Collaboration – the New Creativity

Creative breakthroughs – in work, in design, in research – are rarely the work of a single lone genius; they are more often the result of collaboration between a group of people. The group creative process and collaborative process map closely onto one another; hence the statement that “collaboration is the new creativity”.

By Alison Williams, Research Associate, Ravensbourne College, London

Collaboration means that people are working together across boundaries of discipline, sector, cultures, and often languages and time zones. And where you get people, you get emotion. Creativity and collaboration are full of emotion. A deeply serious and senior scientific researcher told me that when a member of his lab team came in last week with a positive result they high-fived each other gleefully. When Archimedes had his moment of insight, the first thing he did was not to reach rationally and calmly for his tablet to work out his calculations: it was to leap out of his bath and run naked down the main street of Athens shouting “Eureka!”

The emotions of creativity and collaboration are many. They include frustration, excitement, anger, disruption and misalignment as well as enjoyment and positive mood tone. A good productive collaboration is when a new product – which could be an artefact, the solution to a problem, a research output – is created by a community. The key is in the word ‘community’ where an atmosphere of trust and interaction are essential components, and where people and ideas can be nurtured. A senior manager in a multinational engineering company, his team distributed globally in 95 sites, talks of a “sense of family”. Creative collaborations are strengthened where collaborators are consciously aware of, and acknowledge the need for, trust: the attribution of good intent.

All collaborations happen within a physical as well as an emotional and cultural context. How do we design and configure the physical workplace so that the sense of family, of community and trust is engendered, supported and sustained?

At a meta-level creative collaboration is stimulated, supported and sustained in two ways: firstly by engaging with other people, with ideas and with information – deliberately or by chance; and also by disengaging from our context or the task at hand, thinking our own thoughts or cutting off completely for a greater or lesser length of time. We do both of these individually or in groups.

This gives us a classic four-box model where the vertical axis is Engage – Disengage; and the horizontal axis is Indi- vidual – Group.

I have been playing with metaphors to ground the different physical spaces. The metaphor of workplace as town gives us:

  • The Den: Disengage individually
  • The Dwelling: Disengage as a group
  • The Bazaar: Engaging differently
  • The Neighbourhood: Engage as a group

all built round:

  • The Plaza

where people interact, hang out, exchange ideas, enjoy serendipitous encounters, and build new collaborations; or sit quietly on their own with a cup of coffee observing the activity and reading their newspaper.

And why are the different kinds of places important? Emotion, of course! Taking one aspect of the metaphor above, the Plaza, and our calm enjoyment of its spaciousness, of being able to see what is going on around, without necessarily becoming involved: spaciousness is important because it triggers ancient emotions in the brain. We don’t like feeling “closed in”. I complimented a client – the Manufacturing Director of an engineering company – on his very smart new office. “I hate it” he said. “I know my old office was smaller but it was further from the CEO and I could hear his footsteps coming down the corridor. It gave me a few moments warning. Now he’s in my office before I know it.” The CEO was a notorious bully.

Researchers at the Max Plank Institute have been studying spaciousness for many years, and suggest that the awareness of spaciousness developed in our early human brains for survival.

Tens of thousands of years ago it was vitally important to be able to sense how the landscape affected how much we could see, and how well we could move. Or in other words, how could an early human scan the near and far distance for danger, and so be able to hide or flee from threats? One reason people feel uncomfortable in open plan offices is the sense of being looked at from behind, and the ancient threats that can evoke – is it a person, or a sabre-toothed CEO? “It takes so much energy ignoring other people’s gaze” says the senior editor of a national UK magazine.

Let’s ask the question: How does your workplace support the four quadrants of the model?

  • Does it have quiet places (dens) where you can safely disengage for a few minutes or a couple of hours? And areas (dwellings) where you and your collaborators can mull things over without being interrupted?
  • Does it have somewhere (bazaar) where teams set out their stalls, as it were, so you can see exactly who is doing what and how you might contribute?
  • Are there areas (neighbourhoods) in the workplace which make it easy to build collaborations, and (metaphorically) hang out over the garden fence or barbeque, building trust and connection and a sense of family? And small play areas and workshops for experimenting, tinkering, playing?
  • And do you have a plaza holding it all together?

Let us know, and then let us know what you do to enhance your own Creative Collaboration…

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