The Art (and Vulnerability) of Radical Collaboration

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Illustration by Jon Graeff
Hero image
Illustration by Jon Graeff

It turns out the Airbnb was a good, happy accident. It kept people from getting sucked into other things, and because the space was comfortable it allowed us to be casual (one client even brought and then left their “thinking slippers” behind each day). The lack of catering and cleaning service meant each of us had to think about snacks, lunches, doing dishes, and providing supplies. We had one big table where we could spread out with butcher paper, post-its, and markers to just sketch and scribble together. None of us “owned” standing in front of the room, documenting ideas, or guiding the conversation.

There was always a moment where one of us would have something we had previously worked on to share, and we would huddle around to go through a document and draw inspiration. Online tools meant we could divide and conquer a presentation as ideas turned into concrete pieces of content in real time. This setup quickly erased the typical client-agency dynamic because nothing makes you feel like a team faster than being co-creators of a shared, informal experience. This exact solution is not for everyone, but creating that kind of level space can be done in lots of ways.

Recently I locked myself away with two clients for four working days straight. Three of those days were, no joke, in the living room and kitchen space of the Airbnb I was renting near their corporate campus. The circumstances surrounding this arrangement aren’t that interesting, to be honest. It was mostly an exercise in last-minute creative problem-solving.

What’s more interesting is that I’d never met the two clients face-to-face until we had a small kick-off the day before this sprint began. We had only Skyped and talked on the phone prior to that moment, which was a pretty decent chemistry check. Yet as we grew closer to the week I realized how much of a disaster the whole thing could be. If you’ve ever internet dated, you know exactly what I’m talking about — but instead of a disappointing first date, you’re on vacation together for four days wondering how you got it so wrong on the phone. (To be clear, we didn’t live together, just worked onsite together).

To jump to the ending, the approach was hugely successful for both sides, and a big learning moment for us as an agency.

We’re a “sleeves rolled up, in it with the client” kind of culture to begin with. We’ve come to recognize that processes built around going away for lengths of time, big formal reveals, and maintaining mystery around strategy and creativity doesn’t always lead to the best work or a satisfied client. It can, for the right clients, but it’s not our default setting these days. When you’re working on complex challenges in shifting categories — which we almost always are — problem-solving and creating in real time has its advantages including the benefit of having the client’s expertise at your disposal and gaining alignment in every moment.

It’s rare, however, to concentrate that style into something so intense for consecutive days. Timelines, budgets and mutual availability don’t often allow for this approach. It also sounds like a lot of forced thinking and creating, doesn’t it? Like the worst, longest workshop in the world? If a half day is hard to commit to, who wants multiple days?

And, more compellingly, somewhere in the middle of the second day I realized that prolonged, radical collaboration requires something we aren’t really great at as human beings in many circumstances: being truly vulnerable.

So how did we make our time not just productive, but also hugely rewarding? Here are the takeaways.

1 — Create a level playing field.

2 — Goals over agendas.

We knew what we needed to walk out with at the end of the week — a prototype to start shopping around to stakeholders for critical input — but we didn’t have a firm, detailed plan to get there. Aside from my having some ideas of how to get the ball rolling, we approached each day as a “two-a-day” setup determining each morning and afternoon objective to accomplish together. At the end of the day we asked, “What do we have, and what else do we need?” We arrived at those things as a unit, staying focused on the goal, not getting caught up in roles and tasks. This reinforced that we were in it together, and the source of solutions wasn’t as important as getting to the right ideas.

3 — Being human is ok.

Because we had so much time allotted and had created a level playing field through space and structure, the pressure as the agency person to always be “on” or “right” was totally absent from the engagement. There were moments where I naturally hit a collaboration wall and we needed to pivot. Sometimes this meant just getting to know one another better. There were moments that the clients needed to take care of other things that were stressing them out, or they ran out of answers themselves. There were moments where lack of familiarity around another’s way of thinking and doing meant taking some extra time to bring the others along. We knew there was time and space for all of it, so we could have an open and generous mindset. This also meant when we were finished for the day and said goodbye, I didn’t struggle with the transition to “off” mode for the evening in the same space I had just worked in.

Now that we are on the other side of this exercise, the client leader commented that we got more done in four days than we would have achieved in four weeks otherwise. And hyperspeed wasn’t the only benefit — as we’ve set aside digital “bubble time” in the following weeks, the distance that technology sometimes creates has evaporated as well. While it’s not quite the same as working in the same physical space, our digital space has become much more frank, effective and personal because of this foundation — truly the next best thing to being there.

For my part, the experience helped me see my own value, and our agency’s, in a different light. And in a world where the agency and client relationship is shifting and more fluid, learning from a new way of working is as critical as ever. I’m accustomed to having insights and answers ready to go, guiding discussions based on hypotheses that are more or less stress-tested and supported by my colleagues.

In other words, some of the uncertainty is usually removed because we go into collaborations fairly well-informed as an agency team. Absent that, I had to keep checking in with the process, moment to moment, and asking myself if I was supporting the clients on their terms, providing the right expertise needed for the challenge at hand, showing them something they couldn’t see on their own, and being a great sport about it even when we found ourselves in perceived cul-de-sacs. As we started shopping around our thinking we received feedback that there were places that felt too complicated, and we owned that as a unified team and moved on instead of trying to dissect it too much.

Finally, close proximity to our clients helped me see what they go through in a much deeper way. It was a gift to see the internal gates and pressures they are under firsthand. While we always know there’s the problem we are solving, and then the internal problem underneath that we have to account for, I felt those layers more profoundly and clearly. I believe the greatest insight a client can give to their agency comes from allowing us sightlines into their world so we have the ability to act as empathetic, integrated partners tackling challenges from the same side. The more “walls” that exist between us, the harder that becomes.

It has been an amazing experiment, requiring all of us to trust one another at every turn. There are things I’m sure all of us would tweak for next time, and when we’re totally on the other side of this engagement we plan to have that conversation — but overall we have achieved a level of partnership that can be hard to come by in a project-based world. So next time you’re talking process — whether immersion, or framing a problem, or developing a program — stop and ask yourself if there’s a way to introduce some radical collaboration, and “What would make it successful for all?”

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