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Unleashing Virtual Creative Collaboration at The Sonophilia Foundation: What Can a Nonprofit Teach Us About Virtual Creative Collaboration

This article was originally published on Innovation Management.
Article By: Edith Rian / Karen Kusch / Maryam Ghaddar / Seda Röder

Does creativity suffer in our virtual world, or could working virtually actually lead to more collaborative environments, better ideation and heightened interaction? 

Over the last 18 months, the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust people and organisations headfirst into remote working life. For many, this has led to work overload, frustration, and even an overwhelming sense of isolation. While some organizations complain that creative collaboration is suffering and are keen to get people back into the office, other organizations have reported such great results with remote work that they are adapting to it permanently.

One such organization is The Sonophilia Foundation, a non-profit located in Munich, Germany. Although entirely based on voluntary work and contributions from its members, the Sonophilia Foundation has experienced very effective and fertile times during the COVID-19 pandemic with productivity thriving, projects soaring, and creativity continuing to be unleashed. In this article, four Sonophilia members share their experience and offer insight into what other organizations can learn from the Sonophilia Foundation’s way of working virtually.

Data: The Sonophilia community recently surveyed its members about virtual creative collaboration. They found that 83% of members said using video in virtual interactions had a positive impact. Most time in online meetings is spent on discussion and decision making, which was also ranked as the most effective online task. The most limiting factor in the community for online work is unclear objectives and goals. However, 100% have met some of their virtual collaborators in person at least once, which has shown to play an important role in building productive virtual relationships.

Effective Team Design and Virtual Collaboration

The Sonophilia Foundation’s work mainly happens remotely, with (when permitted) two to four annual in-person gatherings. The international network is, therefore, used to virtual creative collaboration, with all of their projects evolving in part or totally virtually. The Foundation’s secret to creative collaboration is the way they unleash swarm intelligence in the form of virtual task forces. Every member of the Sonophilia Foundation can initiate a task force around an idea or experiment and is only limited by the need to align to both the non-profit cause and the personal interest and expertise of the member. Ideas are discussed in community calls and in the community forums to form voluntary task forces, which start and finish projects. Whenever necessary, small funds and other resources are allocated by the Sonophilia Foundation.

The founder and director of the Sonophilia Foundation Seda Röder says, “Our only parameter for selection of our members is their passion about what they are doing, no matter what it is.”

None of the Sonophilia projects would have resulted in tangible outcomes without the common purpose and connectivity in the community. Members collaborate intensively to get the desired outcome while allowing for individual and group preferences to coexist.

The Sonophilia Foundation knows what makes or breaks a team effort when working virtually. One Sonophilian, a virtual work consultant and partner at Kusch Consulting, Karen Kusch says “Trust is the foundation of all effective collaboration, be it virtual or in person.” While tools and equality of technology are key elements, working towards a common goal with team alignment and defined outcomes and roles make for less confusion and more concrete action and deliverables. Underpinning it all are the relationships within the community and ensuring there is social time and space, as well as a shared understanding.

Six Ingredients for Successful Virtual Collaboration

The Sonophilia Foundation identifies six specific ingredients that other innovative teams and organizations should adopt in virtual creative collaboration:

  1. Leave your ego at the door: A common saying amongst Sonophilians is “leave your coat at the door, along with your ego.” When you’re in a room or virtual situation at any Sonophilia gathering, it doesn’t matter who is next to you – everyone present in the room is equal and deeply cares about making a positive impact in the world.
  2. Communication and Accountability: Effective communication is one of the most important aspects of virtual creative collaboration. Having a clear call to action, expectation setting and showing respect while being efficient with people’s time are important success factors. There is a personal and a common agenda within the community which holds everyone accountable for project progress and consciously includes as many people in the conversation as possible.
  3. Natural Distribution of Roles: Sonophilians’ take responsibility and contribute voluntarily to the projects. They choose the projects they want to participate in depending on their competencies and interests, much like the authors of this article, Karen Kusch and the founder of Rösslyng GmbH Edith Rian, who together created a new task force to research and highlight creative collaboration in virtual work.
  4. Conflict on matter: Sonophilians have each other’s best interests at heart and know that they are in a psychologically safe zone. There is a common understanding that we must be tough on issues, while also being kind to each other, which means that criticism on a personal level is taboo. While differences of opinion and informed debates are welcome, personal conflicts have no place within creative and productive task forces.
  5. Benevolence, Compassion and Belonging: Humanizing interaction in a machine-driven world is the only way to stay engaged, connected and to create wonderful things together. Edith Rian says: “We all need to feel that we belong, that we are seen and that there is a space for us and our competencies. If we don’t feel that we’re being included, our creativity becomes internalized and many feel isolated and lonely.” Taking time to interact as human beings virtually, check-in with each other regularly, and meeting in person is important.
  6. Recognition and Reward: It is well documented that recognition is a greater motivation than financial reward. Sonophilians are highly motivated by the recognition they receive and give each other. While friendship and intellectual stimulation in meetings lay a fertile ground for personal growth, contributing to a bigger cause provides even more meaning. Motivation is also linked to tangible outcomes. Sonophilians want to be sure that the time they invest is well spent. Thus far, the task forces have delivered a book called Creativity Matters, initiated the Matters.Global platform, struck many collaborations amongst members and institutions and launched scholarship programs aimed at pushing the scientific research of creativity forward.

Best Practices & Tangible Outcomes

Since its establishment in 2019 as a non-profit organisation, the Sonophilia Foundation has implemented many projects aimed at bringing concepts and different aspects of creativity in new innovative ways to wider and more diverse audiences. Three such projects established through virtual task forces are showcased below:

1) Creativity Matters is an ambitious book project published in 2020. It was written, compiled, and edited over a six-month period by Sonophilians from all over the world. Members contributed short stories and narratives on how creativity had impacted them personally and professionally. The editing and revision process took place efficiently and cooperatively via online tools. Ideas were exchanged on ways to improve or enhance the content and structure in each story, while kind and compassionate nudges were made to move the project forward. It culminated in a high-profile book launch and a moderated panel discussion at the Frankfurt Book Fair Digital Edition on how creativity can thrive in even the most unexpected ways.

2) The Sonophilia Institute for Applied Creativity aims to unveil the myth of creativity to research and translate the science and study of creativity into everyday action for people, education professionals, and policy-makers. The institute has partnered with the Society for Neuroscience of Creativity (SfNC) and the Cognitive Neuroscience of Creativity Lab at Penn State University. Together they host online workshops and meetings, grant scholarships, and accelerate an understanding of how creativity happens in the brain to apply to real-world impacts.

3) Matters.Global was the idea of Sonophilia co-founders Seda and Matthias Röder, who saw that technology could connect and visualize problems of the world in one open-source platform, a so-called “Internet of Problems”. Sonophilians contribute from disciplines such as technology, marketing and communication, effective team interaction, and business development. The task force has never met fully in person but successfully progresses forward. Task force member Edith Rian says: “It’s been very rewarding, but painful, evolving the idea into something that can be communicated while developing and maintaining the glue in the team. On a regular basis, talking about how to improve the way we are working together has been critical for moving the project to where it is today.”

About the Sonophilia Foundation

The Sonophilia Foundation was founded by Seda and Matthias Röder as a think tank in 2016 and established as a non-profit organization in 2019. It is dedicated to democratizing and promoting creativity, diversity, and critical thinking as the backbone of societal well-being, progress, and innovation. Sonophilia’s work is rooted in making creativity a more tangible science and encouraging the general public to tap into their inherent creativity with curiosity and confidence.

About the Authors

Karen Kusch

With more than 18 years of corporate experience, Karen is a strategist, trusted advisor and influencer for global collaboration, future and virtual working topics, and currently consults at Kusch Consulting. She has launched multiple global agility, collaboration and e-learning initiatives throughout her career. She actively contributes to the UK and German learning institutions (Henley Management College, Warwick University, Sibe-Steinbeis, IST Hochschule) and has mentored several MBA students in her working topics. Karen has spoken at events across Europe hosted by Lisa, Unicom and Olympia and contributed articles to KM Review and ARK magazines, as well as a chapter in the book No More Consultants. She is a British German dual citizen living in Bonn, Germany.

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Edith Rian

Edith is a leadership trainer and coach on a mission to restore the human connection at work, as a source of well-being and sustainable performance. A Norwegian in Germany, she brings with her the Nordic perspective on leadership, initiating more supportive leadership and engagement and developing a breeding ground for creativity.

www.roesslyng.com

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Maryam Ghaddar

Maryam is the editor in chief for the Sonophilia Foundation, responsible for conducting online interviews with network members, drafting newsletters, writing articles, blog posts, and press releases for the organization’s many projects, editing audio, and hosting a podcast series called The Sonophilian. She also currently works as a freelance impact reporter for Salzburg Global Seminar’s American Studies program. Maryam has previously served as news editor and anchorwoman for a broadcast news station, copy-editor for the Beirut-based newspaper The Daily Star, features writer for HOME for Lebanon magazine, and a communications and marketing intern at Salzburg Global Seminar.

https://maryamghaddar.wordpress.com/

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Seda Röder

Managing Partner at The Mindshift®, is a leadership expert for innovation management and creativity culture. Ms. Röder is a specialist in scaling innovative output in organisations and provides leaders with tools to reinvent their innovation process to utilise their assets effectively. Ms. Röder is a professionally trained concert pianist and an exceptionally eloquent public speaker. Additionally, she is the founder of the Sonophilia® Foundation; a global think-tank and non-profit organisation supporting the scientific research of creativity.

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