12 tips on collaboration from the powerhouse creative duo from Giant Ant

We attended our first (and hopefully not last) Creative Mornings Vancouver on July 3 at SFU Woodward’s downtown. Creative Mornings is a breakfast lecture series for creative people, and the GoldCorp Centre for the Arts a perfect venue for such an event.

On this morning, the theme was Collaboration, and the speakers were Jay Grandin and Leah Nelson, the duo behind Giant Ant, which, among other things, has produced animation for the opera StickBoy (I’m kicking myself for missing that performance).

Jay and Leah have been collaborating in work and life since they met in 2004; they knew after their first date they were “done looking,” and have been together ever since. Their twins were born two months previous to this talk. Seeing as how it was 8:30 am, these new parents looked surprisingly alert. (in case you were wondering why I described them as “powerhouse”…).

After doing some work on/for MySpace (I wasn’t clear on the nature of that gig), couch-surfing through Europe via internet connections, they returned to Canada and did some freelance work. More travel ensued to, among other places, Tanzania to do a documentary on street kids, at which point they thought: Why not become business partners?

It is in Collaboration that the nature of art is revealedIn their words, they “found people who were better at stuff than we were,” to collaborate with, and brought them onboard to form Giant Ant Media.

Jay and Leah presented their story in an informal, accessible style, making a cheesy alliteration out of the letters of “OLLABORATION” that somehow made perfect sense:

Outhouse – somebody has to dig the hole: that’s the risk taking. The person at the helm digs, and the rest of the team is there to pull you out of the hole after it’s too deep to get out yourself.

Love – put love in your work or create context where that’s possible. Your values inform your business decisions, and you must love the work. If projects are shitty no one wants to do it, and you won’t put out your best product.

Let go – to a point. If you trust the collective intelligence of your team, then let go and leave them to do their best work.

Asshole – don’t be one! Disagree and argue and fight for ideas. Challenge people. However, do this without being a dickhead/jerk. Make sure feedback is in a “shit” sandwich, where the criticism is couched between two pieces of gratitude and positivity.*

Bad ideas – we all have them. Embrace them. The road to brilliance is paved with bad ideas that must be aired out. Create an environment where bad ideas are welcomed because there could be a germ of a good idea in there.

Orange flag –  let team know when you’re stuck. Just say it – I’m having a hard time. Know ahead of time if you’re having trouble meeting a commitment. Put up that flag while it’s still orange, don’t wait for a red flag that would stop a project from moving forward.

Room –  as in don’t be the smartest person in it. If you are, then you can go to your desk and figure it it yourself (lonely!). But you never are the smartest person in the room, really. [Ed. Note:  – this sounds a lot like Working Out Loud!]

Authorship – give people credit. It ups the ante for the team when their names are on the project, and besides, it’s really nice to get recognition for your work.

Throw it out – fear not, there are better ideas coming. Sometimes you just need a clean slate.

I Hate My Client – when scope goes sideways or they miss their deadlines for revisions, etc., you are likely to blame it on the client. However, 90% of client relationship failures are process failures. We (the creatives contracted to do the work) are the experts in our own process. We need to follow it, especially when we write it into our contracts with our clients. The client is hiring you because you’re the expert. Set it up the process so everyone succeeds.

Ownership – make sure everyone knows what part they own and when it’s to be done. If you leave it till the last minute, it only takes a minute (!)

Nobody Gets Left Behind: we succeed and fail together always. Check in with the team every day. Take headphones off and look around the room. Care about one another. Help each other out.

The audience had a small-group discussion after the talk, then some questions. This was the question I was most interested in: How do Jay and Leah choose their clients?

The answer: ultimately it is their call, but if one or more of their team members has an issue with a project or client, generally they don’t take it. They do have an initial client/project checklist to guide decision-making, which includes items like:

  • Would we show this to our mother?
  • Would we use this product ourselves?
  • Is it a creative opportunity?
  • Is it a financial opportunity?
  • Are we proud to have our name attached to this?

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Image is Chris DuToit’s Creative Mornings remix, licensed under Creative Commons. 

*Note: Jay didn’t say the words “shit sandwich,” I’ve heard it called that before. He used the term “Feedback sandwich.” Much kinder and kid-friendly. He is a dad now, after all.

Five reasons to love Vancouver

Since this post from three years ago continues to gather readers, I think it’s about time I cook myself up some crow pie, grab a fork in each hand, and double-fist a big ol’ mea culpa.

I’m back in Vancouver. I’ve been back here for seven months, and I love it. I love this city with all its problems, because the great things about Vancouver outweigh her faults, and besides, I have always had a soft spot for this city. You’ll note, in that post from three years ago, I said “I quite like it and, given other circumstances, I’m sure I could happily live there.” Here’s why:

1. I get so much done on my commute to work

Haha just kidding. I’m working from home most days as an independent communications professional. But when I do commute (and when I’m at the gym), I listen to podcasts and audiobooks – all my favourites: Radiolab, This American Life, Reply All, Criminal, and now Where There’s Smoke. I recently listened to all 14 hours of Neal Stephenson’s latest novel: Seveneves (highly recommended!). Honestly, when I look back at the namby-pamby 35 minute commute to downtown I was complaining about three years ago, I laugh at my formerly whiny self. If I worked downtown again I would probably take my commuter bike at least some of the time. Speaking of which …

2. Have you seen all these gorgeous bike lanes?

The City just completed new road surface for the bike route I would take to downtown from here. A nice, slightly hilly 10K to downtown, where there are separated lanes throughout. Before we moved into my Marpole condo, we lived in a small apartment on Main Street, where it was a barely sweaty, absolutely, stunningly beautiful 5 km jaunt around False Creek to downtown. Vancouver, like Victoria, is cyclist heaven.

I hope, when they build the new bridge to replace the Massey Tunnel, they also have plans for a separated bike track all the way from Tsawwassen into Vancouver. That would be amazing, because I do still love to get back to Victoria once a month or so.

I also can’t believe I was complaining about no running routes three years ago, when I routinely ran False Creek/Stanley Park, and look at those North Shore mountains for trail running! Also, just over the bridge into Richmond are some really nice stretches by the airport.

people doing yoga on paddleboards  just off Kits Beach in Vancouver

Why yes indeed, those are Vancouverites doing yoga on paddleboards.

3. The weather is really nice. Even when it rains.

No really, it is. I’m writing this at the start of a heat wave, and we’ve barely had rain for a month now, but that’s not clouding my judgment (see what I did there?). This past winter was not bad at all, weather-wise.

Shut up about climate change* for now, I’m trying to enjoy this.

4. Proximity to new friends

I make friends easily. I admit, the first six months of my return I felt like a bit of a recluse, but I’m putting that down to the knee surgery I had in April, and before that, an incredibly stressful job. As I get further away from both (I found a wonderful physiotherapist and I’ll be running again soon – RUNNING!) my circle is expanding. I threw myself into my professional association (IABC/BC), I have volunteered for the next Interesting Vancouver, I went to a LikeMind meetup that stoked my creative side (I’ve been writing like crazy since then), we’ve invited friends over for dinner. Who says it’s hard to meet people in Vancouver?

5. Family

My son and my youngest daughter are still in Victoria, but as my youngest turned 21 last year, I realized she’s really, truly OK and ready to launch. I was so glad to have the past three years with her though! She now has a plan and she’s going for it (she got into a nursing program, I’m so proud of her). My son got his B.A. and is going overseas soon.

I was at the Open Textbook Summit a few weeks ago, talking with Clint (a colleague from BCcampus), and someone else; explaining that I’d moved back here.

“Why did you move back?” my friend said.

I started to go through reasons 1 through 4 above, when Clint interrupted me with a smile: “She moved here for LUUUUUV,” he said. And he was right.

Just over a year ago I met my partner, Ken, and my life has been so much better since then. Within months I knew without a doubt he is the one I want to be with. He’s my family, my support, my collaborator and co-conspirator, my anchor. He’s been on the lower mainland all his life and he loves teaching at BCIT and Emily Carr, so it was a no-brainer that, with my career mobility, and with my already owning a home here, that I would be the one to move.

6. Bonus – it’s all about the one per cent, the things you can control: yourself.

Last week we attended a talk by Brett Gajda, who, with Nick Jaworsky, does the Where There’s Smoke podcast. Something he said smart-bombed straight into my soul and exploded with comprehension. It’s one of those things you hear for years, and you think “yeah, yeah, that’s right, I agree,” but you don’t really comprehend how it affects your life until suddenly one day it burrows into the space inside where you need it most. I’m paraphrasing, but here it is:

“Things outside of your control are so big you sometimes can’t help focusing on them. After all, 99% of the problems you have in the world are outside your control. The only thing you can really control is – yourself. Your actions, your attitudes, your values, your choices. But the moment you focus on the 1% right in front of you, everything is different. EVERYTHING.”

So yes, there were reasons to leave Vancouver, and there were reasons to come back to Vancouver. But more than that, there are reasons to be comfortable and happy with the person inside, so you’re content wherever in the world you find yourself next. And that’s the most wonderful place to be.

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*Seriously though, I am worried about climate change. That’s why I take transit and ride my bike.

The scary thing that makes a good workplace great

A little while back I wrote about the one thing that can make a good workplace great, the tolerance for taking risks and making mistakes.

If I were to pick another Big Scary Audacious Goal (which is a more unfortunate acronym than Big Hairy Audacious Goal..?), it would be the ability to have difficult conversations. Even more than tolerating mistakes, this is by far the most difficult skill I’ve had to work on in my career, and I’m not even close to perfection.

having successful difficult conversations means taking the time to listen and to be vulnerable. And that's freaking scary. Screwing up the courage to face a difficult situation head-on by having a tough conversation is something that could make any relationship go either way: it can lead to working better and becoming closer to the other person, or it could lead to a separation (if you’re lucky, a separation that leaves both people with positive feelings towards each other).

Having successful difficult conversations means taking the time to listen, and to be vulnerable.

And that’s freaking scary.

In fact, both these shifts that can change a workplace culture into a great one have that one thing in common: a willingness to show vulnerability.

I believe the more people talk about those difficult conversations they’ve had, the more acceptable it will be to have more of them. And I believe it’s the role of communication professionals to encourage more intentional, face-to-face communication skills among those we advise. The most useful professional development event I attended last spring was from IABC-BC — Speak Up: Important Conversations. All the speakers were amazing, but Tracey Wimperly’s talk really resonated with me:

“We do business with people, not entities…Conversation between people is where the magic happens … We are coaches and convenors of conscious interpersonal communications … Talking points are great for content, but do our leaders know how to really listen? Do they demonstrate empathy? The soft skills are really the hard stuff … Are our leaders comfortable with the soft skills?” – Tracey Wimperly

People, particularly those in leadership positions, need to signal loud and clear that they are open to having the difficult conversations, by their words and their actions. They need to be vulnerable in order to encourage their employees to feel supported enough to take risks and contribute the whole of their talents and skills.

I was reminded of that again when I listened to Brett Gajda’s podcast, Where There’s Smoke; the episode Be Seen (Vulnerability), with Bobby Umar. Brett practices what he preaches – my partner and I saw him speak at an event the other night, and I envy the people who get to work with him. In the Be Seen episode he gives an example that is so raw and compelling, I choked up thinking of similar examples from my own career.

Here’s one leader who also certainly fits the bill: Dan Pontrefact (you lucky Telus employees, having him on your leadership team!), who has embraced the Working Out Loud movement (Yay!) and wrote a pretty raw piece on why his next book is postponed.

In fact, if I’m ever asked again in an interview what I consider my biggest weakness, I’d probably have to be honest and say: “I find it extraordinarily stressful to have the difficult conversations that must sometimes happen in a professional situation. And I’m working hard on getting better at it, because if you can have difficult conversations where the other person feels valued and respected, even if you have to part ways in the end, you have a stronger relationship because of it.”

Here’s Tracey’s entire talk. It’s well worth eight minutes of your time, especially if you are, like me, a communications professional: