In a recent article We Did That!, I made a number of points about the lost art of collaboration:

  • Although we often have the preconditions for good collaboration (shared goal, sense of urgency and commitment, productive participation process, sense of belonging, open communication, trust, and complementary, diverse backgrounds), the inherent competitiveness that pervades everything we do in life tends to interfere and preclude true collaboration from occurring.
  • We tend to collaborate very effectively in emergency situations (like helping each other out during a blackout), suggesting that good collaboration may be instinctive, an instinct we have tragically lost.
  • When collaboration works well (in nature, in emergencies, and when the chemistry of the team is exceptional) we collaborate not because collaboration works, but because it’s fun.
  • Hierarchy, our cult of leadership, and the inflated egos of managers, combine to make collaboration in most businesses almost impossible.
  • Collaboration could be improved by (a) creating a lot more opportunities to practice it, (b) speaking out when supposedly or potentially collaborative activities aren’t, and fixing them so they are, and (c) ousting the egos and outing the wallflowers in collaborative groups so participation is equal.

Carolyn Allen, who lives and breathes this stuff, provides this additional wisdom:

  • Infrastructure — support and facilitation services, coaching, technical resources — helps to keep collaborative efforts from going off the rails.
  • Open communication and collegiality among participants, so that the work that needs to be done can be equitably apportioned, appreciated and respected, is essential to the process.
  • Diversity of process — using different techniques to jump-start or enhance collaboration — is as important to effective collaboration as diversity of people.

A record proportion of today’s workforce, especially in North America, is self-employed. For them, collaboration is essential to doing projects at more than a subsistence level — pilot projects, subcontract work, and small, one-shot assignments. The jump from self-employment to entrepreneurship — and credibility with larger buyers of their services — requires collaborative partnership. So there’s a few million people who should be really motivated to get much better at this art.

In business, meanwhile, the term ‘collaboration’ has been misused, misappropriated and adulterated so much that it has become muddled with mere contracting, teamwork, and work allocation. Collaboration is much more than any of these things, but, sadly, because so many large business environments are so dysfunctional, it is almost impossible to find great examples of business collaboration anywhere. The best examples of collaboration are to be found outside the suffocating hierarchies of business — in scientific endeavor (many Nobel Prize-winning scientific endeavors have been global collaborations), in the arts (both in composition, like Lennon-McCartney’s work, and in performance, like jazz improvisation), and in sport (where the best teams work together so intuitively and seamlessly that their collective performance far exceeds the sum of their individual competencies, and where a strong captain, superstar or coach is an impediment rather than an advantage). And of course, in nature, where for most species collaboration, not competition, is the key to survival.

Business needs to raise the bar by which it assesses its collaborative performance to a comparable high level, and appreciate that many of the attributes (competitiveness, hierarchy, the cult of leadership, and sheer mind-boggling size) that are the hallmarks of the modern corporation work directly against the achievement of greatness in collaboration. It will be up to entrepreneurs, who don’t have these attributes, to show the way.

So I would define collaboration, as demonstrated in great scientific, artistic, athletic and natural endeavors, this way: Working together to produce a result far superior to that which any group of individuals working alone could ever produce. The whole, in other words, is greater than the sum of the parts. None of the Beatles, individually, could ever, in a lifetime with all the resources in the world at their disposal, produce anything of the calibre of Abbey Road.

Before we look at how collaboration could be enhanced and enabled, let’s look at some more examples:

  • The Prayer Cycle – Jon Elias’ moving collaborative composition, involving a dozen of the world’s most diverse and creative songwriters, of a suite of nine adagios overlaid seamlessly with stunning music harmonies from different cultures
  • Eliot & Pound – The back-and-forth, ruthless editing of TS Eliot’s work by Ezra Pound, to craft some of the world’s tightest and most powerful poetry
  • Whitehead & Russell – The collaboration between mathematician Alfred North Whitehead and philosopher Bertrand Russell on Principia Mathematica, the groundbreaking book that bridged their two disciplines and laid the foundation for modern logic
  • The Human Genome Project (or the Making of the Atomic Bomb) – International collaboration that fast-tracked scientific advances that would otherwise have taken at least a generation longer
  • Open Source software – Like Mozilla Firefox, Thunderbird and nVu, the ‘best simple’ internet software, developed by parallel and sequential work of hundreds
  • Van Gogh and Gauguin – Two artists, both coming late to their art after failing at other professions, who met and worked together and helped each other develop the technique and mastery that has endured ever since
  • The New Jersey Devils – A hockey team built on a shoestring from players of unexceptional talent whose amazing chemistry, and ability to function almost as a single connected organism, has three times trounced the most expensive and superstar-laden teams in the sport. And who last year defeated the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, a team largely built on the same model, in a titanic struggle described by one leading commentator as “a great drama bereft of stars” in which the awarding of MVP to any individual was “a travesty”.

I can’t claim to understand the magic of human interplay that makes these such stellar examples of collaboration. But I can tell you the story of a much more modest, personal collaboration that I’m working on right now. As many of you know, I’m intrigued with the potential business (and philanthropic, world-saving) applications of The Wisdom of Crowds. Through one of my readers (and now good friend) Jon Husband I met Mike McInerney and through Mike I met John Sutherland, with whom I am now working on the Wisdom of Crowds business model. John and I are cut from different cloth, with different strengths and weaknesses but a shared love of and belief in innovation.

When John and I developed the Wisdom of Crowds business model, it was pure collaboration. We had each tried, unsuccessfully, to develop the model separately. So we started with a clean slate, using John’s MindMapping documentation tool to capture what we agreed on. In ninety minutes of discussion, questioning, persuasion, give-and-take, trotting out of examples, objections, and ‘ahas’, we had overcome some huge obstacles in our individual preconceptions of how the model could and should work, and produced a remarkable collective work product, a modest but perfect example of great collaboration. Both John and I are quite strong-willed, so I tried to figure out why this exercise had worked so well.

We were motivated, which certainly helped. I’ve been asked to make proposals to a couple of businesses this week on the subject, so there was certainly a sense of urgency. And we were clear on the objective. But John and I had worked together, using the same tool, with an equal sense of urgency and an equally clear objective, on another project a month earlier, where three other people were also involved. Not only was the process in this earlier instance exasperating, like pulling teeth, it was an unproductive tug-of-war of different solution sets that almost deteriorated into feuding. What was documented using the tool was not what was presented to the client.

What was different in this earlier, failed attempt at collaboration? In my opinion, John and I exhibit what I would call intellectual agility, while our colleagues in the earlier session do not. Consultants as a whole necessarily have big egos and believe passionately that they have the best answers. They are successful because they can convince clients that their answers are unimpeachable and will achieve the desired result. In some cases as a result they get ‘locked in’ to certain solutions, processes and ways of thinking. Intellectual agility is the ability to allow yourself to fully understand, appreciate, adapt to and integrate others’ ideas and ways of thinking with your own, and, on occasion, to abandon your own preconceptions quickly and entirely when presented with compelling evidence of a better answer. In front of a client, such agility so might be seen as a sign of weakness. But working with a group of peers it is, I believe, the very essence of collaboration, and a skill that does not come easily to many.

After all, many of us were taught that the assembly line — that exemplar of mediocre and mind-numbing efficiency — was the first breakthrough business model of collaboration.

How could we make people, and entrepreneurial businesses, at least, more intellectually agile, and hence more collaborative? Here are my early thoughts on this — please jump in with your comments:

  • We need to teach people the skill. When I was younger I would have been hopeless at this. John is a great role model, but it’s taken him almost as long as it took me to acquire the skill. I suspect some people are incapable of learning it. I also suspect it’s intuitive, so it may be more a case of teaching us to shut up and listen with an open mind and stop competing with and prejudging others. In other words to re-learn the skill that our culture has driven out of us. Expert facilitation of collaborative sessions would also help, but it won’t be enough by itself to make unskilled people skilled collaborators. Time to go back to school.
  • We need to recognize and reward great collaborative successes (those that go far beyond mere coordination, cooperation, and sharing of information). What gets rewarded gets done, and copied by others.
  • We need to self-assess, and assess in business, our collaborative ability. This is a core entrepreneurial competency, up there with critical thinking, creative thinking, and clear communication.
  • We need to find more role models for it outside the arts, sciences and sports — especially in business and in the political arena (good collaboration skills could reinvent negotiation from an adversarial contest to a win-win art).

I would hazard a guess that excellent collaboration skill is almost entirely absent in those we call ‘leaders’ in all aspects of human endeavor. I’d also guess that women are inherently better at it than men.

I’m going to add a chapter to Natural Enterprise on the subject.

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  1. Greg Burton says:

    “I would hazard a guess that excellent collaboration skill is almost entirely absent in those we call ‘leaders’ in all aspects of human endeavor.”perhaps – but you would need to exempt jazz and rock musicians from that, and possibly (some) athletes. And most decent real negotiations are collaborations, already.G

  2. Jon Husband says:

    Two other great (and conflict-filled) collaborations:Picasso and BraquesWatson and CrickIMO, it will be very useful (and nigh unto impossible) to legitimize healthy conflict, teaching the art of staying in dialogue, being hard on the problem, soft on the people, etc. Competency models get in the way more than they help, in organizations. 15 years ago, when i first learned aboutthem, how to build tham and coach for competency, i thought they were wonderful. now they’re commodified, and are today’s equivalent of job descriptions … useful for meting out annual salary raises, and gor managing towards mediocrity, rather than stimulating creative discourse (both disagreement and worked-toward consensus).Training and development in real collaboration would be too difficult, i believe for the bulk of today’s managers, even though they are regularly exhorted to be coaches rather than commanders (it’s right there in the competency models ;-)

  3. Paul Towlson says:

    Dave, I continue to appreciate your writing – thank you for the stimulation of your ideas. Concerning collaboraton, I have been thinking about this from the perspective of enabling technologies and network culture. The use of weblogs, wikis, forums and the like are a marvellous way of fostering a loose knit collaboration between people with, on the whole, separate tasks. However, for those who are part of inter-organisational teams in business it is not quite so easy to establish “team spaces”. The security restrictions on company intranets together with commercial concerns preclude easy interworking and sharing of resources other than through the unimaginative overuse of email. My question is that of how we go about fostering greater collaboration through technology, in the context of increasing security concerns, and the vogue for intellectual property. My worry is that collaboration is threatened by fear and protectiveness even before it has had chance to take root. Collaboration is built on trust, and trust needs a certain amount of privacy to grow (I wonder whether the Open Source phenomenon has benefited from the privacy of obscurity – now of course an obsurity that is vanishing). Since so much of our working is through the medium of electronic communication, is collaboration limited by precisely our ability to restrict and guard access to our communications?

  4. AH says:

    What I notice about Pound and Eliot is that this collaboration was entirely voluntary to enhance the excellence of the product, the partners were carefully selected, and both were, as you note, intellectually agile. When collaboration is imposed, particularly in the work context, there is almost always one or more doofi, goldbrickers, etc. So I value collaboration highly, but am neutral and have an exit plan until unknown partners prove themselves. Some people just want to “collaborate” for the sake of warm’n’fuzzy “collaboration.” That I find pretty creepy.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Greg: Agreed, although often the most collaborative musicians and athletes don’t have designated ‘leaders’. And alas, many negotiations aren’t ‘decent’, they’re manipulative, coercive, rife with backroom deals. Like Bush’s ‘negotiations’ with the UN.Jon: Good examples. I agree we can’t ‘sell’ collaboration until and unless we have some real business examples of how it’s produced extraordinary results.Paul: I think you’re right — true collaboration is very much a highly interactive rapid-iteration process that works best face to face, and these requirements challenge all but the most robust and agile technologies. Paradoxically anonymity can be both a facilitator of, and an obstacle to, trust. I think the reason that scientists seem to be able to collaborate so well asynchronously, virtually, and in large numbers, is their willingness to employ (and their inherent affinity for) rigorous processes and self-discipline.

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