Ideation Involves Collaboration

Ideation Involves Collaboration

When Henry David Thoreau was working on his first novel, he moved to a small cabin on Walden Pond in Massachusetts. His reflection on the two years spent at this cabin became the famous work, Walden. That is the idea most people have of writers – the isolated genius toiling away in some far-off shack in the woods.

In reality, isolation is rarely the setting for truly creative ideas, whether you are an author or a content marketer. Increasingly, ideation involves collaboration between many people, and recent studies are proving that this is the best way to produce quality, creative work.

Recent research shows that this trend of creative collaboration has been steadily increasing since the 1970s (not surprisingly, the research was a collaboration between Benjamin Jones of Management and Strategy, Stefan Wuchty of the National Institutes of Health, and Brian Uzzi of Management and Organizations).

The study reviewed millions of research articles and found that over the past 30 years, collaborations have increased from 10% to 35%. More importantly, collaborations had a 40% chance of becoming high-impact research, which should be the goal of any piece of content.

Outside of research institutes, the effects of collaboration on creativity are well documented by some of the most successful creative partnerships in recent history:

  • The Beatles thrived from the creative duo of Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
  • Scott Fitzgerald would not have been able to write – or even come up with the name for – The Great Gatsby without his wife, Zelda.
  • Steve Jobs combined the talents of computer scientist Ed Catmull and producer John Lasseter to create Pixar, which completely revolutionized animated films.
  • Jaws, Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones. No Steven Spielberg film is truly complete without the music of John Williams.

So why does collaboration work so well for idea generation from a psychological standpoint? More importantly, how can you, as a content marketer, benefit from collaboration? Let’s look at what the latest research from both psychologists and content marketers has to say.

(And for the 53% that are the sole person responsible for content marketing at your organization, don’t feel left out. Collaboration can and should be part of your content creation strategy, and we’ll discuss how.)

Scientific Benefits of Collaboration

Power of Unusual Combinations

Research has found that the highest-impact work comes from content that is grounded in conventional knowledge but features a novel idea or combination. This combination of novelty and conventionality shows as twice as likely to be highly cited work.

It should come as no surprise that collaboration is the source of most of these unusual combinations. Teams are 38% more likely than solo authors to insert novel combinations into familiar knowledge domains.

According to one of the authors of the research, Ben Jones, “It isn’t all about novelty or conventionality. It’s about both. You want to ground yourself in something people understand well and yet be adding in the piece that’s truly unusual. And if you do those two things [and] stretch yourself in both directions, then you radically increase your probability of hitting a home run.”

How Ideas Are Born

The research above touches on the idea that all ideas are really combinations or re-applications of two or more existing ideas.

According to Steve Jobs, “Creativity is just connecting things. When you ask creative people how they did something, they feel a little guilty because they didn’t really do it; they just saw something. It seemed obvious to them after a while. That’s because they were able to connect experiences they’ve had and synthesize new things.”

These creative combinations have produced some of the most impactful and disruptive ideas in history:

  • George Lucas combined science fiction with Joseph Campbell’s work defining the classic hero’s journey present in mythology to create Star Wars.
  • In 1978, one department of Sony was working on a small tape recorder for journalists, and another department was building lightweight headphones for use with a home stereo. The combination became the Sony Walkman and revolutionized the industry.
  • French doctor Stephane Tarnier worked with the poultry raiser at the Paris Zoo to develop the first incubators for premature newborns after seeing similar technology work for incubating chicken hatchlings.

Niche Knowledge

Leonardo da Vinci is considered one of the greatest creative minds in history and the definition of a “Renaissance Man.” In order to produce realistic paintings, he would study anatomy, physics, mathematics, and a number of other disciplines. In his day, it was possible to study everything known about physics at the time because there was still only a relatively small amount of research on the subject.

Today, most people are highly specialized in their fields. Collaborating with someone in a different field or opening up idea generation to a large, diverse group allows you to leverage the niche knowledge of many different people and combine it in unique ways.

Why Our Brains Work Better With Constraints

One of the final benefits of working with others for idea generation is the power of constraints. By putting parameters around a creative problem or writing assignment, people are shown to display much more creativity.

Researchers proved this by giving study participants a noun they had to use when creating a 2-line poem. These poems were then rated much higher than poems created by the group that was given no constraints on what they could write.

According to the researchers, working with constraints “allows a deeper exploration of fewer alternatives…

They limit the overwhelming number of available choices to a manageable subset, allowing us to explore less familiar paths, to diverge in previously unknown directions.”

They nicknamed this phenomenon “The Green Eggs and Ham Hypothesis” after the famous Dr. Seuss work. Seuss’s editor, Bennett Cerf, was known for giving the writer challenges to improve his work. The Cat in the Hat was created by only using the words on an average first-grader’s vocabulary list. Green Eggs and Ham arose from the challenge to write a book using fewer than fifty different words.

Managing Editors or Marketing Managers should strive to put good creative constraints on their writers. These constraints should include requiring content that fits into a specific content strategy, covers a specific subject, or meets certain content guidelines.

Now we are starting to get into the how. How should the benefits of collaboration inform your content creation process?

Current Attempts to Facilitate Collaboration and Ideation

The benefits of collaboration in business are not some secret we’re just now discovering. Companies have attempted to increase collaboration for years with mixed results. Here are a couple of the most common ways:

Brainstorming Sessions

Ah, the good old brainstorming session. A conference room, a group of people, and a whiteboard – the sure formula for groundbreaking content ideas.

And yet, few companies see success with brainstorming sessions.

In fact, research shows that brainstorming groups produce fewer and poorer quality ideas than the same number of individuals working alone.

Why is this?

Research has uncovered a number of reasons why brainstorming meetings don’t work:

  • Regression to the Mean: This is a group dynamic where the individual’s performance will adjust to match the ideal quality of the least talented individuals in the group. You may get a lot of ideas from your loudest participants. But your most creative talents won’t feel motivated to rise above the level of idea quality already present.
  • Social Loafing: The concept of social loafing shows that individuals tend to make less of an effort when they are in a group versus when they are working alone because they feel the team will pick up the slack.
  • Lack of Attention and Incubation: One study shows that idea generation in groups reduces the ability to process all the information presented and doesn’t provide the opportunity for the reflection or incubation of those ideas.
  • Production Blocking: Even if good ideas are present, production blocking means only entertaining one idea at a time. That limits the number of overall ideas and causes participants to lose their train of thought before they have a chance to voice their ideas.

Office Design To Promote Collaboration

There is a whole field of research and design that deals with creating offices built to increase interactions and improve collaborations. For example, one study found that by increasing the size of the tables in an office cafeteria, employees interacted with each other 36% more, noticeably boosting collaboration.

Many innovative companies have used these principles to create entire buildings specifically designed to increase collaboration:

  • Pixar’s campus mixes employees from all departments and uses a large atrium space as a central hub to increase what Steve Jobs called “unplanned collaborations.”
  • Google’s New York City office uses vertical ladder chutes in place of stairs to make sure workers are casually colliding throughout the day.

Now the question is, will this strategy work for you?

Absolutely. If you have a large company and are planning a new office, you should definitely incorporate these principles into the office design.

But will they help you develop a more collaborative content marketing strategy? Probably not to the same degree. Here’s why:

  • Lack of Targeting: The “unplanned collaborations” that Steve Jobs encourages are just that; unplanned. The ideas that come from this will probably be strong but very sporadic. If you are looking to fill your content calendar for the next quarter or year, you need to take a more organized approach.
  • Decentralized Workforce: Freelancers currently make up 36% of the U.S. workforce. The expectation is that they’ll be the majority within 10 years. The idea of physical interactions in an office is no longer as powerful when a large portion of your content creators are freelance writers and even your full-time employees are embracing more flexible working arrangements.

So, if conventional ways companies facilitate collaboration is outside of what works for content marketers, what’s left?

How Companies Use Technology To Improve Collaboration

One of the biggest reasons for the growth in the freelance economy is that technology has facilitated this growth. Companies, employees, and freelancers now have more tools than ever that allow them to communicate and collaborate.

Since already proving the benefits of combining ideas, let’s look at a few examples of companies using technology to facilitate collaboration outside of the content marketing space before discussing how to use these principles for content creation.

  • Research into Electronic Brainstorming (EBS) and Brainwriting (BWr), where online portals are used to remove the negative group dynamics of traditional brainstorming meetings, has shown a higher degree of satisfaction with the ideas created.
  • After talking with a stockbroker friend, one CEO created “Mutual Fun” for idea generation. Employee ideas are added to a public trading board at the company, and then each employee is given “opinion money” to signal their enthusiasm and support for ideas.
  • InnoCentive is a platform for scientists and engineers that allows companies to post problems and have hundreds of people present possible solutions to earn a payment. According to Roche Diagnostics, the system resulted in a solution to a problem that had eluded the company for 15 years.

How Content Marketers Can Leverage Collaboration For Content Ideas

Now that we’ve seen how other companies are successfully increasing collaboration, how can content marketers do the same? Here are the main guidelines for bringing together all the science of collaboration into one content strategy for your organization:

Create a Large Team of Writers:

The larger your writing team, the more niche knowledge you have access to. This creates more unique content ideas that can dive deep into the topics that fill your content calendar. This is where freelance writers come in for most teams to fill the knowledge gaps.

Ask Writers To Pitch Content Ideas:

Allowing writers to pitch content ideas removes social loafing and regression to the mean problems discussed in brainstorming sections. When writers compete to have their ideas chosen, you will get their best work. Create prompts when requesting pitches. Ask your writers for “blogs on X for beginners” or “content to help promote this whitepaper on X.” This will allow them to combine your ideas with their own and will present constraints to increase their creativity.

Use Technology To Keep Writers Separate But Connected:

By organizing this collaboration through a platform, you remove the problems of production blocking, attention, and incubation. Writers can take the information, think it over, and then send you their ideas.

Be Transparent About Content Goals, Strategy, and Ideas:

The more information writers have to combine with their knowledge, the more creative the ideas they create are. Provide them as much information as you can about your content goals and strategy. As your content calendar begins to fill with excellent ideas, share this with your writers. The successful ideas will further fuel their creativity. Similarly, it’ll weed out the less successful ideas so your blogs and other content continue to get better and better.

Present Clear Content Guidelines:

The content your writers produce must fit your strategy, speak to your audience, and fit your brand’s message. Luckily, the more constraints you put on your writers, the more creative their content will be.

Allow For Flexibility in Content Strategy:

Collaboration is a two-way street. As your freelance writers come up with content ideas, use them to inform your overall strategy. Suppose several of your writers are coming up with ideas you don’t think fit. As a result, they may have uncovered a common thread you didn’t think of. Test these ideas to see how your target audience responds.

As Ryan Holiday says, “Creating is often a solitary experience. Yet work made entirely in isolation is usually doomed to remain lonely.”

The science backs up this statement. Incorporate collaboration into your content marketing strategy, from idea generation all the way to creation. Then, you’ll result in more innovative, engaging content that will produce much better results for your business.

Tim LudyEditor’s note: This post was written by nDash community member Tim Ludy. Tim is an experienced writer and marketing strategist specializing in the marketing and B2B tech industries. To learn more about Tim or to have him contribute to your brand’s content, please check out his nDash profile page.