Beyond the Brainstorm: How to Be a Better Collaborator

Effective collaboration is essential to the success of your business. It can lead to new solutions, skills, products, services, and bring your team closer together.

working collaboratively to better team work

10 min. read

From the time I started at Proposify in July 2015 until just a couple of weeks ago, I was the only person dedicated to marketing.

Before I came on board, our co-founder Kyle handled marketing along with the one million other details involved with a start up, and then he and I worked together on some projects.

We outsourced to a local freelance designer and digital agency when we needed a little extra help, both of whom were great. But none of it was the same as having an in-house team.

I wanted my peeps. A squad. The crew.

Proposify had an amazing and busy 2015 so recently we hired five new people to help us manage and turbo-kick our growth. I was super excited that two of these new positions were a designer and a growth marketer.

My peeps! A squad! The crew!

People to strategize, brainstorm, and share ideas with on a daily basis. Sure, fist bumps some days and head butts the others, but still moving forward together with a common mission.

I’ve always enjoyed collaborating with a smart team, it was one of the things I worried about missing when I was freelancing and that I looked forward to when I came to work full time here at Proposify.

So I’m really happy that Steve Huntington came on as our new designer, and Patrick Edmonds as growth marketer.

In advance of these guys joining Proposify, I was thinking about the projects we’re going to be working on and the goals we want to achieve. I hoped that we were going to gel as a team and that we’d have a productive, effective, and fun time working together.

Which naturally led to me think about the part I had to play in this relationship, and what I could do to be a better collaborator. Because the success of this team, and how we benefit Proposify, is really going to come down to how well we collaborate.

For the record, let me be very clear that high-fiving is NOT part of my collaborative process.

Collaboration isn’t the same as teamwork.

It can be easy to think that teamwork and collaboration are the same thing but while they’re related, there are some differences.

Teamwork usually involves a leader who sets out an agenda and parameters. People have their distinct jobs to do within the team to contribute to an end result, kind of like parts of a well-oiled machine.

For example, here at Proposify it’s the teamwork that that we do every day that helps us achieve our mission of creating great proposal software. Each department is a team: development is coding, QA is testing, customer support is supporting, marketing is marketing, and individually within those teams everyone has their tasks and responsibilities that contribute to the team output.

But collaboration is generally less hierarchical, less structured, and more flexible. Beyond people working together, they need to think together. They feed off each other’s expertise and creativity, building on ideas to solve a problem, to create something new, or to improve on the status quo.

So for Steve, Patrick, and I, we need to figure out ways we can weave design, data, and content together to bring more growth to Proposify, improve our customer experience, and differentiate ourselves from the competition.

Be open

This sounds like a no-brainer but it’s something I think a lot of us pay lip service to. We think we’re long as other people’s ideas are in line with ours or there’s not going to be much change.

I may have done things a certain way for the past year, or even my entire career, but if I’m not open to the suggestions and ideas of Steve or Patrick, it’s a waste of the expertise we hired them for. And I’ll miss out on the opportunity to learn something new.

Nothing will change, that’s for sure. Even though change can be awkward, scary, even threatening, if you want to succeed in life, you gotta “change or die.”

So we all need to be open to each other’s perspective, the way we do things, and be willing to consider a different approach.

Nothing will label you as old, behind the times, or difficult to work with faster than being that person who shuts down new ideas.


Here’s another example of something you probably think you’re already good at: listening. And maybe you are, but even when people are listening most of them aren’t really hearing what the other person is saying.

When collaborating with other people, communication is critical. A project, and even the relationship between team members, will collapse without transparent, balanced, respectful communication. And that happens by listening.

Since collaboration is about building, if you don’t listen or understand what the other person is saying, your ideas won’t have their own foundation from which to grow or be supported. You can disagree, but objections require active listening.

Find the same page and get on it

There are a million cliché analogies that can be applied to this. Everyone needs to understand what direction we’re rowing the boat, who’s driving the car, and which targets we’re gunning for. There’s likely a horse being led to water somewhere in there, too.

Nothing beneficial or productive is going to happen if people are unclear on the goals, expectations, or the final destination. And it certainly won’t be efficient.

Collaboration depends on the fact that everyone is working toward the same result and understands who’s going to do what, and when, to get there.

Do what you say you’re going to do

Ball droppers are the mortal enemies of collaboration. Not only do they threaten the project’s goals, they jeopardize relationships between team members.

While participation is key to collaboration, make sure if you say you’re going to be responsible for a task, you deliver it. And do it on time. If there’s a reason you can’t fulfill your part, bring it up with your team well in advance of the deadline so an alternate plan can be put in place before it’s too late.

No one likes to be micromanaged so if your word can be trusted and you can be counted on, you’ll be left alone to do your work, your way.

Pick your battles

No where does it say that collaboration means you have to agree 100% of the time. In fact, what’s the point of collaborating if everyone thinks exactly the same way? You’re going to disagree with someone else’s idea eventually, and you’re going to think they’re wrong. Sometimes they’re going to think you’re wrong, too.

This is probably one of the most challenging things I’ve found about collaboration. Knowing when I should really stand my ground to either push my idea forward because I think it’s the right one — or strongly oppose someone else’s position, as the case may be — and when I should just let it go.

I try hard to keep my ego out of the equation (which isn’t always easy for anyone). I never want people to think that I’m defending my idea simply because it’s my idea.

I want my idea to move forward because it’s the right solution. And sometimes I’ll say, “Maybe my idea isn’t the right one, but I don’t believe this other solution is the answer either and here’s why.”

Unless I feel deep down that this is the biggest mistake known to humans, I often let other people have their way. I may argue it, discuss it, but in the end I’ll acquiesce.

I do that to demonstrate my openness to other people’s ideas but also so that hopefully on that day when I express my strong feelings for or against something, they’ll know I’m serious. Good collaborators know that compromise is part of the process and it often leads to better results.

Don’t be an asshole

This is up there with the categories of “Be Open” and “Listen” in terms of no-brainers when it comes to collaboration (and life in general), but I am often surprised how disrespectful or negative people can be toward each other’s ideas.

If team members are afraid to speak up out of fear of being ridiculed for their ideas, you may miss out on the cure for cancer.

Again, it doesn’t mean that everyone’s ideas are good or right but discussing and analysing them is part of the process of collaboration.

If you don’t like someone’s idea, explain the strategic reasons why you think it won’t work, not just that it’s dumb. Or make a suggestion of how you can improve on the seed of that idea to get it moving in the right direction.

People don’t realize how strongly their subtle dismissals can be felt by others. This can be toxic to effective collaboration. There needs to be a feeling of a safe zone to explore ideas. Some ideas may end up on the floor and others may rise to the top but you’ll never know if they stay bottled up inside someone’s mind.

Think about how your tone of voice and your choice of words is contributing to the energy and process. Nobody likes a Debbie Downer.

And I don’t buy into the claim that people need to have thicker skins. You’re the one with the problem if you can’t communicate without being mean.

In short: be a human, have fun, let your freak flag fly

When I was freelancing, I used to collaborate frequently with a particular design agency who was always involved in really interesting projects. Even if the projects didn’t seem interesting at the outset, they figured out a way to make them that way.

These were some of the most effective and enjoyable collaborations for a variety of reasons. To start, we were very personal with each other. By getting to know each other beyond the facade of just work automatons, there was more trust in sharing ideas, and more understanding of where those ideas came from.

We also usually started meetings by talking about something that had nothing to do with the project on the table. Maybe someone would tell a funny story about themselves, or we’d watch some ridiculous cat video, or there would be a joke. It was kind of like flushing the norm out of our brains and setting the stage to let anything happen.

There were no limitations on inspiration. A song, a documentary, another language, a book, a cartoon, a video, a news story, an animal. As long as you could connect the dots to the strategy, the idea would be considered.

Sometimes the ideas were completely out there and we all knew it, whether it was because of execution or budget or just that the client would slam the door in our face.

But sometimes after we stopped laughing, and after a sober second thought, we could see the seed of an idea in the outlandishness. We may have to round out the corners, pull it back a bit, or wrap it in a different bow, but it could work.

This is often how we ended up with THE IDEA, the solution. But this idea only happened because it was allowed to happen. People felt safe, respected, supported, and that they had something of value to contribute.

The result was a lot of happy clients, great work, and inspired team members who were hungry for the next challenge.

Beyond the Brainstorm: How to Be a Better Collaborator

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