Where does an idea come from? Individual inspiration or collaboration? Is an idea only original when it comes from the soul of one person? Or, can originality be born from partnership? Would Jobs have conceived of Apple without Wozniak? Did Lennon or McCartney write "Yesterday"? It’s a fascinating debate, and even Lennon and McCartney weren’t sure who was responsible for their timeless creation. But this conversation draws little attention from today’s most disruptive businesses for one simple reason. In today’s business world, we can create nothing of economic value alone.
Creativity remains the most valuable business resource for its ability to change the way we see the world. But the old rules by which to unleash this awe-inspiring power no longer apply. Today’s most reliably disruptive companies are built on collaboration: the ability to draw creativity from every corner of the organization and combine them to change the culture.
True collaboration is an agnostic supporter of ideas, enabling its proponents to expand their understanding of both the problem and the possibilities for solving it. It draws original thinking into the vortex of debate, and raises the standard of ideation and execution. Instead of dumbing the process down, collaboration—properly instilled—gives breath to nascent thoughts that are otherwise too frail to survive the self-doubt of many individuals.
Many companies have tried and failed to build a collaborative culture. According to a recent Harvard Business Review study, 80% of senior management time is now invested in collaboration. That makes it an incredibly expensive practice when it’s not working.
The good news is that in disruptive companies, collaboration is not an accident. It’s built into the DNA by design. Los Angeles-based ad agency 72andSunny has understood this from its inception in 2004. Today, the award-winning company is recognized for its ability to unleash highly talented people to make the one thing that matters most to them. A difference. In my analysis, 72andSunny creates collaboration through a series of five practices. In the spirit of collaboration, they’ve allowed me to share them here. The quotes belong to company CEO John Boiler, taken from a series of conversations over the last few months:
Boiler says, "It takes a lot of bravery to share your knowledge and to share your lack of it." Companies consistently try to hammer square pegs into octagonal holes. 72andSunny are clear about the characteristics that succeed inside their environment:
Generosity: A willingness to share your time
Bravery: The courage to share your knowledge
Vulnerability: The openness to admit what you don’t know
Curiosity: The desire to seek answers to new questions and old
Teacher: The desire to develop other people
Self-Esteem: The confidence to give up ownership of an idea to a group
"When you’re really contributing to the work, people step up on the platform," says Boiler. 72andSunny believe you have to make a physical commitment to collaboration.
Work-Walls: Teams gather around public-facing work walls where ideas are openly shared, debated, and analyzed. Over time, a platform in front of the walls—originally designed to hide electrical conduit—has organically become a natural soap box for people to make their point.
Team Design and Seating: Teams are grouped by client, with every discipline represented. This fosters natural exchanges, enhanced by hiring people who instinctively bring collaborative characteristics to both the metaphysical and literal table.
Boiler says, "When it’s on your desk, it’s yours. When it’s on the wall, it’s ours." Ideas are attached to ego, whereas collaboration requires a detachment of ego. Within the agency, there is an absolute commitment to the group’s ownership of any publicly shared idea. Once shared, the idea is never referenced, even casually, through the lens of, "to Matt’s point." Everyone, including the originator, has emotional permission to explore the idea on its merits. The result is an extraordinarily positive environment for vigorous debate.
"We attach ego to the ultimate marketplace outcome we’re all trying to achieve—usually impacting culture in some regard," says Boiler. "When you get hooked on that drug, then the idea of ownership can be a good thing." Building a collaborative environment requires replacing personal success with something more significant. Attach ego to a broader definition of success and you create instant alignment.
"If you can’t build an environment of trust, you’ll never get anyone to contribute something," says Boiler. A lot of companies talk about values, 72andSunny live by them. There are three that matter most:
Trust. Without it, human beings don’t collaborate. It requires you to practice what you preach, so your people understand you mean what you say.
Transparency. This means giving everyone access to the work at all times, and sharing knowledge about each other’s expertise.
Investing in people. The company carried out performance reviews on 92% of its staff last year. They learned about each individual’s personal journey so they can map both progress and upcoming obstacles. One direct benefit is better project casting.
Boiler says, "Our mission is to create a platform for personal growth and creative self expression. We want to help create great people." As project-based, agency-client relationships become industry foundations, casting a multi-disciplinary project has become a much more sophisticated skill.
Three factors 72andSunny pay close attention to include constantly re-assessing active contributors versus those who ‘just needs to know,' ("Having everyone there all the time is chaos," says Boiler. "And expensive."), balancing the project development path with each individual’s career development path, and ensuring that junior people experience senior people in action.
72andSunny is a curious, self-aware, relentlessly human organism. It collaborates by intent through consistent, considered effort. It never stops learning. They will be the first to admit they are not perfect. But their quest to become a little less imperfect every day manifests itself in multiple ways, some creative, some economic. The sum total is a complex organization that is diverse, disruptive and respectful. Competitive advantages for any modern business.
Charles Day is the founder of The Lookinglass, a group of advisors and coaches to some of the world’s most innovative and creative businesses.