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It is in Collaboration that the nature of art is revealed

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.

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