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Creative collaboration: How to get your team to bring their A-game

 “Just tell me what you want me to do, and I’ll do it.”

In her Big Think+ video, “Empower Your People — Conversational Moves for Engaging Your Team in Creative Collaboration,” Tony Award-winning director Diane Paulus describes such a question as the “death of a process.” If you want your team to give it all they’ve got — and of course you do — she’s learned that everyone needs to feel they’re working with a leader counting on their creativity and input. In theater, where Paulus works, it’s dishearteningly obvious when an actor is just phoning it in. In other businesses, this kind of disengagement may take longer to manifest, but it’s every bit as counterproductive. Keeping your team on their A-game, Paulus says, requires creating a truly collaborative environment.

Setting the stage

When first assembling a team for a new production, Paulus says, her first statement goes something like this: “I’m going to come with an idea and I’m going to expect you to come with an idea.” This simple expectation of give-and-take says a lot. It immediately communicates Paulus’ expectation that together, the team will arrive at better solutions than any single person could come up with by themselves, including the group leader.
The point is that this prevents the common group dynamic in which a leader announces a decision and offers people a chance to comment or disagree right now. It’s an unhelpful offer, really, since it’s an invitation that’s only of any real use to the bravest of team members. It also comes so late in the decision-making process that it feels too late for one’s comment to have any real impact, and it’s therefore vaguely insulting. It’s the opposite of the creative setting Paulus envisions, where everyone’s in on each decision early and expected to truly participate.
It’s equally important to keep everyone focused on the big picture. “I always feel my job as a director is to constantly point to the top of the mountain.” Included in that is transparency about her own actions. She says a leader has to “constantly articulate what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.”
Of course, things won’t always go smoothly. It’s important to share that you get it: “OK, I know what you’re feeling. I know this is going to feel impossible.” But one of the reasons you’re in charge is that your expertise allows you to analyze and explain what’s not working and to articulate the direction in which you think the team may find the solution.
There may also be times when you see the team getting nowhere, in spite of everyone’s best effort, and it’s the leader’s job to have the team take a step away from the problem for now. This does two things: It protects their creative spirits, and it may also give them the space they need to arrive at new perspectives that can lead to a solution.

The few boundaries you need

Sharing responsibility for outcomes doesn’t mean promoting a free-for-all. Paulus says that gently setting parameters can keep things from spreading out too far and into chaos.
She uses the example of the table reading in which she and her actors engage at their first meeting. “You know, we’re going to work on the scene. We’re going to sit around a table, we’re going to read it out loud, and we’re just going to talk about it.”
The idea at work here, which you can adapt to your team, is to construct or identify a specific format for collaboration that focuses everyone’s creative mind without inhibiting them.

In search of the unexpected

A key element of making Paulus’ method succeed, she says, is “having a big tolerance for a little bit of instability.” The reason is that instability is borne of “not just relying on what you know. You’re not just relying on the best practice, but you’re looking for the next practice.” By asking instead of telling, she says, “you’d be surprised how far people will go with you.”

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