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  • February 11, 2016

Cautious collaboration

I’m back in the office today with my head aswim with ideas after attending Owner Summit in Atlanta this past week. Decorative Illustration One of the topics on everyone’s mind was collaboration.

In a conference setting the personal camaraderie felt among independent agency owners and freelance principals easily translates into a desire to collaborate. Sometimes the shape of a collaboration is the combination of agencies’ distinct capabilities; for example, adding a development shop to a design team. Sometimes it involves two teams with overlapping capabilities merging forces together. In either instance the motivation is often a deepening of capabilities in response to clients’ needs.

In a world where Happy Cog routinely competes with much larger “full-service” agencies, the idea of easily scaling services through a temporary partnership is appealing. Greg Hoy makes an analogy to the way craft brewers collaborate willfully with each other, and compete with the big brands, that I think captures some of the inherent impulse to collaborate. Both Greg and Dan Mall gave presentations on the topic, so you could say the idea is rooted in our Happy Cog heredity. In my time at Happy Cog we’ve had success employing these tactics with individual strategic partners, and in collaboration with other agencies.

In my experience there are steps you can take to improve your odds of collaboration success.

Focus on collaboration, especially when you don’t need it

If collaboration is going to be a strategic element of your business model, you have to exercise and develop that muscle. Ideally you want to log your time in the weight room before the big game. Find ways to explore collaborative relationships with potential partners outside the pressure of a billable project where the stakes are higher.

This process typically starts at a principal or lead level to determine if the businesses are harmonious. Once that is established, broadening that awareness throughout both teams is important. Start a series of meetings, or video conferences, to give your teams a chance to get to know one another and develop some rapport and awareness. Try a series of process discussions or show & tell presentations, fireside chats about specific industry topics, or workshops. You want to create an opportunity for a conversation that yields insight into the two teams’ personalities and processes. The medium is less important than the outcome.

Not every team you explore in this way is going to be a fit. You have to try on lots of pairs of shoes in the hopes of finding the right fit. These meetings provide a low-stakes, low-pressure way to make these early determinations.

Define roles and expectations clearly, too clearly, over-clearly

If you’re about to launch into a collaborative project err on the side of talking about roles and process too much. Just when you think everything is codified and well-understood, look again. Triple-check your work. Talk through hypothetical situations with your partner and validate your expectations about how both teams will behave or react. Is one team the lead agency and owner of the client relationship? How does that role impact decision making and accountability? Is it a completely shared and transparent co-ownership? If so, what are the mechanics of working with two firms simultaneously so that process is effective without feeling redundant?

Reconcile your processes. Is one team folding whole-cloth into another’s process? Do they understand that process fluently? Are you merging processes to something in the middle? If so, how do you define that new approach? How are your businesses structured? If one team bills by fixed-fee and the other is more time-and-materials focused, I smell the potential for trouble. Are you combining an Agile-adherent development methodology with a less strictly-agile design process? Talk it all out, chalk it all up, look at it in plain sight and plan accordingly.

Go the extra mile

Every client project is different, so things only get differenter when you fold in another team, or an outside resource. When possible I’d suggest tackling a project collaboration like it’s own small, new business with it’s own culture and behavior and needs. Dan Mall advocates to treat collaborations like mergers and I agree with his sentiment. Be thoughtful about this project’s structure, the same way you’re thoughtful about your business. Maybe Slack isn’t the right tool for intra-project communication. Perhaps a morning stand up meeting makes sense for this new hybrid team even if your full-time team doesn’t utilize them. Get a feel for the temper and tenor of the collaboration and build an approach that feels right. This “new organization” will feel more like a home to both teams involved.

In general, collaboration just isn’t easy. It is rewarding however, and the thoughtful investment you pay before and during the collaboration to ensure smoother sailing pays massive dividends.

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