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, and he placed a high value on collaboration.

Jobs serve as CEO of Pixar through its early years of growth and becoming a public company. Though Jobs wasn’t involved in making Pixar films, he took responsibility for designing the Pixar Headquarters building. Jobs intentionally designed the building to mirror the left and right sides of the brain: creative offices on the right side and technical offices on the left.  Jobs insisted on a central atrium in the middle of the 218,000 sq. ft. building.

Traveling anywhere in the headquarters required that individuals pass through the central atrium, thus encouraging chance interactions and collaborations with others throughout the day. Jobs believed that in-person interactions spark innovation, so he purposefully designed the building to bring 700+ employees together and encourage as much collaboration as possible. This atrium was the home to countless collaborative conversations that produced classics like Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Wall-E, and Monsters Inc.

Pixar's critically-acclaimed Emeryville campus - San Francisco Business  Times
The central atrium in Pixar Headquarters

How To Be An Effective Collaborator

Everyone is a collaborator to some degree. Whether collaborating with a co-worker at work or a spouse in marriage, collaboration is a vital part of our life. It begs the question, “How do I become a more effective collaborator?”

One way to be an effective, healthy collaborator is to understand the difference between opinion, persuasion, and conviction level beliefs. We each have a hierarchy of beliefs that we hold with varying degrees of strength. These different belief levels—opinion, persuasion, and conviction—must be kept in check for the collaboration to be as successful as possible. Imagine a pyramid divided into three sections.

  • The pyramid’s base represents a person’s opinions: assumptions, desires, wishes, and preferences.  Some examples would be “Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream is the best” or “The Oklahoma City Thunder are my favorite basketball team.” These opinions matter to me, but they don’t influence my treatment of others, and I can still get some ice cream with someone who mistakenly claims that Rocky Road is the best flavor.
  • The second level of the pyramid represents persuasion-level beliefs. Compared to opinion-level beliefs, persuasion beliefs are held more tightly and influence how we interact and work with others. These beliefs usually center around more consequential topics, influence our behavior, and shape our interaction with others. They are usually more tightly held because we believe that there is significant evidence for holding these beliefs. We can continue to collaborate and work with others with different persuasion level beliefs but will often try to influence those around us on these issues. An example of a persuasion level belief is how to educate your kids between public, private, or home school.
  • The top of the pyramid represents a person’s convictions: those few central beliefs that a person feels strongly and is unwilling to compromise. Collaboration on an issue where there are different conviction level beliefs is by definition almost impossible. One example would be the inability for Pro-Life and Pro-Choice activists to collaborate on legislation toge

Effective collaborators have a healthy balance of opinion, persuasion, and conviction beliefs. Just like most of the volume of a pyramid is in its base and only a tiny amount is in its tip, we should strive for a balance where our conviction level beliefs are far fewer than our opinion level beliefs. An unbalanced distribution of these beliefs can harm the collaborative process and affect the group dynamic. Having very few convictions and persuassions communicates that you don’t stand for anything and makes it impossible effectively contribute a strong point of view. On the other hand, having an excessive amount of conviction level beliefs makes us more closed off to different perspectives. Collaborating with people who believe their perspective on every issue is a hill to die on is often exhausting and unproductive.

Your Ideas are Not Your Identity

The challenging thing about collaboration is that it requires emotional maturity. Growing up, I realized something about myself. When I proposed an idea to a group that was well-received, I felt great.  Conversely, when others disregarded or disliked an idea that I suggested, it was devastating. In those situations, I found that I would get defensive, shut down, and stop contributing to the collaborative process.

Over time, I have learned that ideas are objective things, not my value or identity as a human being. I have ideas, but they don’t define who I am. This allows me to evaluate ideas on their merits and not simply based on their origin. Effective collaborators don’t find their identities in their ideas. They can lead productive conversations and won’t be discouraged or hurt if people don’t like their ideas because that’s not where they find their identity. The best leaders and collaborators can advocate an idea and then drop it to support a stronger idea from someone else a few minutes later. Leading others in collaboration starts with leading ourselves.

Collaboration at Simple Modern

We believe that we are smarter than me. As a result, we’ve built our company to promote collaboration in everything we do. Our hiring process is a multi-person endeavor as we work together to find the best possible candidate. It’s not uncommon to find clusters of people gathered together at our office, troubleshooting a problem or brainstorming our next great idea. As founder and CEO, I meet with all of our employees a few times a year to ensure that they have the opportunity to offer feedback and have their voices heard.

I believe Simple Modern’s exponential growth and continued success are due to the high value we place on collaboration. We encourage our team members to collaborate, contribute to conversations, propose ideas, and defend what they think—in a low-stress, helpful and friendly environment. Once we make decisions, we move forward together as one team. I believe this attitude is a driving force of how we have grown to almost 100,000,000 in annual revenue in just five short years.

Here are a few questions I ask myself to continue to grow in this area:

Do I have a balanced belief pyramid? What is my distribution of beliefs between opinion, persuasion, and conviction?

Where am I finding identity in my ideas? How can I refocus where I am finding my identity?

How can I create an environment around me where people know their input and ideas are welcomed and encouraged?

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