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.

Limit me! Why creatives need limits even in the age of disruption.

I marvel at what my 11 year-old son can do with a sharpie and the letters B.O.E.

You’d think those are his initials, but they’re not. In fact, none of those letters are in any of his three names.

A couple of years ago, he just decided he liked how they looked together and started drawing them in hundreds of different designs. All with black sharpie. And almost all on sticky notes or similarly sized small pieces of paper. Sometimes a talking banana is standing in front of them, as if it’s a casual snapshot of a graffiti tag on a wall in a city of mischievous animated fruit.

“Do you want to use any other colors?”, the pushy mother in me used to ask. Or sometimes I augmented with “letters”, “paper”, “markers”, “paint”, “fruits”, “Photoshop,” “Instagram.”

“No”, he’d invariably say, without further explanation.

As a creative director, I understood.

When I was in college, I fancied myself an artist. For my senior thesis, I could request the part of the university gallery space I wanted for my exhibit. It was a lottery, but I got my first choice. I learned later, because no one else wanted it. In a way, it was the hardest – a square, spare cement space separate from the regular long, well-lit gallery walls. I literally chose to box myself in.

Oblivious to the extraordinary amount of pre-baccalaureate pretension, I made a shrine to my destiny spirit. It made sense at the time – I had just returned from studying abroad in Nigeria where I learned about how young people on the cusp of adulthood placate their destiny spirit to ensure a successful future. For my materials, I also wanted to limit myself. Charcoal drawings. Grass and hay in plexiglass boxes. Two figurative sculptures from paper pulp and cheesecloth on the boxes. And, a tree hanging from the ceiling. The irony was that I felt the only way to tackle the tremendous scale of the idea was to limit the materials and manner in which I could express it.

“You’re a designer, not at artist,” my professor said at my final review, seemingly knocking me off my plexiglass pedestal.

Today, as a creative director, I know he was right.

I get off on the limitations. And, almost sadistically, ask for more.

Letterpress, pre-tables HTML, mobile display ads, pharmaceutical marketing. Bring it on!

No budget. No resources. Pitch meeting in 2 weeks. Bring it on!

Inferior offering. Declining market share. No awareness. Bring it on!

Even in the Moore’s Law era of exponentially increasing numbers of channels, publishers, assets, daily technology innovations, and terabytes of data, limits are, perhaps counter-intuitively, more important than ever.

I definitely can’t speak for fine artists. But, after 20 years in marketing, I can probably speak for many professional creatives in saying those limitations are the challenge that we crave, the definition that we need to do the right thing, and the vehicle to express our most creative ideas.

“I didn’t want to limit you”, says an account director to me at their own peril.

Yes, not having enough resources is something I don’t usually recommend or desire. But, on the other hand, I do believe in small, focused teams.

But, most critically, I definitely want to know the edges of the box — all the things we can’t do, and the very few things we can do — so that I can fill that box with awesomeness. And one of these days, maybe even find room for a black and white talking banana.

So, yes, please give us a very specific ask, with a very specific objective, for a very specific target, with a very specific insight into their very specific need.

And we will come up with a very big idea that reveals the limitless potential within those limitations.

Pondering an empty cardboard box, and using his own brilliant yet mysterious logic, my son recently asked me, “If space is infinite, isn’t the space inside this box infinite too?”

Yes, in fact, it is.

This article originally appeared in MediaPost on September 5, 2017.

Connecting the waxy black dots

In times of change, I grab my black crayon and sticky notes.

I sit at my kitchen counter and work out a way forward in a loose pile of small, thick-lined diagrams punctuated by key phrases.

The simplicity, crudeness, and non-linearness of the medium makes the biggest challenges seem surmountable and their solutions visible.

Now in between jobs and thinking about what I want to do next, I recently took up these familiar tools again.

I drew simple pictures of the stories I tell and re-tell about work, family and myself, and then mixed them up and rearranged them to find clues as to why they’re sticky, what they have in common, and where they might lead.

And then I started writing.

I’m not sure that I’m closer to the answer. But the Post-it® Notes are plentiful. So why not keep going.

Thanks for reading.

~ Laurel