The five ingredients of effective collaboration: What jury duty and creativity have in common

Yesterday my 10 year-old son got a jury summons. I know, ridiculous. And that was my first reaction too. But, my second reaction was wistful nostalgia.

Back in 1996 I got a jury summons too. I was living in Brooklyn, working as a graphic designer, and although well over 10, I wasn’t clever enough to get out of it. I ended up being selected.

There was a lot about jury duty that I didn’t like, especially that someone was badly hurt as a result of the crime and I had to help decide the accused’s fate.

But what I did like was working shoulder to shoulder with people who were very different than me toward a common goal. In spite of not knowing each other, the law, nor any of the information regarding the case beforehand, we had to work together, gently guided by the judge, to figure it all out and come to a consensus.  I know many times juries don’t work as smoothly. But, in this case it did, and we did, and that stuck with me.

I wondered why.

As different as they seem, both the jury experience and the painting project were lessons in the five most important ingredients of a successful collaboration.

Then, when that aspiring 10 year-old juror was 3, he helped paint a triptych that hangs prominently in our living room.

We had just bought a house (mid-century modern!) with lots of empty white walls. After sinking all of our money into those clean lines and open spaces, we needed some big, impactful art that was not expensive and not crappy.

I decided that by defining the process and the materials plus providing some guidance and encouragement we could make that art ourselves.

A few tubes of white, black, and silver acrylic paint, three canvases, and four family members later, we were awe-struck by our creation. The rules had been simple: squirt the paint on the canvases, use whatever you find in the yard to “paint” including sticks, leaves, berries, and even yourself, and encourage each other along the way. But the paintings came out amazing, with the sweet memory made tangible by my son’s small handprint discretely in the corner. Even now, when we have new friends over, we are often asked where we bought them.

At the time, it seemed like a miracle that they came out so well.

As different as they seem, both the jury experience and the painting project were lessons in the five most important ingredients of a successful collaboration. They both had a clearly stated problem, a shared understanding of process, a pressing deadline, an encouraging yet focused guide to keep everyone on track, and a safe space to surface, debate, and refine ideas.

Having been a creative director for all the years since the painting project, I am constantly humbled by the power of the collaborative process. And I’m continuously on a quest to even more effectively unleash that collective energy to solve a problem or create an experience. It’s hard enough, and immensely gratifying when it works well, within a well-oiled creative team. But, like the jury and the family art project, the Holy Grail is to include the so-called “non creatives”, i.e. everyone else, for a more diverse perspective and, ultimately, an even better result.

I believe it’s one of my most important missions as a creative director to put these ingredients into practice. So I’m always testing techniques, refining the details, and when I have something that seems to work, codifying and evangelizing both within and beyond the creative department. And, when the ingredients come together, the results truly blow my mind — resulting in new product ideas, new campaign ideas, awesome pitches, and, even more importantly, both an individual sense of pride and a collective sense of goodwill leading to a deep, lasting impact on overall organizational culture.

But, like the jury and the family art project, the Holy Grail is to include the so-called “non creatives”, i.e. everyone else, for a more diverse perspective and, ultimately, an even better result.

Admittedly, once was enough for me when it comes to jury duty. And I seem to get dismissed usually now anyway. However, I wish I could say that my family has made more collaborative artwork to grace our walls. But, in these tween years, soccer, skateboarding, school and the siren song of the iPhone have taken their toll. I have a few years before they go off to college to pass the tube, promote my kids to guide status, and collaborate with them one more time to capture our hopes and dreams in paint, sticks, and berries.

I will gladly accept that assignment, should I be summoned.

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