May 21, 2020

One of my favorite reality TV shows is Project Runway. For over 15 years the series has revealed amazing creativity (albeit, specifically of the fashion variety), the winning results of personal confidence, as well as an insight into the complexities of the group work dynamic. Invariably, whenever the “team challenge” arises nearly every contestant groans. Loudly.

For Project Runway competitors — and for many of the rest of us, I’d wager — there seems to be an active dislike of working on a team. The frustration that develops between the designers creating a 2-piece mini collection on TV are remarkably similar to what happens in workplace teams: often there is ambiguous leadership, misunderstanding of the group’s mission, team members’ communication styles are misinterpreted, shared work isn’t equally shared, the extroverts usurp their share of recognition and the introverts feel unacknowledged. 

To get multiple perspectives on teamwork, I reached out to a few Twin Cities’ executives with a legion of experience in the corporate, retail and non-profit sectors. I wanted a counterpoint to my own experience with interpersonal dynamics — after all, my kindergarten report card was once notoriously marked with “Elder John doesn’t share his toys and slaps other children.” Perhaps I’ll dive into the issues around greed and anger management in a later blog post.

To begin, simply enough, every team needs a sustaining leader. Much like a levee, leadership channels and contains the group work to stay on task. Without the levee’s walls, a runaway flood of ideas and inefficient use of time and resources can occur.

Roberta Bonoff, Partner at EnvisionIt! Wholesale Management, advises that “one of the first tasks is for the leader to establish agreed upon ground rules for the group’s communication; such as not talking over each other, or that judgment and wrong-making of others are not allowed.” It can also be the declaration of an intangible spirit of communication and thought, such as “we don’t know, what we don’t know.” Once the rules for communication are understood, everyone is held accountable and brought back to the agreement if needed.

Good leadership also ensures everyone in the group shares their ideas publicly — and that everyone is allowed to shine. Collective minds are more creative than any single contributor. Some team members may need additional coaxing to join the conversation; but the group trust, and the fulfillment of the team’s objective, are better for it.

Leadership aside, what about advice on how to be a good team player? One of the most important characteristics of being an effective team member is to leave your ego at the door. Everyone can’t get their way, every time. And no matter how right, or how relevant you think your opinion is, more than likely you will need to choose to accept someone else’s choice. Functioning in a team is less about the individual and much more about the group goal.  

Learning to listen is also paramount. Partly, that means trying not to interrupt conversation, and not prejudging a team member’s opinions based on your previous experience with them. Instead of automatically assuming you think you know what the purpose or intention of someone’s idea is, and responding accordingly, listening means asking questions until real, mutual understanding has occurred first — and then responding.

Fear can limit a team’s effectiveness. When trust within the group is established, no one should be afraid to go against the grain and offer a strong, differing opinion, even if it directly contradicts the group majority. And for the leader, after truly listening to even a popular idea from team members, they can’t be afraid to acknowledge what is wrong, to sort through what works and what doesn’t work, and ultimately, they can’t be fearful to be contrarian and oppose the popular idea if it is not in the best interest of the team’s objective.

In the words of Project Runway’s mentor Tim Gunn — challenges are often filled with “make it work” moments.


May 20, 2020

Along with the social distancing, constant hand washing and facemarks, COVID-19 has added another issue many people – including creatives – are finding challenging: working alone in isolation. A lot of creatives have grown up in the open office environment, sitting side-by-side with other employees sharing ideas, discussions and creative on a continual cycle of collaboration and conversations. The new reality of working from home in isolation is like being locked in a dark closet. Conversation and background office discussions are now distant memories. Collaboration takes more effort than just poking your head over your desk and speaking. 

So with all of this, why does it seem I am currently more productive and creative than I ever have been?  

Don’t get me wrong, collaboration is important for everyone. Collaboration is often said to be a key to creativity. How, then, does our best work often seems to happen in solitude? Why do so many of us so often find ourselves going into work early saying “it’s the only time I can get things done!” or working long after set office hours to finish a project that does not have an impending deadline? Because we are able to singularly concentrate on the project at hand by remaining unplugged, disconnected and laser-focused. 

Solitude was instrumental for some of our greatest artists and intellectuals. History is full of iconic artists and scientists who accomplished their greatest work in isolation or because of it. Great scientists such as Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla and Sir Isaac Newton are quoted referencing the benefits of working in solitude. Newton in particular was a proponent of isolated working, often shutting himself away in his room restricting his conversations only with those who he thought capable of appreciating his work. Artists, writers and actors/actresses as well found that their best work was often produced in isolation. Pablo Picasso said “without great solitude, no serious work is possible.”

But how do you create an office zone free of distractions while being disciplined with your working hours? I have read numerous articles and online posts discussing this very thing. Everyone has a set list of ideas and beliefs as to how and why. Some are very specific and others are very loosely organized. I think everyone’s approach is different,and we all have a unique way finding our own personal center of focus. Be it starting with a morning coffee, going for that run, or jumping in and going right to work, we all find our own routine to get into that zone. Whichever way you do it, what is essential is making sure we are productive and using our time of solitude the best that we can. Here are some ideas that I think help to keep you productive and the zen flowing. 

  • Participate, talk and explore. To be creative we still need to connect with the world. By reaching out and talking with others, joining an online chat about a topic you’re interested in or by reading the work of others, it helps us grow our minds, generate creative thinking and give us the experiences we seek when we are at home and working in isolation. It will become the catalyst for original thinking and creative breakthroughs. I think simply being alone without interacting with the outside world creates a view that very often can be too narrowly focused.
  • Schedule your time to work. Staying disciplined with a set timeframe enforces your thoughts to be singularly productive on the current task at hand. Too many breaks or unorganized work hours help to make distractions become, well, distracting. Being disciplined by working at set times helps to build confidence and a strong work ethic that really drives up production.
  • Remove those distractions. Being able to work on a singular project or idea without allowing for distractions helps us to focus our most important thoughts and creative thinking, which is often impossible in a busy office environment. Shut off your phone. Close the door. Let your housemates know that you are off limits for a time. If a distraction is inevitable, take a break and take care of the issue. Then come back for a set amount of time afterwards without those distractions.
  • Moderate your expectations. Lets face it, we don’t always hit it on all cylinders every day of every week for every month. Mental roadblock is a common and almost expected occurrence for any person and working in isolation can sometimes make it seem far more of an issue than it really is. Sometimes you are storming the castle and taking no prisoners and other times you cant even get over the wall. Relax. Maybe now would be a good time to take that break and go out and do something fun. Very soon I guarantee you that the wall will crumble and you will move forward with your thoughts and ideas. Do not judge yourself or your output.
  • Include relaxation. Working in a highly focused island of isolation can be both energizing, productive and tiring. A healthy life is a combination of focused work along with an extremely healthy dose of personal time. Don’t hold back. Go out and do whatever it is that quenches your soul. Follow your passions. In turn, those passions will help you to focus and think creatively the next day. Live it up with whatever gets you excited and let’s see what tomorrow brings.