Nutshell: Collaborating our way to creativity

Written by
Future Talent Learning

01 Feb 2021

01 Feb 2021 • by Future Talent Learning

When we start saying “yes, and…” we open the door to true collaboration, creativity and innovation.

In 2007, Amazon (Kindle) and Apple (iPad) negotiated an agreement to allow the distribution of Amazon e-books through an iPad Kindle app. Despite going head to head in the e-book market, they opted for competitive collaboration – or ‘coopetition’ – allowing Amazon to reach a wider market and Apple to become a more comprehensive content provider.

This achieved commercial success for both organisations and benefited their customers ­– aptly demonstrating how ‘win-win’ negotiation can generate innovative and mutually advantageous solutions.

Compare this with Sony, which, in the early 2000s, was so beset by internal silos and uncooperative tribal behaviours that it produced 13 inventions each requiring a different charger – while its rival, Apple, developed a universal equivalent for its own products. 

Despite the creative benefits of solitude and introspection, we humans wouldn’t have progressed very far if we did all our thinking alone. Society itself is a triumph of collaboration over personal interests. “Man is, by nature, a social creature,” argued Aristotle. (In Greek, the word for a private individual who does not participate in public affairs is idiotes – from which ‘idiot’ is derived.)

The fact is that collaboration is simply an integral part of how we work today, with cross-functional teams and flatter structures replacing bureaucracy and hierarchy, and influence, rather than control, a key leadership skill. In this context, collaboration is crucial both within and between organisations. It can take the form of a strategic alliance (as in the opening example), internal collaboration within an organisation ­(between individuals, groups, teams and departments), external collaboration (with partners, suppliers, clients or the wider community) or (increasingly) virtual collaboration.

With cloud-based collaboration, employees in different locations can work on the same document, which updates in real time – enabling smoother collaboration with remote and gig workers. And, of course, we have a plethora of digital communication tools to help us to interact even when we are apart.

Working side by side

Under the collaborating mode in the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Model, we work with others to find a solution that fully satisfies the needs of both parties, letting go of fixed positions and investigating possible solutions. This is also the aim of the interest-based relational (IBR) approach to conflict and negotiation, which urges us to “attack the problem, not each other”, showing mutual respect.

In collaborating, we are not compromising by ceding ground or finding an inadequate middle way (a lose-lose approach which sounds democratic but results in neither party getting what they want). Rather, we are exploring an issue to identify the underlying needs of both parties, and striving to meet these fully in a spirt of assertiveness and co-operation. Like Amazon and Apple, we are working constructively towards a mutually beneficial goal.

A more mundane (fruit-based) example would be two children fighting over an orange. If only they would pause their hostilities to talk about their objectives, they would discover that Lisa wants to drink the juice, while Chris is after the skin to make candied peel. With a little collaboration, they could actually both take what they need from the orange, without compromise, conflict – or the wrath of their parents.

A shift in our thinking

It’s our mindset, then, that lies at the heart of collaboration: we must be prepared to listen (actively) to all voices, to value all contributions – and to remain open to unexpected solutions and opportunities.

This isn’t easy, but the phrase “Yes, and...” is a tool that can help to kick-start our approach, underpinning as it does the art of improvisation in theatre, comedy and music. It’s a genre that provides a strong framework for developing a positive atmosphere for teamwork, collaboration, productivity and adaptability. There are no stars in improv – everyone is the supporting actor – and the aim is to contribute to the best possible overall performance.

In this context:

  • ‘Yes’ means that we accept at face value everything that’s brought to us, regardless of who brought it, what it is or what we think it means. We treat all ideas or contributions with respect.
  • ‘And’ means that we take this idea and directly build upon it, adding something constructive of our own.

In other words, the ‘yes’ creates openness, being positive and accepting, and encourages a constructive thinking style, within a psychologically safe environment. Saying “yes” doesn’t automatically signal agreement – it’s just an affirmation of the person’s contribution, which makes them feel heard.

The ‘and’ is then the bridge to our thoughts and responses; it needn’t always be complementary – it might mean looking at something from a different angle or deconstructing it slightly. The trick is not rejecting it immediately. In this way, ‘and’ turns standalone ideas into collaborative ones.

For example:

Person A:         “We could move our team meeting to Thursdays to have a ‘no meetings Friday’.”

Person B:         “Yes, and we could reduce it to 45 minutes to make it less onerous.”

Person C:        “Yes, and we could try to make it face to face once a month and go for a drink afterwards.”

Person A:         “Yes, and we could make more effort to include our freelancers and gig workers. They could attend in person once a quarter?”

Learning to love the bomb

“Yes, and...” is a tool we can use to foster creativity and innovation, so that we push boundaries and come up with divergent ideas that can later be honed and edited into convergent thinking. In the example, Thursday may not work for everyone – and it may not be feasible to get to the pub ­– but those are details that can be considered down the line. It’s great for brainstorming – and in meetings, it can help to encourage junior team members to share their thoughts with higher-status colleagues.

The opposite, of course, is “Yes, but…”, which is so often our default reply. This involves shutting down an idea before it has been fully explored, and is negative and demotivating. While it avoids unproductive ideas and keeps formal meetings on track, it also discourages boldness and can exclude people or, at least, deter them from contributing.

For example:

Person A:         “We could move our team meeting to Thursdays to have a ‘no meetings Friday’.”

Person B:         “Yes, but Thursdays are busy and I couldn’t make it.”

It must be noted that to use the “Yes, and…” approach effectively, we need to listen actively, taking cues from other participants and giving every comment our full attention (rather than spitting out a “yes” in order to make our own point as soon as possible). We must agree that we are in a safe space, where there is no such thing as a mistake or stupid contribution; even flawed or unrealistic ideas can sometimes spark new opportunities or lines of thinking ­– our attitude must be that there is an offer in everything. 

“Learn to love the bomb” urges comedian Stephen Colbert (a director and former member of the US improvisational theatre troupe The Second City). By this he means that by losing our fear of failure (and embracing the reality that some ideas will bomb), we free ourselves to be truly creative. “Fear is the mind killer,” he warns.

The process requires proactive effort from everybody and an atmosphere of trust. Leaders must be prepared to loosen control and accept lateral thinking with an open mind, rather than pushing their own agenda or pulling rank. It’s clearly not appropriate for every meeting or scenario, but it can help us to rethink how we handle everyday interactions (do we always default to “Yes, but…”? What would happen if we opened up conversations rather than closing them down?). And it’s particularly helpful for generating ideas and feedback. It can also be achieved through a host of digital collaboration tools, as well as in person, to engage dispersed and global teams.

As the size of a company or team increases, collaboration naturally reduces, and with increased remote working (and a hyperconnected world of business), we must strive to get the best out of new technology – while remaining aware of its power to distract.

For example, in an article for Harvard Business Review, authors Herminia Ibarra and Morten T Hansen describe how cloud computing firm encouraged staff to contribute to the annual management off-site meeting, fostering a discussion across the entire organisation. While 200 executives attended in person, the company’s 5,000 employees were invited to join virtually, watching the meeting in real time via a video service, and sharing their views using its enterprise social network Chatter; comments were displayed on huge TV monitors around the venue.

Initially, the response was muted, but CEO Marc Benioff set the ball rolling, using Chatter to highlight what he found interesting about what was being said – and adding a joke to lighten the tone. Participation snowballed and, in the end, the dialogue lasted for weeks beyond the actual meeting, acting as a catalyst for a more empowered culture.

Being a collaborative leader

This example highlights both the value of digital collaboration tools to support co-operation within and across teams, roles and departments, and the need for leaders to forge the way when it comes to promoting and embodying the mindset that drives it.

To underpin collaboration, we must help to build an overall culture of openness, trust and inclusion, prioritising psychological safety, and encouraging constructive relationships between co-workers (clearly defining roles, but giving teams flexibility on how to achieve tasks). This doesn’t mean avoiding all discord – constructive conflict can be highly productive and creative – but it does mean staying objective, focusing on issues rather than emotions, and accepting failure as a natural and inevitable part of innovating.

Rather than pitting people against each other, where we want collaboration, we should reward the meeting of shared goals over individual performance, and highlight the opportunities for learning and growth. If we set the right incentives, behaviour change will follow. But if we say we value collaboration while measuring solo outputs, our messaging is mixed and counterproductive.

Meanwhile, leaders can also add value by acting as ‘connectors’ – a term coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Tipping Point, which describes people who have many ties to different social worlds. However, “it’s not the number of people they know that makes connectors significant; it’s their ability to link people, ideas and resources that wouldn’t normally bump into one another,” stress Ibarra and Hansen.

This involves connecting the world outside to people inside the organisation, recruiting diverse teams to puncture homogeny, and hiring for collaboration – perhaps building it into job specs and asking candidates about their history of collaborating with colleagues during their interviews. Leaders can help break down silos by actively creating situations for people from different teams to work together, and ensuring that people do not only collaborate with people they know well. For example, at Meta (Facebook’s parent company), a ‘bootcamp’ programme brings together groups of new hires for their first six weeks, regardless of position.

It’s important to acknowledge here that although diversity enhances creativity, it also makes collaboration more challenging. Research by Lynda Gratton and Tamara J Erickson found that “the higher the proportion of strangers on the team and the greater the diversity of background and experience, the less likely the team members are to share knowledge or exhibit other collaborative behaviours”. In addition, “the higher the educational level of the team member, the more challenging collaboration appears to be for them”.

Ironically, then, the qualities required for successful collaboration are the same qualities that can undermine its success. To counter this, rather than hoarding our expertise, we must set a collaborative tone at the highest levels, striving to work closely with our peers and sharing contacts and knowledge. “The senior team’s collaboration trickles down throughout the organisation,” write Gratton and Erickson.

Specifically, they recommend:

  • Developing ‘signature relationship practices’ that build bonds among staff in memorable ways that are particularly suited to a company’s business. For example, Virgin Pulse strongly encourages a policy of ‘cameras on’ during video meetings so that people can build better connections, putting names to faces, while health insurance provider Covered California runs multi-division staff workshops under its ‘Collaborative Community’ initiative.
  • Visible role-modelling of collaboration by senior executives. Collaboration needs not only to be embodied in an authentic way, but also to be made visible to everyone in the company.
  • Establishing a ‘gift culture’ (rather than a transactional ‘tit-for-tat’ culture) where managers support employees by mentoring them daily. The gift is of time as well as expertise.
  • Providing training in relationship skills such as communication and conflict resolution for all staff from the top to the bottom of the organisation. Remember that experts find it particularly challenging to collaborate.
  • Nurturing a sense of community, which organisations can help foster by sponsoring group activities such as cross-functional networks or social events such as lunchtime yoga, or creating policies and practices that encourage them.
  • Encouraging ‘ambidextrous leadership’ to develop leaders who are both task-orientated (able to make objectives clear, to create shared awareness of the dimensions of the task and to provide monitoring and feedback) and relationship-orientated (focused on supporting, motivating and developing the people on their teams and the relationships within).
  • Making good use of ‘heritage relationships’, by populating teams with members who know and trust one another. New teams find it harder to collaborate and need some encouragement in the early stages; however, there must be a careful balance or sub-groups can be formed, creating disruptive conflict.
  • Clarifying roles, but allowing latitude in terms of the approach teams take to tasks and goals. Collaboration improves when roles are clear but tasks require thought and creativity. Where the approach is not pre-defined, members are more likely to invest time and effort in working together.

In addition, designing physical working spaces that enable chance encounters between people from different parts of the company can help with informal networking; we can mirror this for remote workers with the help of virtual reality. Platforms (such as Topia – which we use at Future Talent Learning to help connect learners) can create social experiences in the ‘metaverse’, complete with virtual water-cooler conversations, daily stand-ups and happy hours.

The aim is to develop a strong sense of shared purpose, to which people at every level, and in every role and location, want to contribute so that we can make best use of our combined knowledge, experience and perspectives.

There are plenty of personal advantages to doing so: collaborating helps us to strengthen our relationships, to make new contacts (and friends) and to learn and grow. Studies show that it can also reduce stress and keep workloads manageable.

Towards global collaboration

Of course, this need to unite is nothing new – with ‘large-scale, flexible collaboration” representing the secret to Homo sapiens' success, according to author Yuval Noah Harari. In his book Mankind, he describes the “arrow of history” moving us consistently towards a global society.

This trend is apparent when we consider the international scientific collaboration that has helped us through the COVID-19 pandemic. If we contrast this with the lack of alignment between countries’ vaccine roll-outs and rules around COVID testing, travel and self-isolation, we can see how it benefits us to work together.

However, a global business marketplace, hyperconnectivity and teams dispersed around the world does not automatically mean high levels of effective collaboration. We all need to work on our own mindsets to take us from ad-hoc collaboration to a philosophy of partnership – which rewards joint success and exploits the transformative power of “Yes, and…”.   


Test your understanding

  • Describe what collaboration means and the mindset that enables it.
  • Outline three ways in which we can set a collaborative tone in the workplace.

What does it mean for you?

  • Consider how collaborative your team or organisation is – and how you might be able to improve this.
  • Try using the “Yes, and…” tool in a meeting where you are looking for creative ideas or solutions (and note where you default to “Yes, but...").


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