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How to let go of control and embrace creative collaboration

Simon Pollock
Experience Designer
Experience designer Simon Pollock recalls the first time a client took apart one of his storyboards and what he learned about the power of collaboration.
January 13, 2021

In a windowless conference room at a Fortune 50 tech company, packed with important business stakeholders, detail-obsessed subject matter experts, and the rest of my team, I had a major breakthrough.

Just months into what became a new career in experience design, a key stakeholder was ripping apart my storyboard in front of the room. The sentences were disemboweled, strikethroughs littered the slides like spent cartridges, and comment boxes bubbled into the margins like a bad rash. Or so it seemed to me.

Until joining Oxygen, I had no indication that success at work could be a result of owning a mistake (or in this case, a deck full of mistakes).

Throughout my academic career and first few positions, the standard of excellence was individual perfection—anything less was ammunition for a performance review, managerial disappointment, or a negative note on my reputation. My writing, especially as a young journalist and new copywriter, had to get turned in with unassailable facts and a steadfast tone.

(I'd later come to realize what an awful set of heavy handcuffs I'd kept myself in over the years.)

But there in the room, doing my best to mimic what I'd seen a few colleagues do in previous sessions, I diligently hacked apart my work at the behest of our stakeholder, trusting that it was best for the client. We tore out whole sections that I’d carefully included according to previous sessions. I smiled meekly, banging away at my keyboard and acknowledging new comments and pauses for further discussion.

After 45 minutes of displaying strikethroughs, comments, and reordered narratives, the stakeholders in the room seemed satisfied with the revised storyboard.

On his way out, our key stakeholder pulled me aside to thank me for my hard work."Nice job," he said. "You did very well." My hands were clammy and the adrenaline rush had only just started to wear off.

That was the fall of 2015. What I didn’t realize at the time was that, as the years went by, this kind of work would become second nature to me, and highly valuable to our clients.

By stressing progress and transparency, iterating on ideas, and picking up slack for each other, we’re able to make sure we do what's right for the customer. We don't harp on each other for perfection. We create with agility and an architecture, leaving breadcrumbs along the way so that we can quickly and easily revisit our work to improve and update it.

Most of all, we treat each other like humans.

We live in a reality where people aren't perfect, so why should we expect any different from each other at work? We all have our off days, and pretending that anything else is true is foolish.

Back in that conference room, in the midst of taking apart my work, I was worried about getting fired. How was it possible that I misinterpreted so much of what had been asked of me? What were the repercussions for showing up with something that didn't meet the expectations of the client?

It turns out, however, that collaborating and iterating together allows for everyone to contribute a different point of view or approach to giving input and feedback.

When you expect to work on something together, what's most important is to show up honestly and be ready to rethink content and concepts together. We expect to be realistic about how fast stuff can be created and we stick to our plan.

The truth is that Oxygen's collaborative style of work has allowed me to make mistakes and, consequently, get better. It's allowed me to lighten up. And it's encouraged me to keep improving and asking how I can be better.

When the goals are shared success and learning together, we shift our expectations away from perfection and toward progress. We understand that growth comes through honest feedback and critique—from being open to different perspectives and making mistakes.

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