7 Top Collaboration Breakthroughs—For Team Leaders Only

If there ever was a hot topic in collaboration, it’s this personal question from agency team leaders: “How can I be more collaborative?”

After years of leading creative teams, we’ve put together a short list of 7 hands-on tips. Each breakthrough will have an immediate positive impact on you, your team, and your collaborative process.

Let’s jump in.

01. Eliminating Bottlenecks

Leading a collaborative creative team, your TOP priority is eliminating bottlenecks.

The questions to ask include:

• “What’s in the way?”

• “How can we make this easier?”

• “Is something unclear?”

• “Is there a duplication of effort?”

• “How can we make this faster?”

• “Where can we improve the system?”

The faster you identify and remove bottlenecks, the smoother your workflow.

Naturally, one of the biggest bottlenecks is not in your team or workflow processes. It’s even more personal…facing you in the mirror. Sorry to mention this, but it’s often the case. We are often our own worst nightmare. We hold on to things because of familiarity. We do things ourselves because that’s what we’ve always done. Familiarity is comfortable and personal work habits can be hard-wired automatic.

Yet, to lead effectively, you need to evaluate if you are a bottleneck in your team and process.

Just as a scientist must evaluate personal beliefs and ask whether a personal context is interfering with objectivity—the same is true for every leader.

“What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.”

—Werner Heisenberg

What’s the worst choice for a leader? Not recognizing one’s own method of questioning. Perception, beliefs, and personality can all influence context and shape the bounds of creativity.

Close on the heels, is not recognizing the risks inherent in the urge to jump into action. This often seems smart and efficient, “I can do this better myself. I’ll just do it and get it done!”  While you may complete the task—you will not eliminate a bottleneck.

When faced with the inconvenient truth that a bottleneck falls squarely on your shoulders…you may resist hearing the news.

What can you do differently? Check for obstacles and blockages. Then, look for ways to dissolve each one.


02. Practice Delegating

Successful leaders do ONE thing really well: delegating. They didn’t always start that way. They learned how to delegate. And if you need to learn it, don’t worry. It is a learn-able skill.

You have let go of doing everything yourself. Hand-in-hand, you’ll hire people who love doing what needs to be done. The good news is you will see dramatic improvements in productivity.

The easiest tasks to delegate are ones totally outside of your expertise. If you’re not a coder or designer, get the most talented expert on your team. If you are a big picture thinker, hire an analytics expert who loves details. Instead of trying to do and be all things, get better at finding the right team. With the right people and smart delegation, you’ll sleep at night, knowing everyone is doing what they do best.

Plus, you will get better and better at delegating.

Quick Tips:

• Say this motto until it becomes second nature: “Get better at letting go.”

• Ask, “Who loves to do this task?”

• Ask, “Who has this expertise?”

03. It’s Not The Plan…It’s The Planning

Every project, every prototype, every creative solution is your opportunity to plan—and to succeed. With a deep commitment to planning, you’ll separate out the busy work from the strategic work. You’ll know that every action points in the right direction.

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

—Dwight D. Eisenhower

As tempting as it may be to jump into action, having a rock-solid planning process sets your team apart. With a deep knowledge of your industry and insight into your client’s goals, your planning process is hard-wired for success.

What’s the best time to plan? Often!

Quick Tips:

• Planning may include both formal and informal sessions.

• In creative projects, expect iterations and refinement.

• Revisiting plans encourages flexible and focused strategic responses.

04. Showing Ideas—Visually

Simplify complex ideas visually—with sketch, blueprint or whiteboard diagram. Illustrations streamline workflow. A shared visual is the fastest way to answer questions, build understanding, and streamline workflow.

Decisions are easier to make with side-by-side displays. That’s why it’s so valuable to use pictures to illustrate prototypes and ideas. Working visually, it’s easier and quicker to make objective decisions in creative outputs.

Without a picture, teams can easily get lost in the woods of endless email exchanges and unrecorded conversations. This lends itself to either vast documentation and misunderstanding; or “he said/she said” subjective recollections. Either way, your team can lose energy, momentum and time due to misunderstanding and wrong directions.

With visual projects, you’ll be able to refer to rough sketches and prototypes. It’s easy to keep track of bubbling inspiration and integrate ideas into progressive iterations. This is very helpful for showing progression to clients, as well as providing progress updates to team members.

05. Escaping Version Hell

We’ve heard too many stories of teams getting lost in the swamp of versions. No doubt you’ve experienced this muddy territory at one time or another.

It goes like this. While one person is working on a design, another team member is making changes to a previous version. Eager to show the work, they each send their output to the client. The client is confused because they don’t know which version is correct. They jump in and want to add a third element that was never in the scope of the project.

Sound familiar?

What’s this called? A mess!

Collaborating with a visual tracking system is the best way manage versions. No chasing down signatures. No midnight panics about missing sign-offs. No wondering if everyone saw the same version.

With the right tools, everyone is in the loop. Everyone involved sees changes and sign-offs, at a glance. Process tools help you escape version hell—once and for all.

06. Encouraging Input

People—your team and your clients—like to be heard. When you listen to input from your team, individuals feel encouraged to contribute. Each team member feels respected and engaged.

The same law applies to your busy clients. Clients like to be heard. They want to know their input is respected and valued.

What is the fastest way to achieve this? Listen to what is said, and listen to what is not verbalized. Non-verbal cues include gestures, facial expressions, tone, and body language. Unspoken influences can include external factors as organizational dynamics, industry competition and personal career goals.

Ask simple questions to gain more insight into your client’s true needs. As you are exploring the project specifications, delve into underlying needs and goals.

Use opening questions to deepen the conversation such as:

• “Tell me more about that…”

• “Help me understand that better…”

• “What’s an example of that?”

• “How have you dealt with that before?”

• “Oh…how interesting…”

Open-ended questions create a field of openness and respect. This shows you are genuinely interested and listening deeply. It expresses your desire to create solutions that truly are in your client’s best interests.

07. Showing, Engaging and Refining

In each creative project, your process of communicating relies on interaction. This includes: showing work products, engaging your client, listening to their responses, and refining understanding.

This is iterative with fresh versions, new prototypes and design drafts. With each round, you’ll refine and verify your understanding of your client needs. By showing work products you encourage participation, while polishing the output. The reward? Hearing your client say a resounding, “Yes! That’s exactly the direction I have in mind.”

The quick and easy way to do this?

Show your client what’s going on in a medium that invites interaction. Use a sketch, diagram, virtual whiteboard display, informal video and/or prototype to express your concepts. Ask for input and capture their responses immediately.

If you aren’t working face-to-face, use virtual drawing tools that make it easy for clients to sketch, circle, sign-off, and give feedback directly onto designs. It’s also helps clients give progress reports to their internal teams, superiors and stakeholders. This is a very effective way to build buy-in and ownership.

A visual-rich process is invites participation. You’ll find out key concerns before you go miles down a track that doesn’t match your client’s objectives. You’ll quickly stand out from your competitors who may be working in silent isolation, producing completed products without verifying along the way.

As you work closely with your clients, you’ll learn valuable information. You may find out that key concerns surface, which did not appear in initial meetings. If so, you’ll discover this early on. This allows you to integrate changes and keep up with new developments in your client’s business. Plus, it keeps your projects moving forward—within budget, scope and time.

To sum it up, the best leaders use each of these 7 breakthrough skills. With this knowledge, you’re in the driver’s seat and ready to go!