Most of us think we know what the word collaboration means, but we don’t. I usually oversimplify it and think of two or more people joining efforts to get something done. Let’s collaborate on this deeply interesting thing over here! Or let’s join forces on this other thing that demands our attention! Sure, people bring their own skills and talents into the mix, but the emphasis is on productivity, not the interplay and synergy that happens or doesn’t happen—or has no chance of happening—in the group.
I’m working on two different projects dedicated to exploring what effective collaboration looks like in practice and how to create the conditions for it to occur more often. The idea is that if we can work together better, maybe we can focus more energy on the creative potential of the work at hand, advancing the real possibilities that exist there rather than the interpersonal or process dynamics that so often get in the way.
I still have plenty of questions, but this is clear: collaboration is much more than two or more people working together; it’s about communicating and learning with others in order to create something you couldn’t possibly have created alone. It’s about finding a shared groove, yes, but a purposeful, synergistic, fantastically unique one.
How often do we set out with this goal in mind rather than simply think, Let’s go work together to complete this very important task!?
Like most things, we learn best about collaboration by doing it rather than thinking or talking about it. This “doing is better than thinking”/experiential learning idea frustrates me sometimes because I love mulling things over, but nine times out of ten it holds true. As fellow writer Raakhee Mirchandani reminded me and others in a conversation about writing and publishing recently, when we think or talk about something, that terribly interesting thing never moves past the idea stage. We spend a little time with it in our heads and then we lose it. We should do something with it sooner rather than later, she says. When we go out and do something (even if it’s just putting pen to paper), we’re halfway there. We immediately begin to lay down new pathways in the brain, practice new behaviors, build new mental muscle. So for those of us who feel called to work with others and know there is something to be gained there, especially for those of us who seek to learn something about how collaboration works in the process, we must go and run collaborative experiments.
As we do this, we don’t think “Now I am going to collaborate!” No, collaboration isn’t the point, the what of whatever we’re doing is the point. So we enter into symbiotic relationships when we feel there’s alignment and enough of the right conditions are in place. And then we pay attention. We notice what works and what doesn’t, we play with tools that help us think, communicate, and do the work better. And we try to keep the work moving. Most of us know what it feels like when collaboration works and when it doesn’t. We know when we’re in flow, when things are just ok, and when it’s time to part ways.
Each of these scenarios has something to do with how collaborators gather in the first place:
- They find each other due to shared purpose.
- They find each other due to shared activities, skills, or networks… and then attempt to align around purpose.
- They are invited to work together or are thrown together by an outside actor, typically an employer or community institution… and then attempt to align around purpose.
In each scenario, alignment is key. As I’ve learned at The Lean Enterprise Institute, in order to have a chance at arriving at alignment, we must first get clear on purpose. I have found that alignment, while it’s always shifting, always coming in and out place, is essential because it’s the thing that keeps the work moving. The work need not always be moving—this is another conversation altogether—but if we want it to keep moving, we must ask ourselves several times throughout a project: Do we know our purpose? Do we have alignment? Neither of these things are the same as consensus.
In sports and dance, alignment refers to the optimal placement of the body parts so that bones and muscles are efficiently used, and muscles do less (think no extra or unnecessary) work. At work, in the office or in our shared creative projects, alignment doesn’t mean doing less work per se; it means doing less of the wrong kind work, no extra or unnecessary work that doesn’t directly relate back to purpose. This relates directly to the lean idea of maximizing value and minimizing waste. Extra or unnecessary work is energy wasted (think misdirected).
What is your purpose? How has it changed (or not changed)? Do you have alignment in your group? How might you and your group come back into alignment? These are questions I ask myself fairly regularly. And there are all sorts of tools (see The Presencing Institute, The Lean Enterprise Institute’s A3 dojo, and Art of Hosting) that can help us with these questions.
While it’s uncomfortable and disheartening to lose sight of purpose, to notice how our individual purpose or a shared purpose might be changing, or to observe individuals or entire groups fall entirely out of alignment, we have much to learn there about what helps collaboration along and what keeps us (and the work) stuck.
Alignment happens over time, in short bursts and over long periods. We have some power, not complete control, to create the conditions for it and to bring ourselves back to center (shared purpose). And so the same goes for collaboration. When we fall out alignment or we notice that our purpose has changed… new ideas, associations, problems, and questions emerge. These are all good things full of energy and opportunity. All of these things are workable.
With thanks to John Shook and Rachel Regan at the Lean Enterprise Institute for their thoughts on lean thinking and collaborative learning, and Martha Schley Thayer and Janice Rous for their teachings on alignment.