Collaboration is beautiful

Sam Palin
9 December 2015

All by oneself

John Steinbeck never kept his narrators on a tight leash. His books brim with digressions and diversions, like this one in East of Eden:

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world.

Perhaps because of my chosen career, I’ve always liked this line. It seems intuitive: great works are created by geniuses, not committees.

It’s easy to come up with anecdotes that support the idea. Vincent Van Gogh was a weirdo, Isaac Newton a recluse. Today, you might say the same of Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk.

It’s a short hop from this to a bolder claim: that feedback is inherently problematic. Great ideas – world–changing ideas – are spiky and scary. To borrow tech parlance, they’re disruptive; if you ask people what they think of them, they tend to recoil. No one knew they needed an iPod. East of Eden itself was critically panned upon release.

If you bake this feedback into your creative process, as most established companies do, the result is crowd–pleasing. Safe. Boring.

Collaboration means compromise, and compromise is dull.

A friend in need

The problem is, the premise is flawed. Our romantic recluses weren’t as reclusive as we like to think. Van Gogh had Gauguin, Newton had Hooke. Which is to say, human creativity never occurs in a vacuum. As Newton himself put it: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Think of Pixar. Or Simon & Garfunkel. Or Watson, Crick, Franklin and Wilkins. It’s easy enough to reel off solitary geniuses – but it’s no harder to list people who did their best work as part of a team. We find the narrative of the trailblazing individual seductive. That doesn’t make it true.

Indeed, the argument I started with can just as easily be made in reverse. To be strong, ideas must be pulled apart and rebuilt. Feedback is like the water that tempers steel: it’s where the strength comes from. Refinement is hardly a bad thing.

For example: few writers would argue that the editorial process makes their writing worse (and still fewer editors would agree with them). I’m tempted to submit the first draft of the book I’m writing as evidence here.

This leads us to a very different conclusion. Feedback isn’t a problem. It’s a vital part of a rigorous creative process. We need it to hone good ideas into great ones.

Piggy in the middle

Noam Chomsky definitely has one of these valuable minds. His theory of generative grammar changed psycholinguistics, and he’s now regarded as one of the world’s leading intellectuals.

Chomsky spent much of his career in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s near–mythical Building 20, a sprawling laboratory complex hastily constructed during the Second World War.

Building 20 was ramshackle, to put it lightly: a wooden frame, concrete slabs, asbestos shingles (there was no steel to spare in 1942). Labs budded off one another like mushrooms; the structure violated even the permissive fire codes of the 1940s.

And so, after the war, Building 20 became the place where MIT dumped fringe disciplines: psycholinguistics, computer science, theoretical physics. Researchers were largely left to their own devices. This anecdote, from a New Yorker article on the history of brainstorming, paints quite a picture:

When Jerrold Zacharias was developing the first atomic clock…he removed two floors in his lab to make room for a three–story metal cylinder.

Building 20 became an accidental experiment in creative freedom: Google’s 10% time, without the complimentary yoghurt. It was unusually collaborative. Researchers who might otherwise have stared at one another across quads shared hallways, kitchens and bathrooms. They talked. They bounced ideas around. And in so doing, they changed the world.

Among Building 20’s tangible outputs were the world’s first video game and the Bose company. Hacker culture – now a standard working method at many of the world’s biggest tech firms – has its roots in Building 20’s Tech Model Railroad Club. That’s not to mention major advances in educational theory, linguistics, atomic physics…

These things didn’t happen in spite of Building 20. They happened because of it. As well as discovering just about everything else, Building 20’s occupants discovered the magic formula for human creativity:

  • Freedom to try things out

  • Smart people to bounce ideas off

  • Open, honest feedback from someone without a vested interest.

Stay spiky

In big ad agencies, copywriters and art directors often work in pairs. The idea is to cover off a range of skills, but also to give each a trusted editor: a sounding board for any idea, however daft it may seem.

Elsewhere, though, most copywriters work alone. Reed Words – a team of eight and counting – is an exception. People often ask us why. Simply put, we think it’s the best way to write copy.

Now for the rhetorical bait–and–switch: the quote I opened with was only half the quote I had in mind. Steinbeck went on:

And this I believe: that the free, exploring mind of the individual human is the most valuable thing in the world. And this I would fight for: the freedom of the mind to take any direction it wishes, undirected.

Steinbeck (or his narrator) wasn’t pushing for isolation. He wasn’t ordering writers back to their garrets. He was simply championing individual creativity. He was telling us to do things. To try things. To stay spiky.

When you hire a copywriter, you want a creative product – but also a consistent, considered one. In our experience, the best way to achieve that is to give writers creative freedom within a close–knit team. We put a lead writer on each project, to encourage spikiness. But we also assign a secondary writer to prod, poke and edit.

The results, we hope, are both spiky and refined. We haven’t quite recreated Building 20 yet (some dodgy shelving notwithstanding) – but hopefully, we’re getting there.

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