​The value of collaboration: how to keep it together

Rich Curtis

  • CEO, FutureBrand A/NZ
Rich is the CEO of FutureBrand Australia and New Zealand, a global brand transformation company. In July 2020, Rich bought the local operations from IPG, making FutureBrand A/NZ his independent branding company with the relationships and resources of FutureBrand worldwide.

Through the ages, from the fields to the factories to the office towers and now to our kitchen tables, collaboration has played a pivotal role in how we live and work. Together.  

We find partners, live as families, socialise in groups and work as teams. Ultimately, we rely on these collaborative structures to survive and thrive.  

While collaboration might be in our human nature, that’s not to suggest it always comes easily to your average brand team or marketing department. In fact, you would be forgiven for thinking competition trumps collaboration for some individuals and organisations. Even with the best of intentions, competing ideas and agendas can sometimes derail the best-laid plans to collaborate. Alternatively, those with a supposedly collaborative mindset can sometimes find themselves challenged by others' inputs if their perspectives don't neatly align with their own.  

As organisations become increasingly connected, marketing departments find themselves working more collaboratively than ever, with silos replaced by cross-functional teams and initiatives. But how might collaboration truly add value? What are the risks that might dilute it? And ultimately, does it help or hinder an organisation’s creativity?  

The dangers of group think  

On instinct alone, I can’t help but feel encouraged by an organisation’s structure when I come across a head of product and marketing or general manager, sales and marketing. It’s the ‘and’ that sends the strongest signal of an antidote to ‘one P’ marketing as part of an organisation’s commitment to creating a connected experience for customers and employees alike.  

That said, cautionary tales of ‘group think’ still loom large in an organisation’s psyche, the phenomenon that the need for group harmony overrides an individual’s ability to think critically and leads to poor decision-making. This is indeed collaboration’s Achilles’ heel.  

Nonetheless, collaboration is still at the top of the agenda for many organisations, so much so that it has become a victim of its own success, leading to collaborative overload, complete with bottlenecks and burnout.  

When managed purposefully, collaboration can make a positive and meaningful difference to an idea, team or organisation. Because when you help create something, it means more to you. It enables others to share ownership and, ultimately, to share responsibility for making something happen. This is a vital ingredient for success in today’s cross-functional organisation: Not simply to create a believable future but more so one that your people can believe in.  

For collaboration to make a positive difference to your marketing team, you need to consider three key dynamics. You need to be productive, be open to diverse perspectives and be prepared to be challenged.  

1. Be productive

Firstly, productivity is pivotal to collaboration.  

If you identify the wrong people with whom to collaborate, you risk creating bottlenecks. If you keep collaborating with the same people, they risk burnout.  

Productive collaboration means selecting people who have the appropriate level of domain expertise to make an informed contribution, not simply have an opinion. It also means applying a process that enables those contributions in a meaningful way, not a token all-staff email ahead of a fast-approaching deadline.  

Before you embark on any kind of collaboration as part of a broader process, always ask yourself: Who, when and why?  

2. Be open

Secondly, open collaboration reveals new and diverse perspectives that might otherwise lie hidden or obscured from view.  

In the words of minimalist composer, Phillip Glass: "One of the things that's been most interesting for me is finding the engine of change in our work – how do you continue to grow? – and my technique is through collaboration."  

In this way, collaboration is in fact a driving force in the creative process, compelling you to consider others’ perspectives and to incorporate their inputs in order to shape the final product. It might mean inviting people who think differently from you to collaborate with you, or who occupy a different role in the organisation’s operations, or who might even sit outside of the organisation as customers or partners.  

You need to be open to hearing these different voices and ideas other than your own. Without the benefit of active listening, you’ll struggle to collaborate. It’s not easy but it is essential.  

3. Be challenged

Thirdly, be prepared to be challenged.  

True collaboration is not always characterised by consensus. But while collaborating with others at the same time as challenging them do not seem like activities that go hand-in-hand, they are equally important to one another. Not only because they help avoid the infamous ‘group think’ but because no one individual has a monopoly on all the best ideas.   

To ensure collaboration avoids slipping into consensus or indeed free-falling into chaos, those diverse perspectives need to be shared harmoniously. By which I mean that collaboration can be more effective when everyone adopts the same perspective at the same time.  

To use De Bono’s ‘six hats’ as an example, if everyone is wearing the ‘black hat’ at the same time, then everyone can consider the challenges and risks together. So too if everyone is wearing the ‘green hat’ simultaneously, then the group can explore its collective creativity. However, if the group is wearing different hats simultaneously, then the team’s collaborative ethos will swiftly self-destruct.  

In my experience, the truth of collaboration is its value draws on a combination of cooperation and competition. It's the product of a community of people with diverse perspectives working together to encourage, challenge and build upon one another's ideas.  

What's more, collaboration is vital to the creative process as it runs its course through the world of brand and marketing. It is an engine of growth for new ideas, and it is fuelled by a diversity of perspectives that shape the ultimate outcome.  

Tags: brand strategy, leadership, collaboration

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