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How to Cultivate a Culture of Creative Collaboration

When it was just the three of us (me, Dave, and Johnny), we had a single rule that framed every collaboration: Don’t be an asshole.

Now that we’ve brought on more than forty storytellers, we’ve made a deliberate effort to cultivate a collaborative culture, so that as we grow, we’ll remain true to the values that will keep Sterling & Stone thriving over time. 

But even if you’re a collaboration of two, it’s worth being conscious of the culture you’d like to embed in your working relationship.

The Wrong Culture Will Kill Your Collaboration

Few people know there was an older, less culturally sound version of Sterling & Stone. The ideas were mostly the same. Many of our current studio’s initiatives, goals, and project style were born in this initial iteration. The ideas, the execution, and the philosophy behind it were solid. Yet that first version of the studio lacked the culture that would pull everything together.

S&S 1.0 produced thirty nonfiction books and created the template for the production model that’s still fueling the current version of our studio now. We designed a world that Johnny and I would finish later, as our second project together. We built all the systems that would allow us to scale at a book per week, to start. (It took S&S 2.0 more than a half-decade to match that output.) 

On paper, S&S 1.0 had everything going for it. Tens of thousands of dollars in funding, countless hours invested, and fourteen hardworking authors, editors, and thinkers. 

But it wasn’t enough.

Because culture is everything.

I loved each of my two partners in the first version of this business, plus all the collaborators who were working so hard alongside us. But it didn’t matter how much I liked my co-partners, or how well I got along with each of them individually. They didn’t get along well with each other. And worse, neither one had much respect for the other’s perspective.

Shutting S&S 1.0 down was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But our culture was corrosive for collaboration: no trust, no generosity, no respect. 

Nothing is worse for collaboration than a competitive atmosphere. If two collaborators are each competing to bag the most brilliant idea or prove themselves as the most creative, they’re not on the same team, no matter how friendly their relationship looks from the outside. The reality is that each is looking to be number one, which means someone else has to settle for second place. 

A competitive atmosphere is especially damaging to those people who aren’t naturally competitive. It silences them, makes them feel like they might not have as much to add, even when they do. Competition with yourself or with someone outside of your collaboration is good, maybe even great, if you can use it as fuel. But when you compete against your collaborators, everyone loses.

Seniority should never matter when it comes to choosing the best idea. If one person has written millions of words and the other has only finished a few short stories, that doesn’t automatically bestow the veteran with better ideas. The same is true for popularity. Just because someone is the most fun to be around, or the loudest, most energetic, or quickest to answer — none of that magically gives them the best ideas.

Always choose the idea that moves the project forward.

Cliques are antithetical to a collaborative environment because they undermine cooperation between people who should be working together. Yes, friendships will form, and sidebar conversations will crop up naturally — those relationships add value to the group by helping people work together more easily. But a clique is the opposite — it’s friendship that’s been weaponized to make others feel worse about themselves. 

How can you tell the difference? Cliques are usually associated with gossip and other behaviors meant to exclude certain people or elevate the status of the clique’s members within the group as a whole.

Even when it’s not part of a clique, gossip is toxic, causing a slow erosion of trust. As a general rule, never say things you wouldn’t say to someone’s face. Candor and manners is our cardinal rule for a reason. Treat people with the respect they deserve, whether they’re present or not. 

If someone’s behavior is problematic, do them the favor of letting them know gently but clearly, and use good communication skills to resolve the problem.

Another behavior that ruins collaborations is taking your partner for granted. This is the number one thing that will push a hardworking collaborator away. People are much more likely to stay in a job where they are grossly under-compensated but appreciated than they are in one where they feel their work is being taken for granted, even if they are overpaid. 

Appreciate what every collaborator has to offer. If it’s not exactly what you’re looking for, find out what’s missing and explore ways to bridge the gap. If that person isn’t capable of adding to the collaboration in the way you need, find a way to gracefully exit the partnership, and don’t forget to express appreciation for the time and effort they’ve made to work with you.

We all make mistakes, but you should never let them define a collaboration. Your collaboration will thrive if you create an environment where errors are embraced as a natural part of the creative process. Mistakes should never be seen as dangerous, something to avoid at all costs, or anything that could earn a collaborator criticism, derision, or ridicule.

We wouldn’t be anywhere without our ample mistakes. Made once, or even twice, they amount to experience. As a creator, there’s nothing more valuable. When mistakes are something to be looked down on or feared, voices get stifled. A collaborator who is afraid to speak her mind for fear of saying the wrong thing can’t deliver her full value to the collaboration.

Once you understand what a positive collaborative environment is supposed to look like, it’s easier to spot the red flags in an unsupportive situation. Actions speak louder than words — if there is a dissonance between what someone says they value and how they behave, their behavior is the truth.

What Does a Healthy Collaborative Environment Look Like?

All the negative qualities we’ve already discussed in this series so far … simply flip them upside down.

In a positive collaborative environment, listening is valued. Instead of having a person or persons all waiting for their turn to talk, the default behavior is hearing what someone else is saying so you can better understand what they need and use your skill set to help them.

Seniority or popularity should never be a criterion when it comes to critiquing the quality of an idea. The source should always be irrelevant. The important questions are things like: does this idea resonate with the themes, characters, ideas, and experience I’m working to craft for my audience? 

Respect, appreciation and generosity should be the norm. Same for inclusivity, honesty, and transparency.

The corrosive personality traits to keep an eye out for are ego and perfectionism. Both make it more difficult to foster a fluid back and forth. Ego can be a crushing presence, especially when it dominates a room or throws shade on other people’s ideas.

Big egos don’t like to be corrected. And as we’ve already discussed, mistakes should always be seen as opportunities to deepen a collective understanding, rather than something to be punished or chastised. 

Of course, you don’t want to be making the same mistakes on repeat. More than a couple of times and we tumble from experience into something else. But initial hiccups are part of the process, and something creators need to be more comfortable with.

When launching our first big shared world, our plan was to publish a new book in that world every single week. Ambitious for sure, and more than a dozen authors were contributing to the initial wave. We wanted the most success possible for everyone.

This was a world that Johnny and I had created. It had already sold more than a half-million copies and was thus a fertile playground to write in. This world also had our studio’s biggest list with more than 25,000 readers.

Our marketing director at the time strongly felt that we would be giving our world and all the authors the best possible chance if Johnny and I added our names to all of those books. But we strongly objected. Yes, that would kick the world off in a much bigger way. Short-term, we would all make more money, but long-term, we were sending our readers and collaborators the wrong message. Not only would we be claiming credit for work that wasn’t ours, but we would also be overshadowing the authors trying to build their own name brand. (The only one of James Patterson’s co-writers I can name without looking it up is Bill Clinton, and that’s for obvious reasons.)

We don’t want our storytellers to ride on our coattails, we want to sew their own coats. So we eventually designed a solution that fell somewhere in the middle, using avatar pseudonyms to stitch our various lines together, but we never once lost sight of our why. 

Establishing Your Culture

Practicing good communication skills and starting with yes can create an environment that supports collaboration.

But it’s useful to get more specific about the culture of your collaboration — what values do you want your collaboration to embody? 

At Sterling & Stone, we value transparency, generosity and respect. We never blame anyone for making a mistake (respect), but we learn from that mistake and share the lesson with everyone (transparency), so that we all get smarter faster (generosity). And it’s always okay to say I don’t know (transparency), because drawing on the group’s ability to figure things out together is one of our studio’s collective superpowers (generosity). 

A couple of years ago we parted ways with an author whose career goals no longer coincided with the studio’s — they were less interested in the long-term income they could have by contributing to group projects than in building a brand for a solo pen name. S&S handled that parting with the same values we practice every day in the studio: with generosity (letting the author take a series they’d been paid to write and develop with the full backing of our studio, along with the covers we’d had made for them, so that they could get started quickly on building their brand), respect (wishing the author well on their next phase), and transparency (making sure everyone in the studio knew right away that the parting was voluntary and mutual, and answering questions so that everyone knew why it had happened).

The same is true for when we parted with Johnny. In doing so, we turned potential endings into new beginnings, showcasing that true collaboration extends beyond contracts and into the very essence of support and empowerment.

It’s also helpful to decide what you want the atmosphere of your collaboration to be. Maybe you and your collaborator thrive in an environment of intense focus, and when you get together, you want the work sessions to immerse you in whatever stage of the story you’re in.

At S&S, our every meeting is productive, but we like to have fun while we work — there’s always a little bit of joking around or gentle teasing. But if the joking goes on for too long, someone always brings us back to task with a gentle question or reminder that we have more brainstorming to do.

As you’re choosing your values, talk about how they will look in action. How will you embody them when you’re solving disagreements? When brainstorming, or making decisions about how to promote your books?

The heart of collaboration lies not in shared tasks, but in shared values helping us to navigate the complexities of our collective, creative endeavors. In going from the early days of Sterling & Stone to the dynamic story studio we are today, the alignment of our core beliefs has been our compass, ensuring that every project is a chapter in a larger story of communal success.

See you next Wednesday,