The art of collaboration

Collaborating with other creatives is a delicate dance. It can be inspiring and difficult, amazing and challenging.

If you get it right, not only can you come up with a thing of beauty, but you can revel in the joy shared in creating it.

I’ve collaborated with galleries, artists and photographers in exhibitions, and worked with many, many authors as a professional editor – every situation is unique, but they have factors in common. Here is the first of a three-part series for collaborative success.

Sound them out
The first step is to sound each other out. When you’re thinking of entering into a creative project with someone, you need to know what they’re about – and vice versa.

A good way to do this – if you don’t know them personally – is to check out their website and the work they’ve done. Try to get a feel for who they are, what they think, where they’re coming from. If they’ve written anything, be sure to find and read it.

If you’re approaching them, express interest in their work, moot the idea of a potential project together, and invite them for an informal chat. The first step is to make contact, but that has to come after you’re already confident that they’re someone you’re genuinely interested in, and attracted to, creatively.

Be gracious

If they’re coming to you, be gracious. Make yourself available to discuss the project informally, unless it’s obvious from the outset that the proposal really isn’t suitable for you both to take forward together.

There is a lot to be said for professionalism, honesty and integrity: if a project really isn’t right for you, it’s fine to decline.

The key here is to be nice – and if you know the project might be perfect for someone else, say so. If it’s possible to help your enquirer by referring them on to a trusted colleague or person in your network, do so.

New connections should always be positive, and this person could be a valuable addition to your contacts book, even if you aren’t able to work together right now. You never know if you might need each other in future for something else, so unless you’re completely sure you want to close the door, be prepared to keep it open.

Shut up and listen
Personalities are a crucial element in collaboration. During your first contact – whether it’s over the phone or in person – be willing to listen, take the emotional temperature and see if a genuinely productive connection might be possible between you.

Look out for the following. Is your potential creative partner:

  • open
  • willing to discuss ideas
  • considerate
  • flexible and accommodating
  • empathic
  • positive
  • affable, pleasant
  • a good communicator
  • respectful
  • keen to pitch in and share responsibility?

Above all, are they listening to you? Do you like them?

Some red flags in terms of potential behaviour to look out for are:

  • laziness
  • defensive
  • uncooperative
  • unbalanced
  • overbearing
  • egotistical
  • controlling
  • secretive
  • passive-aggressive
  • close-minded.

Do they show signs of flakiness, unreliability? Do they badmouth any people they know or have worked with, or any mutual industry contacts you may share?

Trust your gut

Often the clues to the demise of a relationship are there, right at the beginning. Trust your gut: if it’s telling you there is something ‘off’ about this person or situation, the chances are you may be right.

Be open, but wear your detective’s hat – because if your potential creative partner might be a human Pandora’s box, you really do not want to find yourself opening it when it’s too late!

After the initial discussion or meeting, check in with yourself. Reflect on the following.

  • Did I get a good feeling from this talk?
  • Is the relationship likely to be a pairing of equals?
  • If not, and one is more senior and/or experienced than the other, will any possible power imbalance work well?
  • Can we play to each other’s strengths, and be supportive of each other?
  • Are we willing to be guided by each other at times?
  • Do we seem to understand each other?
  • Do we see things in the same way? If not, is that still workable and ok?
  • Do I feel they’ll show up in the process – will they be there?

Getting a feel for the kind of person you’ll be working with is crucial, for reasons I’ll explain next time. Stay tuned!


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