The DNA of Collaboration

What does it mean to collaborate in today's world?

The need for collaboration is everywhere. We often don’t see how it shapes our lives, on a global scale and in our most intimate interactions. But the challenges we face today and tomorrow demand that more people work together more effectively than ever before. We are guests on a vast interconnected world spinning through space. One small change at the everyday level can resonate across the entire planet. We are confronted by the need to engage our most vexing challenges and sparking opportunities the best way possible – together. Not surprisingly, the concept of collaboration has a troubled past. Let’s start with definitions: The English word collaborate comes from the Latin collaborare, meaning, simply enough, to work together. But during World War II, in Vichy France, collaboration became a euphemism for traitorous cooperation with an occupying enemy. Consider The Times of London, 5 June 1943:“Not all have a record as black as Laval’s … There were some who collaborated with a sick heart.” Collaboration’s cousin, conspire, stems from the French conspirer – to breathe in unison – and means to harmonize, agree, or unite for a purpose. But since the late 14th century, the notion of working together has been overshadowed by dark speculations. To conspire was often “to agree to do something criminal, illegal, or reprehensible together.” These connotations have been commonly invoked up to the present day in the term ‘conspiracy theory’, with its nefarious undertones. We even have laws prohibiting collaboration. The legal definition of ‘unlawful assembly’ sends collaborators to jail in many countries, including the United States. California’s Penal Code 407 prohibits the coming together of two or more people “to do an unlawful act, or to do a lawful act in a violent, boisterous, or tumultuous manner.” In other words, we may be loud alone, but should collaborate quietly. In India, Section 144 of the Criminal Code prohibits assembly of four or more persons, along with public meetings. (That fourth collaborator seems to push things over the edge).

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Yet common ground is where collaboration takes root. Simply gathering together in the same place constitutes an important beginning: to establish a common ground ensures that a process is shared. But this is easier said than done. We forget that we share the profound human experiences of joy, sorrow, discovery, and creativity. These sympathetic life experiences should count for a lot, but they often do not get factored into our professional interactions. These commonalities lie hidden beneath our perceived differences in background, our divergent objectives, and our varied vocabularies. Fortunately, with a little effort, these points of reference can be uncovered. We need to actively develop pathways to our commonalities. When a collaborative group eats together, visits a new place, or even watches a film, the new context relaxes the meeting-table roles we play and can open up collaboration in all its unpredictable manifestations. Trust is the foundation for everything collaborative. We know that a great range of influences contributes to the establishment of trust. Other factors erode trust, such as preconceived ideas about what can and cannot be achieved, judgments about the abilities of others, suspicions about the purpose of the project, and more. We all bring so much baggage into the room – and we haven’t even started! The fate of the collaboration seems to have been decided long before the meeting has begun. That is why concern, suspicion, and unspoken criticism must be articulated and resolved at the outset. To do this is to affirm the terms of an honest enterprise, a trustworthy exchange. It includes every individual and their point of departure. Confidence in the process begins here, and it will flourish if openly pursued. Even where the collaborative spirit is abundant, the penetrating voice of candor is often silent. For many reasons, we don’t often receive rigorous criticism from those knowledgeable enough to provide it. Many do not want to speak out of turn, even when seniority and rank have been, in principle, checked at the door. As Richard Saul Wurman tells us “Stop saying ‘uh-huh’ when you don’t know. Ask questions.” But it is up to the leadership to grant permission to ask challenging questions, to offer incentives that turn candor into a prerequisite. To succeed, we must be able to both invite and sustain the honesty our work demands. Perhaps the most obvious attribute of a successful collaborative group is that they laugh together. There is a chicken-and-egg thing going on here. Is it humor that opens people up, or openness that allows us to laugh? However it happens, humor is something to be encouraged. We are nourished by the levity of our collaborative conspirators as we engage the imperatives of our work. When the conversation turns contentious, we need to find perspective; what better vantage point than our good humor? A good friend once remarked that ‘whimsy is the most powerful force in the universe.’ Invite it in.

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Collaboration is neither democracy nor Utopia. Not everyone gets invited to the party. To avoid alienating potential partners, the suggestion here would be to err on the side of inclusion. We can tip our hat to Lyndon Johnson, who shrewdly included J. Edgar Hoover in the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, noting that he would rather have him inside the tent, pissing out than outside the tent pissing in. Adversarial elements can threaten a collaborative project; best to keep them above ground and accounted for.

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Woody Allen said, “80% of success is just showing up.” This holds for collaboration, too, as long as each participant “shows up” fully. It is the reality that attendance in body alone can be worse than being present but disengaged. When participants are watching the clock, checking their phones, or being generally unresponsive, they can sap the energy of any collective effort. Often, we begin with the wrong question: We ask, “What should I do?” when we might ask, “How can I participate?’” This second question speaks to the process of engagement rather than to a task to be completed. When we embrace deeper involvement, we immediately enter a realm larger than our individual contribution. We are nourished, and in turn we nourish other. Conditioned response: Of course it is not easy to participate. We can thank years of educational conditioning for the whispers in our ears: “You don’t know enough to make a serious contribution. Watch and wait.” If we do participate, we may do so hesitantly, imagining that what we have to offer is somehow inappropriate, that it lacks the magic ingredients of the ‘right’ answer or the ‘informed’ suggestion. Ken Robinson, a recognized leader in the development of education, reminds us that when children enter kindergarten, 90% of them consider themselves creative problem solvers. By the time they graduate from high school, only 12% do. What happened? Did they lose their creativity, or just their confidence?

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The group genius: For some, collaboration is not a deliberate choice; it is a way of solving problems that is deeply interwoven into the communal experience. In an attempt to measure individual intelligence through a series of non-verbal puzzles, it has been rumored that anthropologists asked a group of aboriginal people to assemble a pile of interconnected blocks as quickly as possible. When the signal was given, they converged around the first pile and put it together in record time. Then they went down the line together, pile by pile. The anthropologists tried to explain that each person needed to work independently, but this rule was incomprehensible to people who saw themselves as inextricably connected to others in pursuing a communal purpose. Many of the signals we receive from an early age tell us to rely on our own resources – something about our “bootstraps.” Our education system celebrates individual accomplishments, each of us wrestling with the material alone, barred from helping one another. The system offers little support for the collaborative spirit. We celebrate the role of the lone genius, the myth of the hero leader, the unique potency of the mad inventor.

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Twenty-two versions of the incandescent lamp preceded Thomas Edison’s and yet most Americans credit him with its “invention.” As for the Wright Brothers, about twenty heavier-than-air mechanical flights had been documented prior to their first successful glider flight in 1902. By design or default, Edison and the Wrights were consummate collaborators who stood on the shoulders of many before them; how could they not be? Yet the history books tell stories of brilliant, solitary minds – minds that we believe to be fundamentally different from our own. What if this isn’t true? Many obstacles that prevent collaboration arise from individual or societal bias. Many people seem to think that each time we invite more voices into the discussion, headaches multiply and results are diluted. Too many cooks and that sort of thing. I have heard otherwise reasonable friends and associates say that collaboration is fine in principle, but in practice it’s no substitute for clear-headed leadership and vision. This is true. Working collaboratively is not a substitute for exercising leadership; collaboration actually demands more from leaders who employ it. The balance of imperatives against the fluidity of the process can be daunting. In all fairness, we all have some very good reasons to sidestep collaborative opportunities. How would you respond to the following comments? Most of us have had similar reactions at one time or another in collaborative groups. Our robust egos and societal inhibitors occasionally give way to the call for collective action. It usually takes a crisis to bring us together. Of course, crises abound, both big and small. These inherent obstacles are not so easily overcome, and I’m not attempting to offer a panacea. But the first important step is to know that these obstacles exist, and they are formidable opponents. Best to invite them into the tent.

Barry Svigals, FAIA, is principal of the New Haven, CT architecture firm, Svigals + Partners. The above is excerpted from his elegant little book, called Collaboration.

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