A group is a bunch of people in an elevator. A team is a bunch of people in an elevator, but the elevator is broken.Bonnie Edelstein
Let me bring you to a moment, you step into the elevator, the seemingly normal and relatively mundane mode of transportation between floors of a building. Maybe you’re on the elevator with people you know, maybe you’re on the elevator with complete strangers. Regardless, you are all standing there facing the same direction, as is determined appropriate by society, and you wait for the doors to open at the first floor. When the doors don’t open, what do you do? You can panic, you can tap the buttons for other floors, you can press that horribly high-pitched alarm button, or you can just wait.
All of you, standing in the elevator together, are now a team and have to come up with creative solutions, to not only get you out of that elevator, but to also support the success of each individual person in the elevator. If you are the person standing next to the member of the team having a panic attack, you know that you might have a different responsibility than the person who has the most cell phone reception. There might be some butting of heads, there might be some negotiating, but there will be movement on a path forward. In order for you to all succeed and find your way out of that elevator, you have to work together. You find yourself in a situation where collaboration is obligatory, the stakes are high, and the level of comfort is low. Eventually, you will find your way out of that purgatory, and you may all disperse and go your separate ways. But for a short time, hopefully a short time, you all worked together.
Now in that scenario, you would have been collaborating with near strangers. However, in your work, family, and personal life there will be people with whom you are regularly asked to collaborate. In all facets of your life, you are required to collaborate creatively. But what really is creative collaboration? Creative collaboration is the process of working with others to achieve a shared outcome in a unique way. It could be unique to the world, to the situation, or even just unique to that group of people at that moment in time. When you are working alone and without your thought partners, it can eliminate alternative perspectives, limit the amount of idea generating, potentially eliminate constructive feedback. Creative collaboration supports relationship building and strengthens teams, families, and other personal connections. Sometimes we are forced to collaborate with strangers unexpectedly and we are able to do it successfully. Why then do we struggle to collaborate with people that we know better, we are expecting to collaborate with, and we are assigned specifically to collaborate with?
As a high school teacher, I often assigned group projects. We all know the sinking feeling when a teacher assigns a group project. Students often feel that group projects are not an adequate representation of their thought process and capability because they are limited by the scope of their group members. But I felt they were super valuable, and so we came up with a shared set of norms to be followed when working in groups. Below is the framework that I used with my students because they were still learning how to hone their social skills. As adults, in our personal and work lives we like to think we are capable of a higher level of expectation than a 16-year-old, however, that is not always the case. Adults suffer from the same barriers to collaboration and can overcome them by following a similar framework. This set of norms is incredibly powerful to come back to when placed in a situation that requires creative collaboration.
- You are here on your own accord
- Forced collaboration isn’t collaboration. I always allowed my students to pick their own groups or at least one thought partner within a larger group. When collaboration is based on choice, you inherently feel more agency within your team.
- Follow up and follow through
- Generally when you are collaborating on something there is a deadline. Honor that deadline. Collaboration falls apart when people don’t follow through on their commitments. Groups are most successful when there is not only a sense of hustle and but also consideration for the completed product.
- Trust your team and trust yourself
- Working from a place of trust, assuming the best about people around you and trusting that you are there for a reason leads to success. When you work from a place of honesty and vulnerability, you are more likely to work effectively and authentically towards a goal, seek help when necessary, and encourage struggling teammates.
- Keep it relaxed but respect time
- Working with a sense of urgency but not panic, allows for a relaxed workspace and a feeling of mutual respect for one another’s time and commitments. Busywork is unnecessary, but big work requires baby steps. Respecting time allows each member of the group to feel like their engagement in that space is valued without being violated.
- We are all on the same team
- Inherently, when working on a group project you have a shared goal in mind. Often groups fall apart because they simply disagree on what the end result should be or how to get there. If you articulate the goal you are working towards, and remind each other often, you will work in support of the same vision. You are teammates, not opponents. This is not a competition, it is a collaboration.
- Lead with laughter
- Groups that are able to laugh along the path to their end product are more successful. The ability to work in a casual and collaborative environment frees each participant from taking themselves too seriously, and offers a sense of play. Play and experimentation allow for more divergent thinking, which leads to more creative and successful problem solving.
- Don’t run away from conflict just converse
- Teenagers in groups are either conflict averse and emotionally distant, or incendiary and explode at the smallest spark. Whether you are an avoider, or an engager, be aware that conflict is natural. Conflict does not inherently mean cruelty. Embrace conflict, speak with candor, and communicate with each other. When you are able to speak truth to each person in your group and engage from a place of mutual trust, conflict can lead to creation.
- Phone faced down
- Try to eliminate distractions during group time. That means phones go facedown and on silent, so that you are not distracted by the tug of the outside world. It means using the bathroom before beginning a group session, and making sure you feel nourished and ready to collaborate before beginning.
As I see it, it is so easy to think of creativity and problem-solving as a lonely endeavor. But as we all know, two heads are better than one and some of the best work that humans do is intrinsically collaborative.
Whether you are helping your six-year-old build a stronger foundation for her Lego tower, or you are seeking a solution to a systemic societal problem, the spirit of collaboration and creating new ideas of value will ultimately lead to deeper understanding and more sweeping change in whatever realm your problem presents itself.