“Nothing truly valuable can be achieved except by the unselfish cooperation of many individuals.” ― Albert Einstein.
SOCIAL The question is not whether you should, but why you should collaborate. First, let us define this key word. Collaboration is a structured system of people closely cooperating with clear common goals. Sounds pretty good, right? Today, most collaboration is virtual—via social media, text messages, email or video chats. Ideally, a group meets regularly face-to-face sometimes for serendipitous interaction.
How do you view collaboration? Often personal feelings about it are often based on past experiences. Working in a dysfunctional group can sour one’s perception. Conversely, a creative and productive collaboration can make you a fan of the concept.
Are You a Good Collaborator?
Maybe you’re a recent graduate. Or perhaps you are an expert in your field. You may be talented in your own right; you can have the best technology at your disposal; you might even have great contacts in your industry. But you may still lack the qualities of a good collaborator. It is a learned skill. And collaboration can only be a strong as its weakest link. Take this quick quiz:
- Do you appear to others to have a need to be in complete control?
- Do you trust other people to make important decisions?
- Do you feel that no one can do as good a job as you?
The way to measure your ability as a collaborator is to view yourself through the eyes of others. Are others offended by the way you administrate? Do they feel you don’t trust their work or acknowledge their strengths? Inversely, do you feel too much pressure working within a group and prefer to fly solo? According to clinical psychologist, researcher and author Monica Ramirez Basco, these could be signs of outwardly focused or inwardly focused perfectionism. Either end of the extreme can cause serious social problems.
Bad Collaboration Examples
Let’s examine a few of scenarios.
- Manny is a freelancer who needs to convince a new client that he has the infrastructure to handle a large project. So, through social media, he summons people to meet at a local coffee shop. There’s a good response. To save time, he tells everyone that he is running point. The deadline is a few weeks away and there is plenty of work to do. They will receive a text message when he needs them so he wants them to keep their calendars open. There is no rebuttal so Manny is very happy about how well the meeting went and tells the client that he now has the manpower to execute the project.
- Moe is a freelancer with the same issue. The project is to redesign a website on which he had been periodically guest blogging. The people he invites have diverse background. One is a graphic designer, another is a copywriter and the third is a programmer. Moe shows them the current website and asks for suggestions. The copywriter wants to use WordPress. The programmer prefers a custom SQL driven solution. The graphic designer prefers to have everything written with Adobe Flash. Ultimately they decide to each come back with an example of their unique opinion. Moe isn’t happy with either option but doesn’t want to add to the confusion so she goes along with their decision to present three directions. At the next meeting Moe tells everyone that collaboration was not a good idea and then informs the client that he cannot accept the assignment.
- Jack decides to collaborative via phone conferences and email. He tells the client that he has team and accepts the assignment. His friends are given tasks. However, no one but Jack appears to be producing any work. The others say they are making progress or ask for more data during phone conferences. Weeks go by and Jack expresses his frustration by telling them how useless they are. Jack manages to finish everything himself with severed friendships as collateral damage.
Though everyone’s experience with collaboration differs, can you relate to parts of either example in some way? True collaboration was lacking in all three examples. Have similar experiences colored your impression of collaboration? If you were in either group, what input would you have offered to get things on track?
Notice that Manny was indiscriminant about his time. Having backup workers was simply a formality to satisfy the client’s concerns. Moe was wise to select diverse backgrounds but without clearly defined roles, each wanted to move in his own direction. Working simultanesouly should not be confused with collaboration. Jack put forth effort to collaborate virtually but his team members may not have been fully qualified or committed to the project.
I am reminded of another example where a programmer developed a database system that required proprietary hardware and software but wanted to delegate data input. So he devised a means to export data into a format that could be easily edited within any spreadsheet application. By adding new records to the bottom and placing a checkmark in the last columns of rows to be removed, the file could be imported back into the proprietary system for more extensive formatting and analysis.
Unfortunately, the ones tasked to modify the records could not understand the project in its entirety. So they took the opportunity to show off their Excel skills by rearranged columns producing a better looking file that could not be imported back into the database. You can see the value of understanding one's place within the collaboration.
More Productive Collaboration
Select the right collaboration team, which can be as few as two. While there is a coordinator, he or she is ideally open to input from others. This means each party should be willing and capable of providing meaningful dialog. Vet attendees before inviting them to the group meeting. Either make selections based on prior project experience, peruse resumes, view online portfolios or Skype interviews.
During the first group meeting, bestow dignity by introducing everyone with a word about what is perceived as their strength. Since perceptions can be inaccurate, it would be good for everyone to share what they feel are their strengths and weaknesses. Based on this information, various roles can be assigned or a list of additional talents required can be made.
Beware of vague commitments like, “I’m busy with other things but I’ll try to squeeze this in” or “I feel more comfortable doing everything myself but let’s see how this goes.” This is how people go on record as never really committing completely to the project.
The objective of working together should be made clear. Have everyone write it down or write it out on a white board. Present a timeline for key phases and determine frequency of group discussions. Some aspects may require everyone to brainstorm together. Others can be handled remotely. Perhaps subgroups (i.e.: programmer and designer) may have more frequent discussions than the entire group. If money is involved (and it usually is), a contract should specify what constitutes a breach of the agreement and how it will be resolved.
Speak up if you don't agree with the direction something is taking rather than going along for the ride and casting aspersions when it's done. Your views are what adds value to the collaboration. But never strip anyone’s dignity. Acknowledge the input when each person comments.
As author Kevin Daum states, "Broadcast recognition and gratitude." Write down all suggestions even if you don’t initially agree. Then return to the list and discuss pros and cons of each suggestion. Summarize the conclusions reached. Thanking everyone for their contribution to the discussion encourages them to return to the next meeting with fresh suggestions.
Bootstrap is a term that describes making due with available resources. Freelancers, pre-business startups, and small businesses are most often familiar with the concept. It is likely why a website looks like it designed by a nine-year-old nephew; it might be the excuse for handing out brochures riddled with typos.
Smart bootstrapping should not be evidenced by errors. I am reminded of an illustrator that roughed in the entire piece and then progressively added global detail until the deadline. This has advantages over focusing on one corner of the illustration while the rest of the page is virtually blank. At any point, the work can be stopped and the customer will have a cohesive piece of artwork.
When collaborating, something that might usually be unprofessionally strung together has an opportunity to rise to a level of professionalism. Endeavor to understand the skills of the team and delegate accordingly.
A website that might usually just have a logo and "under construction" header could possibly now have a professional homepage, contact page and description of services. Backend shopping cart or some other aspect that requires extensive programming might be demonstrated via screenshots hidden on pages not directly accessible from public pages.
Where to Collaborate
Neutral ground suppresses the appearance of one member's dominance. If the group is small, you might meet in a park or coffee shop. Collaborative office spaces are growing in popularity. Typically, a monthly membership fee is paid for access to work areas. There may be desks, private conference rooms or isolated lounge areas. Many people find this atmosphere more productive than coffee shops or libraries. However, facility amenities differ; some have great options; others can be quite noisy. With a bit of trial and error, you should be able to locate a place that accommodates your needs.
In whichever collaborative space you choose, recognize the need for team members to accomplish some work in private. Hovering over them, expecting every click of the mouse to be brilliant or shoving them out of the way to demonstrate how its done conveys a lack of trust. Conversely, when you reach an impasse in your abilities, don’t hesitate to ask for assistance. Some individuals, even you, may learn new techniques.
As setbacks are handled amicably and work progresses, the group will share in the feeling of accomplishment. If you have had bad experiences in the past, do you now feel equipped to face the prospect more confidently in the future?
- Never Good Enough—Freeing Yourself from the Chains of Perfectionism. Monica Ramirez Basco, Ph.D., 1999, pp. 28-31.
- How to Collaborate. wikihow.com
- How Smart People Collaborate for Success. inc.com
- Photo by ambroochizafer from Pixabay.