The spectre of collaboration

Well its taken far too long for me to get around to writing this. The reasons are partly festive, but in the main I’ve been too busy with work – who would have thought!

My last post about ‘innovation‘ was an interesting contrast to the one previous about the ‘the 15 year scratch‘. It appears that quite a few people read it but no-one commented…maybe it was too contentious or didn’t quite strike a chord with anyone. Who knows. I’ve got plenty of spam comments attempting to get me to buy a cheap Mont Blanc mountain pen though!

I’ve given a fair bit of thought to what I would write about this time around, and true to most such instances, it has been recent online chatter that has prompted my subject matter, which is…. ‘collaboration’. You will probably see as you read on, I have a meandering view of this and I’m very keen to hear what others think of it, and their related experiences. Before I go any further I should re-iterate that the contents of all these blog entries are drawn from personal opinion…as if you haven’t already guessed.

To my mind the term ‘collaboration’ within the context of product design is viewed with a certain amount of cloaked skepticism. Idealistically it makes perfect sense. The coming together of suitably paired and appropriate minds to solve a common brief can only create something better than that created by a single mind. It’s the overwhelming basis of brainstorming, creative think-tanks and so forth. No arguments there.

The problem arises when payment is involved. As soon as someone is charging for those ideas generated via collaboration, there initiates a hierarchy. An ownership structure I guess. Someone has made the initial introduction to the client, or they are seen to be the primary supplier of goods. Therein sets off a chain of events that puts someone within the apparent ‘even handed’ collaborative network at the top of the feeding or responsibility chain. It then becomes – in essence – a skewed collaborative model.

As intelligent, polite and collaborative folk, we all say that we are happy with the idealistic collaborative model and work together towards the greater good of the project, but there will always be a ‘master/servant’ or ‘agency/contractor’ relationship, no matter how professional and ‘open’ we all claim to be. Someone, somewhere within that model always holds a few more cards than another. I often liken these scenarios to a music group or band. Within every Take That there will always be a Gary Barlow and a Robbie Williams. And there will always ultimately be a battle for power and supremacy happening silently within.

Now if this is verbalized and openly discussed, then it can be managed. A bit like ‘top trumps’, there are going to be certain unwritten rules that count. The larger the agency, the bigger the clout …for instance. The collaborator with the higher fee structure will tend to absorb the lower fees of the others rather than the other way around. It kinda makes sense. I guess it depends on the rules of collaboration and the strength of the relationships between the collaborators.

I have an example to include drawn from very personal experience. Names have been removed to protect the innocent (and not-so innocent).

A large product design consultancy who had good ‘design for manufacture’ credentials entered into a ‘collaborative’ business model with a large graphics and branding agency – both of whom were based in the same approximate geographical area. The concept was that the overlap of the two businesses could create a new business offer where branding was manifested and embodied in 3D and designed to be manufactured within the highly creative framework of both businesses. The aim was that it would appeal to brand managers who could take their spangly new brand through to the FMCG physical retail space in one seamless move. The logic was good, but it ended up feeling like a supplier relationship. The branding agency held the ‘client’ cards and wasn’t going to relinquish them for anything. The product guys ended up responding to the branding guys’ brief and there was forever a layer of client ‘handling’ and ensuing interpretation in any and all feedback loops. It failed miserably despite the intelligence of the creative logic. The brand guys had too much to lose by being truly collaborative, yet wanted to widen their ‘offer net’ and seduce clients with ‘more’. The end result was a more formal ‘sub-contract’ relationship with traditional work patterns and project management within internal teams. Needless to say it didn’t last long, and rightly so.

It is interesting to notice that several years after the demise of this collaboration model, several large branding agencies have taken to ‘acquiring’ smaller 3D/product agencies and ‘borg-ing’ them. That probably makes more commercial sense when there is a disparity in size and business clout.

I think there is a marked difference between genuine collaborative business models and a collaborative, project related, design team. I have worked with BOS: (formerly FLB in Cheltenham) on several projects where I have brought structural packaging expertise and product manufacturing knowledge to the table for the greater good of the project – essentially to complement the predominant branding and graphical work done by BOS:. Behind the scenes, the relationship is still very much that of a sub-contractor i.e. we submit a price against a work phase and invoice accordingly once the phase has been delivered as agreed and described. The rules are simple. Square Banana is contracted to do what we have been briefed to do and BOS: own the client ‘cards’ and run the project. That bit isn’t collaborative. The collaborative bit is around the client meeting table or at early stage project discussions. Despite BOS: being significantly ‘bigger’ than Square Banana, there is no indication of this when it comes to the specific project. With the client and within project meetings, we have as much ‘clout’ and ‘opinion validity’ within the context of the project as BOS:, and yet the client is fully aware that BOS: are running the show and we are a sideshow…so to speak. That works very well as all expectations are managed and the groundrules are clear. A collaborative project relationship but not a collaborative business relationship. There is no ‘cloaking’ of us as BOS: in front of the client. Everyone is aware of all parties and the specific skills and responsibilities each has in respect of the project.

I often read about recent graduates who get together to form a co-operative – which is in essence a collaborative business model. I can understand the logic and commend many of them. But they are useful when everyone is at a similar level i.e. just graduated and looking for work. You maximize your sales force and generate a team spirit without the complexities and commitment to build a singular business and becoming co-directors. However, it works best whilst all participants are unknown. As soon as the collaborators become even slightly recognized or complete a number of projects, a hierarchy will form. Be that a by-product of apparent skill, confidence, business acumen, sheer ‘front’ or price, at some stage there will be those within the group that appear to do better and will see less need to be truly and evenly collaborative. They will perceive (rightly or wrongly…there are plenty examples of both) that they can ‘go it alone’ and as soon as that happens, the collaboration starts to crack and ultimately crumbles. To use the band analogy, think of all those manufactured groups who appear to be ‘tight knit’ and yet a couple of albums and several well chosen public appearances later, one of the group rises to the surface and splits – like disproportionate cell division – from the group to ‘forge their own path’. Fame, success, money and the rallying cry of surrounding sycophants prevents all but the most genuine of such groups from longevity.

To my mind, it boils down to the desire to truly collaborate – and the interpretation of the term ‘collaboration’. If we are to be honest, many collaborations are veiled attempts to make more money from the skills of others, without the commitment to building their own business to encompass those skills. These will never work.

But if all parties are aware of the value of each skill set and the relevance within a project structure of those skills, then I believe collaboration can work wonderfully. Set the ground rules and expectations out in ‘simple to understand’ terms. The business framework that supports the collaboration model may not be particularly evenly distributed across the participants, but as long as within the project structure, the relevance and opinion of each and every collaborator is valued equally then the project is likely to be better than it would have been without collaboration. Surely.

I suppose the best collaborative relationship is where different skillsets and disciplines can be involved as necessary to suit the project mix and where every participant understands the cost base for each other. Much like baking, the fundamental base ingredients are often always needed, but other more specialist ingredients are required from time to time to create something new and exciting. You just need to ensure that your pantry has sufficient stock of all possible ingredients to allow you to create whatever recipe you may need to. To step out of my analogy, all collaborators need to be ‘on-call’ and understand the unifying ethos that makes that collaboration seem a singular creative unit. Otherwise it simply becomes a little black book of sub-contractors who are at liberty to charge whatever they choose whenever the call comes.

I don’t want to get all ‘cub-scout’ on everyone, but personally I find that honesty tends to be the best policy. When I first started Square Banana, I had no real legitimate casestudies to shout about and no staff to ‘profile’. I decided to promote an ‘associate’ model (which could be construed as a collaborative approach) where I asked 4-5 selected small business owners if I could profile them on my Square Banana website. If ever their services were required (at the time, they  included web development, Alias rendering, automotive styling, animation etc. etc.) I would mention them (by name and business) in my initial proposal to the client and provide a short business summary/profile for their information. My intention was that it would make Square Banana appear bigger than it was, but the result was much different. Clients responded well to the fact that each specialist was brought in only to do what was required within the project and that I was only charging for the services and hours necessary to do the work – an optimized billing model to suit the project needs. No fees to cover large overheads or multiple software maintenance contracts etc. It worked well enough for me to make more of it over the next couple of years – a form of collaborative framework I guess.

The only thing that ultimately made it unworkable was the unreliability of those small businesses and the ensuing recession which meant that one day you had a web developer who understood your business, and the next they had folded the business due to poor trading and they now worked in full time employment with no scope to help out. I ended up spending more time finding new suppliers who I trusted and could confidently put forward in such an open an honest way, than it benefited me to do so. Nowadays, I am still honest with clients about the network I deal with and often let them buy direct, but at a more informal level and to suit the project and client!

I am ever hopeful that a good collaborative model can be created by other small creative businesses as I genuinely believe that it benefits the project and is likely to generate more repeat business. An ‘A-team’ of small’ish creative, expert services. I will be watching the exploits of a recent such collaborative project in Cornwall – known collectively as Mudskipper Ltd. – the brainchild of Lloyd Pennington from Buff Design and enabled (as I understand it) by a Cornish ‘partnership’ initiative. This particular project has been part of the reason I’ve been thinking about ‘collaboration’ per se and I wish it well. I hope to pick Lloyd’s brain on this at some point in the future.

I told you I would meander somewhat!

Please feel free to let me know your thoughts and experiences as my opinions are based purely on my own – I would love to hear about successful collaborations that contradict my thoughts.

author : Russell Beard  |  Design Director

4 thoughts on “The spectre of collaboration

  1. Being in the throws of setting up a new model / prototype manufacturing business I find this a very interesting topic.

    To me there are two main stumbling blocks for company level (rather than at an individual level) collaborative working.

    Firstly, risk, and secondly, overlaps in skill sets / capability.

    I’ll cover overlaps in skill sets firstly as that’s pretty simple. If a company feel that a collaborative partner is in a position to potentially ‘eat their lunch’ it makes no business sense to share information as this may be used in a manner other than that intended. As we know sharing information is a critical part of collaborating. This to me is an great reason for companies to be a master of one trade rather than a jack of all trades and is exactly why I promote the fact that we are not designers, we have no intention of designing anything, we just make things as instructed to by our customers. This way a designer can be confident in bringing us into the fold, simply because we are not in a position to eat their lunch.

    Risk however, to me at least, presents a bigger challenge. As you point out collaboration on an individual level, that is individuals working on a particular project or at a specific meeting can safely put their heads together and collaborate, however this form of collaboration is largely without risk. When it comes to company level collaboration there is a risk to be shared. Say for example a designer pens an idea, they will have done all the necessary work to be happy that they are spending their time in a wise fashion and that they will see a reward from their work, however to secure funding for mass production they need a model to be made to help bring on board investors. This could be carried out in a buyer-seller relationship whereby the designer pays a fee for the model to be made. No business collaboration there.
    This is where risk prevents it being any other way, the designer is aware of the risk of failure, they understand what they have got into and will ensure they have sufficient work to even out the risk of any particular project not working out. The model maker however has no understanding of the risk associated with the project and unless they receive all the other work from the designer (an unlikely situation as the designer will then have all their eggs in one basket) can not off set the risk through a spread of projects. And as all the rights are held by the designer unless they are happy to sign a percentage across to the model maker then they are unable to benefit from shouldering any of the risk. As a further twist, if the model maker priced the job according to the risk associated the price would have to be inflated to cover the losses occurred by other failed projects, essentially like an insurance policy, unfortunately this would stop the model maker being competitive from a pricing point of view.
    The only small step I can see that could be practically carried out to reduce the element of risk being a stop card could be to go ‘open book’ on projects and share the losses and potential gains. However I think greed may prevent this from working, and rightly so, if you have a great idea you are entitled to use it as you see fit, likewise if you have set up and financed a manufacturing facility you should be entitled to recoup those costs by providing the service you do with it.

    I think its far more important that we as company owners and directors collaborate on an individual level than we grey the boarders of company lines. If we collaborate, then in turn our companies will.

    To me collaboration is perfectly suited to small, siloed companies that are a master of their particular part in the supply chain and who are owned and run by trustworthy folk with integrity and manners.

    As an academic scientist I collaborated with many peers both from my own department and university but also from departments in other universities, because all our projects were different (no lunch to eat) and there was no risk to share, collaboration was the name of the game.

  2. Hi Gavin,

    That’s a reply and a half! It’s appreciated that you took the time to write it.

    I think there is a bit of a blurry line you draw between intellectual/skill based collaboration for the greater good of the project and simple ‘pro bono’ or favour based work due to limited budgets. The design industry is rife with such “if you help me with the design work I’ll give you some of the equity” type relationships and I would be hard pushed to find a design business owner who hasn’t fallen foul of this. It is entirely a by-product of not having the money to bring an idea to a level suitable for next stage decision making by buyers/brand managers/investors etc.

    How you finance a new idea to market is an entirely different subject I guess – and one which I have experienced first hand in recent years. The collaboration post was more to do with the various levels of protectionism, weight shifting and reveal that collaborative partners tend to employ when ‘apparently’ working in a collaborative manner. The benefits of collaboration are when the assembled team can each bring equally valid and weighted opinion/experience/innovative thinking to the table for the greater good of the project and client. How you implement those ideas are then subject to normal business practices and negotiations!

    I like your last point about academic science. That illustrates genuine collaboration I guess because there is no real commerce involved (at least at a personal profit making level – unlike in small business!) …and like you say – no ‘lunch to eat’.

  3. Hi Russell,

    Well, I found those few minutes to respond as promised.

    I’ve read all you wrote and Gavin’s comments too. I agree with your thoughts, but I do think that shouldn’t hold you back from collaborating.

    It’s a risk, yes. But so is going it alone. So is launching a product. Risk is something we can’t avoid, but it is something we can mitigate and manage.

    When I embarked on taking my idea for a collaborative further I began by looking at failed models first. There were several to choose from. The overwhelming failure mode was as has been pointed out, internal competition. The urgent need to do what’s best for ones own business overrides for many the spirit of collaboration.

    In our own model, we have complementary skills but there is no crossover at all. That was and is the first principle of the collaboration.

    The second principle is equal equity. The ban U2 have stayed together for about five millennia or something. Each band member gets the same share, no matter who the front-man is, or who produces the creative work. You have to recognize strengths and weaknesses of individuals and accept them. If someone in the group finds it hard to contribute an equal amount of time, what’s more important? The skills and ideas they bring or having them fill in a time-sheet that matches your own?

    Another area of potential imbalance is that work comes in for one ‘silo’ more than others. How we addressed this is:- Mudskipper takes 20% of the turnover and retains this for operational costs. The excess is paid out as divided to the shareholders. This means if a particular collaborator received no work for the year, they would still get a return on their investment of time and money put in over that year for the development of the group.

    I think it crucially important to set out your mid/long term strategic goals and remind yourself of them frequently. This way those little distractions will fade into the background rather than escalate into a “domestic”.

    That said however we do have in the directors and shareholders agreements exit and ejection strategies. for example, if I were to persistently under perform and put under jeopardy the whole structure of the collaboration, my co-directors have the right to give me ‘the sack’. Kinda keeps you on your toes 😉

    As designers we should be designing the business too. Looking at the potential failure modes and finding solutions to those problems.

    For it to really work as a cohesive team, the reward has to be equal and so does the risk. To all else there must be flex in the system, or it will prove too brittle to survive.

    The best way to put it is as Nick Jankle of 100% Open and wecreate is (paraphrased) “if you were a neanderthal man and you were hunting a mammoth, you can’t do it alone, you would be killed. If you compete with your neighbor you both fail and starve. If you collaborate, you both eat lunch”

    He goes on to say “We are born to collaborate, but we are taught to compete”

  4. Hi Lloyd,

    Thanks for your typically thorough reply. It certainly sounds like you have developed a model where all ‘normally discarded issues’ have been thought through and designed into the collaborative arrangement. I genuinely wish you well with it and will keep a beady eye on Mudskipper’s journey.

    I guess for every situation you can find bad examples and good examples. What counts is that yours is successful regardless of which example it equates to…and I’m not sure I like the reference to neanderthals 😉

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