1: Focus on the Work and Results

One of the biggest mistakes people make early on in their creative careers is getting too caught up in who did something and how they did it. (How many design students get all starry-eyed when they meet their favorite Instagram hero or when they discover a new design software?) However, the real crux of all creative work is really: How well does it accomplish what it sets out to do?

In the world of professional critique (be it movies, books, video games, etc.) the best critics understand that the work itself must be judged upon what it was trying to accomplish. What the reviewer wants, or even what an audience wants, is irrelevant if it doesn’t align with the end-goal of a creative piece of work. In his incredibly nuanced review of a highly controversial video game, Tom Hickson puts it perfectly:

“The truth is: it might have been a story you didn’t want about characters you didn’t like in a world too grim. [The Last of Us] Part II tries to be a lot of things. [...] and I want to look at where it succeeded and where it didn’t from that perspective—whether it answered those questions, and whether the answers it gave were even good answers.”

As creative collaborators, it’s paramount that we maintain this same level of clear-headedness Tom presents above. Checking the egos at the door and focusing on what it is we’re trying to accomplish is the best way to find agreement and generate a path forward.

2: Talk About the Why, Provide Reasoning

If you aren’t one of the 52 million people who’ve already seen Simon Sinek’s 2010 TED talk, I’ll quickly summarize it for you: Good leaders (and companies) inspire action by driving from the “why” of something. Essentially, he states that people aren’t easily swayed by things like product features (the what) or technology frameworks (the how). Those things can certainly be a part of the picture, but the conversation has to start with why your thing exists (or should exist) in the first place.

When it comes to creative communication, if you want your collaborators to fully understand your position, the same rules apply. It’s not enough to just explain your ideas; you also have to provide some level of reasoning behind it all. 

At the end of the day, there’s a wide misconception that creative work is some kind of mystical witchcraft, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s a logic behind design, a logic behind writing. There are things that can be good or bad depending on what you’re trying to accomplish. (If this weren’t the case, these skills would be un-teachable and creative colleges everywhere would have long-since shuttered their doors.)

The most actionable creativity happens when people have an understanding of these factors and spend less time discussing what they should do and more time on why it makes sense to do so.

3: Be Sincere
(Don’t Hold Stuff Back)

Personally, I’ve struggled with this one the most. Due to the often personal nature of creative work, it can be hard to offer candid feedback without fear that you may hurt someone’s feelings. As creatives, it’s imperative that we learn to separate our identities from our work (to help facilitate this kind of candid feedback). The flip side of that coin though is that, should a teammate fall short of that goal, we can’t let that stop us from having open and honest communication.

Author, coach, and business-leader-y person Kim Scott presents a strong case for this with her principle of radical candor (available in just about every format you can imagine).

The bottom line here is that you do your team and your overall endeavor a disservice by holding back valid feedback. It’s in fact much more human, and much kinder in the long-run, to be upfront and honest with your positions.

4: Over-communicate

How much communication is too much? In my experience, most people tend to bias towards the realm of too little communication. This problem only compounds exponentially when you work with remote teams. It’s easy to take for granted all the little side conversations that happen in-person and how much they can contribute to shared group knowledge. Without some deliberate actions to counter-balance, remote teams can miss out on important context.

If you want to make your point clear: make it loud, make it proud, and make it often.

5: Be Opinionated

It may sound rather on-the-nose, but if you’re going to be part of a collaborative and creative team, then it helps to have opinions to offer to the discussion. I think it’s easy for people to tend to shy away from strong opinions because they don’t want to be divisive or rock the boat or cause a stir. Oftentimes, stability can be favored over action. The truth is, though, that the act of creativity in and of itself is inherently unstable. It’s out of that primordial chaos that ideas can fully emerge.

Imagine two creative collaboration sessions. In the first one, all parties only express input in the form of half-truths and platitudes. In the other one, all parties contribute the whole of their potential and ideas. Which session do you think will have the most innovative results? Do you think session number two feels any less like a team? (It’s possible, but we’ll touch on that more in method #6.)

All in all, if no one is providing group input in the way of opinions, then it’s not much of a collaboration.

Side note: Because of this, it’s important to come up with collaborative methods that work for people who may have opinions but are not naturally boisterous. Good collaborative processes and environments ensure that all parties are capable of expressing an opinion, but that’s a topic for another blog post.

6: Be Open-Minded

The one large caveat to method #5 above is that it’s equally important to be open-minded in your discussions. If you’re going to be opinionated, it’s imperative that you also cultivate a strong sense of empathy and an ability to see where your teammates are coming from with their opinions. You have to be willing to change your mind.

This is also a large part of why #1 and #2 are so important. It’s much easier to be open-minded when the entire team is operating from the same set of shared values and goals. It changes the conversation from one of “who’s right?” to one of “which idea will result in the best outcome?”

All of this culminates into my creative mantra of: Strong opinions, loosely held.

7: Maintain a High Degree of Trust with Creative Collaborators

Everything we’ve talked about so far immediately falls by the wayside if everyone is operating in an environment without trust. Without trust, it’s harder to be open-minded, it’s harder to feel like an opinion will be heard, it’s hard to not put on a mask in self-defense, and it’s harder still to agree on a common goal.

To collaborate creatively with your peers, you all need to be comfortable around one another and confident that everyone is trying their best for the good of the group. It’s easy (and sometimes more comforting) to not give peers the benefit of the doubt when something goes wrong. Passing blame is easy because it protects me from facing any of my own mistakes.

So can one individual do to help promote trust amongst the whole team?

Be reliable: Do what you say and say what you’ll do.

Take responsibility: Instead of passing blame, point out what you could have done to better the situation, even if it’s small.

And lastly: always, always, assume positive intent. Recognize that your peers are likely trying thier best with what they have, just the same as you.