Creative Collaboration: The power of partnership in design — my opening talk at Meet the Pros 2012!

This year I was given the very exciting honor of kicking off Meet the Pros, a yearly conference/workshop event that connects area design students (and a handful of marketing/programming people as well) with professionals who can offer feedback, lessons, and even internships. This is the talk I did for the students at 8am on Monday morning, modified a bit for this blog post. The talk itself was about an hour long and was followed with a few thought exercises which I also shared here. Enjoy!

Creative Collaboration: The power of partnership in design

In our western, individualist, entrepreneurial culture, our views of leadership are so often entwined with our notions of heroism. Our celebrities, our heroes, our leaders–the distinctions between these groups have just started to blur together, and we are taught that accomplishing things as a lone wolf is harder work and more deserving of praise than working in a group. In fact, we may not even be aware of many of our collaborative efforts–the people we draw inspiration from, the friends we ask for help, the people who teach us the skills we need to accomplish our projects.

But we all know that collaboration is becoming more important every day as our world continues to shrink and collaboration isn’t just important, it’s unavoidable. We have to learn how to be great leaders as well as great contributors to a group. The fact is, great things aren’t just achieved by great leaders, but by great leaders who exist in relationship to an amazing group.

Everybody here is a member of an amazing group. You have your peers. You have your teachers and mentors. And you have access through many channels to a network of professionals who have the resources you need to reach your potential.

It’s not often talked about that Michelangelo had 13 helpers to create the painting in the Sistine Chapel. He actually ran what amounted to a small business, employing people in his community to help him complete large works of art, such as the Sistine Chapel. Another group of collaborative artists included Monet, Manet, Renoir, and Degas who often met to share information about their projects and techniques. It’s also true that for a short period, Monet and Renoir worked together so closely that they joked they had to scrutinize the signatures on their paintings in the French galleries to distinguish their work from each other. Finally, the artistic movement Cubism was pioneered by both Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, who worked closely together and were great influences on each other, although Picasso may be the better-known artist. Because there is no consensus on who the true creator of the cubist movement was, it’s best to view it as a product of collaboration.

I think the value of collaboration is clear to all of us, but you will be better able to apply it to your life after you understand your own individual strengths, and have the opportunity to interact with your own network about how you can use your unique, individual talents to make magic together.

This is a good time to explain a little bit about who I am and also how collaboration has helped me grow my business. Each of these photos represent a collaborative effort from my career that benefited all parties involved personally and resulted in great work that I never could have done myself. I should disclose to everyone that I’m sort of a lone ranger myself. I always hated group work in school. I am by nature a very controlling person and I don’t like to find compromises or allow concessions to others. I finally learned to use group collaboration to my advantage when I was able to recognize the skills that each member brought to the table and appreciate the shared passion we had for the project. I really look for excellence and passion because I want to work surrounded by people who can make me better. I want a team that is capable of extraordinary work. Sometimes that means saying no to a project–to me, the team IS the project.

When I was working alone at Princess Lasertron, I worked mostly with brides, designing bouquets and DIY projects for weddings. And when I hired my employees, that’s what they helped me do at first, but as we became more familiar with each others skills, we started thinking of new ways to apply our strengths to growing the business. We branched out into a more mainstream market, and we split up tasks to maximize all of our contributions. And with the increased success we had, I found myself on a platform to connect with other influential people in my industry to work on books, magazines, and tons of things that would have taken me years to do if I was just going at it alone.

What I learned was that I can accomplish great things as an individual, but usually with exponentially more effort and pains than when I allow assistance and support from my network. Even the most motivated people–and I count myself among them–can waste a ton of time pursuing a project that is going to lead nowhere because they are too caught up in the process. With cooperation and input from a group, you get a sounding board, encouragement, and meaningful criticism that will save you time and effort. Input from the team helps ensure that we are keeping our focus and not working into a dead end.

Before you decide that working with a group is the best way to execute your idea, you have to ask yourself, “What will I gain through collaborating?” Is this an opportunity that really resonates with you, that you can commit to? You have to remember that the goal of collaboration is not collaboration, but better results. It’s a means to an end, and the end is great performance. Without a common goal, a plan of execution, and shared passion, there is no compelling reason to work together.

1. Unwillingness to reach out to others

2. Unwillingness to make your talents available to others

3. Inability to find the help you need

4. Anxiety about working with people you don’t know well

In your early design careers, as you work with others, try to be self-aware so you can identify when you are encountering these barriers so you can tailor a solution for each situation. Ask yourself, what would have to happen for me to be willing to work with this group? What makes me uneasy about sharing my knowledge and resources on this project? Be honest with yourself about what’s blocking you from full engagement with a collaborative group so you can make clear-headed decisions about where you’re going to invest your time and skills.

I want to initiate a thought exercise to get you all on the road to pursuing creative collaborations as you break into a design career. First, grab a sheet of paper. Divide your page into three columns. (This exercise is best done in a group. Try it with one of your teams at work!)

1. Three Minutes: In the first column, write down five of your own personal skills. What talents do you have that you call upon when you have a big project to tackle? When other people need help, what makes them come to you? Take a few minutes to write down what you see as your unique strengths that you can bring to a project.

2. Five Minutes: Next, think about a short-term project or a goal that you want to accomplish—your Big Idea. Think about a project you want to tackle, and in the second column, write down three or four steps you need to take to accomplish it. Maybe you’ve had a big idea for a website, or a product, or a service that’s needed out there right now. Think about it, think about what made you want to enter this industry in the first place, and write it down.

As you’re writing, just think about your own individual goals. Your plan of attack may change after you bring others on board, but you can’t start moving in that direction until you identify what this project has to look like for you to feel like you succeeded. Think about that and write it down. What kind of project would you love to take on? This is your Big Idea.

3. Three Minutes: In the third column, make a list of skills and experiences that are needed to accomplish your Big Idea. Don’t think about specific people you have in mind, just list the strengths and talents you need on your team to have all of your bases covered.

Now I want you to gather with your group and talk to each other about those second-column Big Ideas you wrote down, and use the first and third columns to identify who among you has the strengths and interests to help accomplish them. As you share with each other, keep in mind the barriers to collaboration we discussed—be open to discussing with each other and be honest about your goals. Is there an idea that someone else had that you’d be interested in helping with? Is there someone who you’d love on your team? Talk about it and practice introducing your idea to a group where you can discuss the talents you can all bring to the table.

You’ve identified your strengths, a project you want to pursue, and you’ve gotten feedback from your peers here in the room about how you can help each other. Now I’d love to move on to some tips about how to approach professionals in your industry to get them on your team toward accomplishing your own Big Idea.

1. Everyone is busy and has limited time to give you, so you have to make a good argument about why someone should dedicate their time to your project. Treat professional collaborators like you would treat a client, and share with them as much information as you can about your project and tell them how working with you will help them.

2. Volunteer to help with an industry event. You’ll find access to real industry influencers who you can form some relationships with. Also, don’t be afraid to attend some events or meetups outside of your industry–I work in the bridal industry, I make money when people get married, that’s my bread and butter. But I almost never go to bridal events because I feel like I have so much to learn from people who work in other fields. You need to surround yourself with a diverse network of friends and professionals, and branching out of your own box is an important way to grow your own business.

3. Write thank you notes. Don’t let a good deed go unnoticed.

That’s it for that presentation! Feel free to check it out on SlideShare where you can download the slides or share them with your network. Thanks for reading and I hope you get something out of it.


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  • Stefanie Gruenig

    Thank you so much for posting this, I also am a lone ranger control freak. I need to let go of that a bit, and surround myself with other passion driven individuals. I also need to remember to enjoy the journey, not just the result!

  • Candace {}

    I feel like a lightbulb went off when you clearly separated our tasks when working together on our event. We trust each others’ work so we don’t have to check in all the time and we can spend our time more wisely by working on separate tasks in our strength areas.

    Boom! Magic!

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