Getting the Most Out of Creative Collaboration

I’m not naturally drawn toward collaboration. I thrive on autonomy. Too many external ideas can create a crowded mental space. Maybe it’s a selfish thing. Maybe it’s an introvert thing. Maybe it’s both.

But I also love collaboration. For this entire semester, I have worked with two other professors, planning out our courses together. We scribble out our ideas on the whiteboards, break tasks up between us, and ultimately develop lessons that are better collectively than what we could have created on our own.

It has me thinking about other creative collaborations. My favorite projects, both personally and professionally, have been collaborative. So what makes collaboration work? How do create spaces where actual collaboration occurs?

  • Keep it as voluntary as possible. When I think of workplace collaboration that has actually worked, it has only happened when it was voluntary. Keelan, Lynette, and don’t have to meet. Nobody told us that it was part of our job description. But we chose to collaborate because we knew that this would lead to better courses. However, we have all experienced some of those meetings that felt like a chore or even a punishment; times when a meeting could have been an email. 
  • The team has to have full autonomy. I remember sitting through department meetings where we had to cover information that the department chair had talked about through the leadership team. The entire meeting was top-down and hierarchical. By contrast, I remember planning meetings when I was a tech coach. Chad empowered us to own the process and the product. 
  • It starts with mutual trust. For four years, I used to meet outside of school with another teacher, Javi. Together, we built a blended professional development platform, created a service learning program, planned a STEM summer lab school, and planned out a 1:1 personalized, project-based social studies curriculum. There were some tense moments. We were 100% candid with one another. But this only worked because we trusted one another – and it was the kind of trust that only happens with mutual respect and even vulnerability. 
  • It helps when you are actually making something. There is something powerful about creating something with fellow collaborators. It might be a system or a product or an event. But when you actually decide to make something, your group grows stronger. You trust one another on a deeper level. 
  • You need to have a shared vision. I don’t think this has to be spelled out in a vision statement or written down as a list of values. But intuitively, you need to have a shared vision of what your group represents and what you want to accomplish. 
  • It shouldn’t feel like a meeting. When Keelan, Lynette, and I sit down to plan, we don’t refer to it as a meeting. We don’t go over norms. We don’t fill out a handout explaining what we did. Nobody takes minutes. Instead, we laugh. We smile a lot. We crack jokes. But we also focus and find ourselves getting passionate about our ideas. We often hit a state of flow as a group. The result is a fun experience. 

I think creative collaboration can thrive in all kinds of environments. It can happen with a designated leader or with a democratic team. It can work in creating systems or in making products. But in my experience, it works best when there is mutual respect, trust, and a high level of autonomy.

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