Warning! I am going to start this post by talking about my kids and their friends.
I know that there is nothing more boring that having someone prattle on about their kids. So I'll be brief.
It’s because kids can teach us about collaboration, the collaboration we all once knew (even you, without the kids).
It struck me that kids (yours, mine and that other guy's) seem to be pretty good at making it happen.
I've been listening to them talk… it’s one idea after another. They can’t wait to get together.
I’ve watched them build something out of spare bits that they find lying around. Or they create some new video with their technology, which is never too far away.
They all seem to know what to do and when. Sometimes, it doesn’t even look like they're collaborating, it’s so seamless.
Sometimes it looks like an argument. There’s one voice trying to get on top of another to share the best idea.
Sometimes one leads, then another. There is a lot of trust - a lot of inclusion.
But no ever walks away upset. Somehow, it all works out. As a matter of fact, this can go on for hours, even days. It depends what it is, I guess. I wasn’t invited to the meeting.
It got me thinking about what it takes (in our grown-up world) to be a great collaborator. And here's what I’ve come up with.
First There's a problem. We're human.
Before we go too far lets start with a few definitions. Let’s compare Cooperation, Teamwork, and Collaboration.
Now I should mention that in my research I read a lot of differing definitions of these words. I have tried to grab what I thought was the essence of what they were saying through my own experience. But you may have different ideas about what they are.
Cooperation - I like to think of a TV show like Law and Order with the suspect locked in the room. The good guys offer the bad guy something to his advantage if he cooperates. They good guys get the info he needs to move forward the bad guys gets a reduced sentence. In cooperation both parties have individual goals but there is no shared purpose. Ok, hopefully there’s no good guys or bad guys in your office but you get idea. You help each other and move on.
Teamwork – Teamwork is about a shared purpose. Individuals come together to reach a common goal. Say to win a Stanley Cup (One of my favourite examples). It could also be differing departments coming together to achieve a common goal. Each group has a function and those functions work together to reach the goal.
Collaboration – Again I found some definitions better than others. Forgive me, but I went with a musical one. Certain types of music (Jazz for instance) is a great metaphor for collaboration. When musicians improvise each player contributes and builds on the other’s ideas. Together they create something built on each players input. The result will not come to fruition without those individual contributions.
The good news is that there's a lot of talk these days about organizations putting systems in place for collaboration to occur. And many companies are looking at ways of building great collaborative spaces.
But a key component of collaboration is whether people know how to collaborate, and frankly, if they are willing to do it.
Collaboration is an unselfish act. It begins when people are willing to share. It begins when people do things that make other people successful along with, or besides, themselves.
But, in a world where knowledge is power, it’s easy to think that not showing all your cards gives you an advantage. And, as a species, we are big into self-preservation.
In a study done for a large service company by HR expert Susan Lamotte, employees were asked where they spent their time when they weren’t at work.
The study showed that 90% of people, when they weren't working, spent the majority of their time doing things that were individual activities. They spent very little time on activities that centered on collaboration.
Being collaborative at work was going to take some effort.
What's going on behind the scenes.
I used to think that my music world was devoid of any of the self-preservationist attitudes of other professions. After all, cooperation, teamwork and collaboration are the mantras of group music making.
I remember the excitement I felt when I took on an executive role at the school where I had been teaching for many years.
I was now attending meetings with others who were defining the direction of the school.
After some time, I began to notice that things discussed at meetings were slow to come to fruition or actually happen at all.
In my investigation as to why this was happening, I learned that some people didn’t like others on the team and they were being uncooperative. Other people were even withholding information.
While things seemed nice on the outside during meetings, behind the scenes it was a big chess game with many players having their own agenda. Being new to the team, I didn’t know the history behind all this but it was happening none the less.
Simply put, this group of people didn’t play nice with each other and it was killing the forward momentum of the organization.
Don't be like them
I am sure my story is one you’ve heard before or experienced yourself. I wish I could say mine ended better but it didn't. I just ended up moving on. It was many years ago and I didn't have the know-how to deal with the situation.
It did teach me this: collaboration is rare. It's rare because it’s hard to find people who will put the goals of the organization ahead of their own.
There needs to be trust and, yes, organizations need to do their part, but it won’t work unless people want to collaborate.
Now maybe your situation is better. Maybe you're with an organization where people do want collaborate. Consider yourself lucky. I've come across a few groups like that in my work and they're a joy to be around.
I don't think one person has the power to turn a whole organization into a collaborative one. But I do know that collaborators stand out. And that collaborators want to work with other collaborators.