A reader of ChangeOrder, Amy, sent me a great question that merits being answered publicly:
"When working collaboratively in groups, with constant input and iterations of ideas, how do you avoid the flattening of these ideas?"
I think to answer Amy's question, we have to state it as follows: "How are you constructing your group collaboration to preserve artistic vision?" Here's some of my answers. I hope you'll leave yours in the comments!
Focus the team on a clear, higher-order vision and strategy. If everyone doesn't feel like they are "going somewhere" over the life of a project, they are going to start iterating on details that may not fit into the client ask. The team's focus should narrow as the project progresses, based on the team's agreements on the constraints you'll explore. Be sure to set clear goals and a quality bar for the output you're seeking.
Foster explicit agreement in seed ideas. If the entire team is not part of the initial brainstorming or ideation—or if the ideas aren't clearly described and "sold" to those not present—then a team may not work to improve those ideas through the design process. If an idea is crammed down a team's throats with nary a whimper of agreement, they won't be motivated to improve it as they execute.
Provide open space for your teammates to fill with their design ideas. It's critical for contributors on a project to have space to roam. When moving beyond initial ideas and delving into the actual design work, team members must be given areas that they can own and push.
Balance formal critique and impromptu idea sharing. A team's opinions must be heard and accounted for in the work, or eloquently acknowledged and placed in the parking lot with a proper rationale for why they may not improve the work at hand. (The only exception to this rule is when you're about to run out of time.)
As your team is working, create opportunities for both formal critique meetings—where everyone shares their work for in-depth discussion and possible improvement—and impromptu two to three-minute check-ins where team members point out new ideas and changes that may factor into other people's work. When working across disciplines, such as with visual designers, developers, art directors, user experience designers, business strategists, and so forth, these quick hits can be a great way to capture fresh perspectives without causing an extended critique session. These impromptu meetings form a "braid" that is woven from continuous, low-level contact in the midst of cranking on your designs. Low frequency of contact between team members will fracture a common understanding of the ideas being given form—as well as the casual cross-pollination that may make your ideas even better.
Allow proper integration of actionable client feedback. Teams often flatten ideas when they feel like the client is steamrolling their best intentions and efforts. An "us vs. client" mentality can create the perception that no matter what you create, the client may ruin it. So part of participating in and leading those teams requires structuring client/team collaboration as a partnership, framing the client feedback in a manner that leads to an improvement in the next iteration. This may require a little sugar-coating of the bitter pill, but if the client has a compelling reason for the change, it should contribute to some improvement in the final desired outcome of your client.
Kill the hierarchy when possible. Don't assume that the creative director's opinion always trumps individual opinion. Don't assume that everyone's opinion is better than the creative director. Explicit or implicit hierarchy in decision-making, causing team members to defer to the boss or vice versa, can reduce a team's drive. You only need someone to tell you what to do when you can't collectively agree to a point of view.
This sounds idyllic, as disagreements happen all the time between people on creative teams, but most of those disagreements emerge from a lack of buy-in on a creative approach/strategy, an inflated sense of ego and attachment in directions being explored, and the fear that making a change at the last minute may have a cascade effect and push people into overtime. The best teams understand that there can be a cost for pushing the best ideas forward, even if they emerge at the last minute.
Create spaces for emergent design thinking. Make every iteration visible, via printout, in a shared space for your project. Designers often want to perfect their thinking and then share out only their "best work." Instead, capture those iterations that lead to the "best work" and make everyone aware of the various stages in the process. Don't make this a venue for selecting easy ideas and moving them forward. Encourage risk whenever possible—and the ability for your co-workers to debate that risk openly.
So... what are your perspectives on this question?