Seven Keys to Creative Collaboration

John Spencer is a former middle school teacher and current college professor on a quest to transform schools into bastions of creativity and wonder. He want to see teachers unleash the creative potential in all of their students so that kids can be makers, designers, artists, and engineers. He explores research, interview educators, deconstruct systems, and study real-world examples of design thinking in action. He shares what he’s learning in books, blog posts, journal articles, free resources, animated videos, and podcasts.

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This blog was originally posted on To hear more from John Spencer, you can also listen to his podcast, The Creative Classroom with John Spencer.

I’m not a fan of group work. I have vivid memories of doing “team projects” where I completed various tasks while other members disappeared. As a classroom teacher, I preferred to plan alone, dreaming up projects and planning out units in isolation. I am comfortable in my own mind and I can work alone for hours without interacting with another person.

However, in the last few years, I have embraced collaborative work. I have realized that when a team or a partnership works well the end result is something vastly greater than what I could have created on my own. Whether it is building a platform, writing a book, or planning out a course, I find myself asking for input, seeking feedback, and even partnering with others in ways that were once foreign to me. Collaboration no longer feels like the awkward group projects of high school. Instead, it is a critical part of my creative work.

I’ve been thinking about why this type of collaboration work when so many other types of group work fails. Here are a few thoughts:

  1. It’s voluntary. Forced collaboration isn’t collaboration. This is why I allow students to choose their own groups in grad school and why I did the same in middle school. It’s why I don’t buy into the idea that “friends shouldn’t work together.” When collaboration is voluntary, you are more likely to respect the agency of those involved.
  2. People are dependable. This might seem obvious, but collaboration instantly fails when people don’t follow through on commitments. But my favorite collaborative projects involved people who were willing to hustle and take care of things outside of the specific group meeting times.
  3. There’s trust and vulnerability. The greatest collaborative projects I’ve done have been with my wife, who I trust more than anyone and who knows me at such a deep level. When you begin with mutual trust and you are able to be vulnerable, you are more likely to work humbly toward a goal, ask for help when you need it, and provide encouragement when someone is having a hard time.
  4. The structure is loose . . . but there is a structure. I’ve been in groups where things went nowhere and it was fun for a brief time. But I always left the meetings feeling frustrated by our inability to accomplish anything. On the other hand, I’ve been in meetings where we were tied to tight structures with tons of paperwork and the work became drudgery.
  5. We share a vision. Collaboration works best when we have a shared vision for what we are doing. It’s not an accident that bands break up over “creative differences.” After all, “Hotel California” is nothing like “Peaceful, Easy Feeling.” Sometimes a group fails because they simply disagree on what the finished result should be. By contrast, the best collaborative work involves a shared vision on the finished result and a shared vision for how to get there.
  6. The ability to goof around. I work best when I can work in a casual, relaxed manner. My favorite collaborative ventures have involved tons of laughing where we didn’t take ourselves too seriously. To an outsider it might appear that we aren’t taking our work seriously. However, this sense of play allowed us to work more creatively and think more divergently. It was vital to our work.
  7. We embrace candor and conflict. This is hard for me naturally. I tend to avoid conflict. I am way too easily hurt by criticism. However, when collaboration works well, we are able to speak truth to one another with candor and we are able to engage in conflict knowing that there’s mutual trust.

I am realizing that when collaboration works well, there is a certain group flow experience, where you are totally “in the zone.” There’s this dance back and forth where you forget about yourself without feeling left out.

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Lynell Foley
Lynell Foley
6 years ago

Loved this Blog. I agree that Collaboration works best with a shared vusion and end result. So many times teams start a project one year, only to stop and not get the end results. Sustainment is key as well. Seeing what truly works for students and staff, yet change what is needed through effective collaboration.