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99U Conference Recap 1: How to Fuel Collaboration & Innovation

99U Conference Recap 1: How to Fuel Collaboration & Innovation
Published May 4, 2015 by Tanner Christensen
For the past seven years, The 99U Conference has brought together thousands of creative entrepreneurs, designers, artists, and students for two days to celebrate the art of making ideas happen. Easier said than done, of course. The process of turning ideas into reality is often messy, sometimes daunting, and most always difficult. It requires grit and determination, as well as imagination, planning, and collaboration. Over the next several days, we'll share some of the highlights from the 23 serial idea executors that took the stage at this May's event.

Day one of the conference was about working together with others, pushing your work to new heights, and scaling those projects rapidly. Kicking things off, Wil Reynolds, Heidi Grant Halvorson, and Clive Wilkinson shared the invaluable lessons they’ve learned about collaboration and innovation over the course of their careers.

Wil Reynolds. Photo by Mackler Studios.
Wil Reynolds. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Wil Reynolds

Founder and Director of Strategy at Seer Interactive

Reynolds started Seer Interactive—a leading SEO and online marketing agency—in a small apartment back in 2002. Since then, the company has grown to more than 100 people. To fuel innovative growth at such a fast scale, Reynolds says he stuck to a few important virtues:

  • Learn how to delegate. Getting things done really means giving things up, Reynolds explained. We must make time for the things that matter most in our lives and the best way to do that is by learning how to delegate. Reynolds prompted: “Be open to the thought that someone could do your job better than you, or all the things you need to do will never have their place.”
  • Plan before you perspire. Innovation isn’t only about 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, as Edison once boldly claimed. Preparation is just as important, says Reynolds. "Anybody can beat Usain Bolt," Reynolds explained, “Even though he’s infinitely faster. All you need is for him to run in the wrong direction for five seconds.” Reynolds exclaimed: “Sometimes planning beats out talent. Where you might be running really fast right now might be in the wrong direction.”
  • Don’t confuse outputs for outcomes. We often celebrate the outputs of our work. When something gets launched or when we cross another checkbox off of our to-do list. But by celebrating outputs instead of outcomes, we lose the spark of what motivated us to innovate in the first place. We don’t do what we do to cross items off a list, we do what we do because it has an impact. “Don’t get blinded by the output and celebrate the wrong win,” Reynolds stated. His example? Building a well isn't what we celebrate. Instead, celebrate when the well is providing clean water and better health for an entire village.

Heidi Grant Halvorson. Photo by Mackler Studios.
Heidi Grant Halvorson. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Heidi Grant Halvorson


On the release of her latest book, No One Understands You and What To Do About It, Halvorson uncovers the surprising truth of why collaboration can sometimes be so difficult. The crux: Our intentions aren’t always clear to other people, even if we think they are. Fortunately, there are three lenses of perception we can utilize to shape how others see us:

  • Build trust by being both confident and warm. “We mostly project confidence by showing how smart we are,” Halvorson explained, “but we need both confidence and warmth in order to be trusted.” How do we project both? Halvorson prescribes you maintain eye contact, especially when the other person is talking. Smile, nod, be affirming, and of course —actually listen.
  • Make yourself instrumental to others. “Power does some funny stuff to brains. One of the things it does is it narrows our focus of attention.” Halvorson explained how those in powerful positions tend to be very busy, so they (sometimes unintentionally) pay less attention to the powerless. To get noticed from people in power we must figure out what their goals are and show them that we can help them reach their goals. “What are their goals, where do they align with mine?”
  • Create a sense of “us.” When we collaborate with people who are close to us (think: on the same team or project, sitting next to us everyday) and when we’re doing work that is highly relevant (working on the same project or similar types of projects), any amount of success we experience can come across as threatening. To encourage future collaboration in the face of a threat from ego, we should create a sense of “us” rather than “you vs. me.” Halvorson said: “Successful teams and successful companies do this by creating closeness and shared goals.” Think like the Williams sisters of tennis: They have the exact same skill-set, but frame their lives as an "us against the world" mentality that enables them to coexist peacefully.

Clive Wilkinson. Photo by Mackler Studios.
Clive Wilkinson. Photo by Mackler Studios.

Clive Wilkinson

President and Design Director at Clive Wilkinson Architects

Clive Wilkinson and his firm work to design bleeding edge office for the way we work and the environments we work in. As the economies of work have shifted (from agricultural, to industrial, to the service economy, and now the idea economy), the type of work we do has changed. Our work environments should reflect that.

  • Look toward the Urban Paradigm of community. Cities evolve around economies of work, so we can look toward their designs for inspiration. Healthy cities “provide a stage for things like cultural diversity,” Wilkinson stated, “It contains the archetypes for the type of life we want to live.” What types of archetypes does your work environment convey, and how might you shift them?
  • Make space for experimentation and play. Wilkinson explained how “messages in the environment create alternative realities and playing fields for us to not only work and collaborate in, but to inspire and motivate us.” He emphasized the importance of the word “serious” in the term “serious play” by explaining, “Being comfortable in your office seems like the right goal, but we don’t want to be too comfortable, we should want to be provoked.”
  • Keep your environment fluid and transparent. “Understanding and accessing information is fundamental to knowledge sharing,” Wilkinson remarked. “As soon as you put up barriers and walls. there are things happening out of can provoke the wrong feeling.” In addition to keeping information accessible, Wilkinson stated that the best reason to have transparency in the workplace is to witness “the motion of people at work as part of the human theater” through semi-transparent (and sometimes movable) walls.

We'll be publishing more insights from #99conf over the coming days. Stay tuned!

More 2015 Conference Recaps:

Part One: How to Fuel Collaboration & Innovation
Part Two: Rewiring Your Mindset & Avoiding Burnout
Part Three: Self-Awareness is Key
Part Four: How to Build a Business

Part Five: Tap Into Your Creative Genius
Part Six: How to Change the World

More about Tanner Christensen

Tanner is a digital producer who makes things to help creatives do more of what they love. Follow him on Twitter or learn more on his personal site:

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