This is an expanded and updated version of the essay our Chief Executive Eloise Malone wrote for the Made in Plymouth Magazine (Summer 2015 edition) and the lecture she gave at Plymouth University in February 2016.
Shortlisted for the National Lottery Awards 2015 and winner of the City Centre Company of the Year Awards 2015, Effervescent, based in Radiant Gallery on Derry’s Cross, is a unique company, specialising in collaborative design and arts practices. Part consultancy, part laboratory, part workshop;studio Effervescent designs and delivers unique and innovative programmes and services for and in partnership with health, education, social and cultural organisations.
Our contemporary art curating project, R[eff]UGE, radiates out of the former Halifax bank in the west end of the city. The energy and fresh vision shown by the children and young people we work with has drawn national attention, and a show by 9 – 14 year olds last November in partnership with Barnardos was ranked in the top five gallery exhibitions in the country, snuggled between shows in Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool.
We work with our strategic partners Barnardos, Plymouth City Council, and Plymouth University to develop new services and ways of working which create genuine resonant change through innovation and creativity.
Public resources are becoming more and more scarce but public need for services is growing. Collaboration can help all of us reach new people and engage them more deeply; improve or refresh our professional practice and personal enthusiasm; and make things bigger, better, faster and stronger.
Here’s our brief guide to collaborative practice: ways to work together to tap into expert knowledge, share resources, and make things better.
Work with people who have a different skill set: the best thing about collaborating is when your partners bring a whole level of new and unimagined brilliant stuff into your world, and make you think completely differently about your project. If you’re a health specialist, consider working with games designers or museum curators. If you’re an artist, think about working with psychologists and marketeers. Broaden your horizons and think about who else has a potential stake in your project. One of my favourite projects we ever did involved working with a curator of marine animals to produce deep-water dance, and the best bit was when the tank’s resident manta ray, who had been present in the rehearsals, learned the routine and started to photobomb the performances.
Be solution-focused: start with what the end result would be like, and work backwards from that to where you are now.
Ensure everyone is participating: it’s really hard to collaborate with someone who isn’t collaborating with you. Ensure equal respect for everyone in the collaboration is fostered from the outset.
Use the evidence base: there is usually lots of really interesting information available in the world about the issue you’re working with, or things that have parallel or intertwined evidence or research. You can build on evidence from other sectors, or use it to inform your programme of work. For example, at Effervescent we use evidence about how placebos work for people in pain, to make our creative practice with children and young people more likely to succeed.
You don’t have to collaborate with everyone: in the last decade there have been increasing pushes, from funders in particular, towards collaboration; this is a good thing. However, it doesn’t mean that everyone in your sector needs to collaborate with each other: trying to collaborate with multiple partners makes for an ever more complex and difficult beast of a project. Consider collaborating and sharing information with partners out of your sector or out of your region: add value.
Learning cycles are great models for collaboration: try things, analyse the data, reflect on what works, make changes and try again. The best collaborations take a while to reach their most powerful moment.
Foster a supportive atmosphere: whether you’re disrupting known patterns of service provision or creating new ways of working, it’s crucial to be truthful and honest and that requires an atmosphere of trust and support.
Agree at the outset who owns the “stuff” that the collaboration generates: it’s much more fun to play with ideas when it’s understood what intellectual property is shared, and what is someone else’s life’s work and isn’t up for grabs.
The wisdom of crowds: when people come together to positively tackle a shared problem, they usually know the answer, but they don’t always know that they know the answer. Collaborative design takes time; there are lots of great ways to find the answer, but it’s rarely by asking them directly what it is!
Work with people who have similar values: it’s possible for different partners to get very different things out of a collaborative project, but it’s important to iron out early on in the process how you will go about making difficult decisions, and it’s really helpful if you share a vision for what you care about. Is it about the quality of the end result; is it about the experience that the clients have in co-designing alongside you? One of the most challenging processes I’ve ever led was where, halfway through the programme, it became clear that the partners just wanted any enjoyable activity for their client base, whereas we were focused on helping those people articulate something powerful that had resonance for other young people. Another painful project was when a partner asked us to get on with working with their client group to design a campaign, and turned down successive invites to come along to get involved, but then threatened to pull the project the day before launch because a member of staff didn’t “like” the campaign*. If you don’t find the right partners, things like this can cause sleepless nights and real misery.
And finally…this is a bonus top tip…if you do your research thoroughly and decide to work with someone or a company that has a specialist skillset you need for your project, let them use it. Let them guide you. If you don’t trust them don’t work with them. Nothing kills a project faster than a dominant partner wanting everything their own way but without the experience or background to make the right call.
* It wasn’t smiley-happy enough for her. In the end we got it launched and it out-performed every other campaign in the vast company’s history and was used for a following 6 years, then bought by an international partner.
Eloïse Malone is Effervescent’s Chief Executive Officer. Effervescent is an award-winning company which was established in 2004.