Chances are if you work in an environment where teams and collaboration are the norm, you have thought this to yourself too many times to count but never actually said it. Why? Well, you probably feel like you can’t be honest. (Of course, you wouldn’t be so blunt, but regardless you hold your tongue.) Working as a creative team presents many challenges. You probably feel like you won’t get credit for your ideas. You probably feel like your partner thinks your idea is lame. In short, you probably feel like everyone else. Nothing challenges the ego, confidence, creativity and manners of people in creative fields like brainstorming in a group or one-on-one with a partner.
A winning chemistry between two people or a bigger team is hard to come by. You can’t force it. As a manager, you should know strong chemistry takes time to develop. As a creative person, you should know strong chemistry takes time to develop. How long depends on the individuals of course. By winning chemistry, I mean a relationship in which both personalities can productively co-exist. More seasoned folks can usually blend pretty quickly if they’re going to blend at all. (Managers, remember that not every team you form will become an A-team. Move people around, try new combinations.)
What makes for a successful creative partnership? Personally, I put trust before creativity any day of the week. You can be the most creative person in the world, but pride, suspicion and the like will always get in the way of good work if you don’t have a partner you trust. If you don’t think an idea is working, you have to trust you can be honest with your partner without worrying you will hurt his feelings or create bad blood. Conversely, you want a partner who will be honest with you. It all sounds so elementary, but truth be told such trust is elusive. Given the choice, most people just clam up rather than hurt someone else’s feelings or risk their own, and the work suffers. Mastering the art of productive disagreement is no small task for the creative professional. (Management, it is your job to set the tone here and create a culture of trust and fun.)
Here is some advice on how to navigate and foster a successful creative partnership and to start building that trust.
1. Agree to a method for brainstorming. For example, agree to a 30-minute brain dump during which you throw out everything and anything that comes to mind. Play off what your partner says if an idea sparks a thought for you. But no critical commentary at this point. You are just warming up, throat-clearing so to speak. Maybe then you go back and rake the coals, picking out the hot ideas and talking about how you might develop them.
2. Review the strategy and objective together before you begin. Make sure you both understand and agree on what the project requires of you. After reviewing the input or creative brief, I would always begin by saying, “Well, here’s what I think we’re trying to get across.” And ask if that’s what your partner is thinking. If you are both headed in different directions, it will only exacerbate an already tense relationship.
3. If you don’t think an idea works, offer a rationale for why. Instead of saying, “I don’t know, it just feels wrong,” think about the objective, the strategy and how an idea or approach hits or misses in that regard. (Our personal likes and dislikes can easily get the better of us.) This does two things. First, your partner, whether she agrees or not, will appreciate the more thoughtful objection. Second, this way of evaluating ideas keeps the strategy/objective top of mind, and after looking at it long enough and closely enough you might discover that the strategy itself is off or that there is a better strategy.
4. Redefine your idea of ownership. In a truly collaborative relationship, learn to say we and our, not me and mine. Who came up with what, or said what, is often lost along the way to a well-forged solution. So if you are a glutton for credit and think more in terms of getting praise for individual performance vs. team success, you will fray the partnership before it has a chance to grow. This is a difficult adjustment for many creative professionals to make because it seems to work against the idea of performance-based compensation. How will the boss know what’s me and what’s not? How will they evaluate me within the confines of a team? (Boss, it is up to you to make clear, very clear to your staff, how you address these aspects of teamwork. If you want truly productive teamwork.)
5. Throw that stupid idea out there. More times than I can remember, even when I was comfortable with my partner, I would still find myself holding on to a “stupid idea” that sometimes turned out to be the spark that set off a great idea. If your partner is really good and you have worked together a while, he or she will recognize the look on your face when you are holding back an idea because you think it’s “too out there”– and they’ll tell you to spit it out. Have faith in your partner to sometimes see the intelligence in your stupid ideas. On the flip side, know your partner and when to tell him to spit it out.
So, are two heads really better than one when it comes to problem solving? Obviously it depends on the two heads and how experienced each is at concentrating on finding the best solution through an interplay and exchange of ideas. A partnership like this can be intensely rewarding for individuals and very productive for companies who live or die by the strength of their creative output.
Tim Thomason of the Thomason Media Group/Atlanta offers high performance advice designed to streamline the creative process.