I'm often surprised at how folks say they're collaborative in nature, but rarely bear that out in their actions. Collaborations are the ideal - we all know that more brains are better than one - but they're not as easy as just having enthusiasm for working together.
Collaboration is a bit science, and a bit art. And the right ingredients can help make a collective project really sing, and provide a great experience as well as great results. Here's my take from my experience with successful collaborations. I'd love for you to add yours in the comments.
1. Purpose & Direction
Many collaborations fail before they start because the people involved aren't sure what they're trying to accomplish. Like many projects and processes, collaborative ones need a purpose, and a clear direction. Everyone needs to be working from the same set of sheet music, understand roles and expectations, and understand what a successful project looks like.
Collaboration has to be voluntary, too, like it or not. You can't force it on someone who doesn't want to participate. If you do, that will end up being your focus, trying to manage their participation, and it will end up detracting from the project itself.
This is sort of a universal constant for executing anything well involving more than one person - from relationships to product launches. But specifically, collaboration projects require regular updates among the participants as well as through to any of their team members that might be impacted by the project. Participants need to communicate as a group as well as between individuals, and understand what the most appropriate, efficient, and expected communication mechanisms and tools are.
The style of communication should come into play, too. Not only does communication need to be consistent, but it needs to be open and honest while respectful. Jargon and company-speak don't do much to move a project forward, and questioning, criticism, and encouragement can really go a long way to making a project better.
3. Team Dynamics
This is defined a number of ways, but mostly it has to do with two things: complimentary skills, and personality compromises.
It's a beautiful thing when you're collaborating with someone who can practically complete your sentences. But the tricky parts come when that doesn't happen, and when you have to smooth the wrinkles between differing viewpoints, work styles, or attitudes.
As a group, you need to agree to foster an environment of tolerance for different ideas and opinions, but not for personal slights or drama-infused conflicts. Critiques should be kept to the ideas, and not the people behind them. Personal conflicts need to be resolved outside the group, or both members need to go if they can't work it out.
Surrounded by differences, people fear that their ideas aren't good enough or that someone else must have thought of it first (we call that impostor syndrome). Giving people a voice among the group, and establish a project framework that does its best to intersect how the entire group works best, from communication to how to share ideas to how to broach a disagreement.
At the very start of the project, everyone needs to talk about and agree on where those differences and commonalities are. Don't underestimate this.
Related to the above, and contrary to the often-cited warm fuzzy idea of collaboration, these kinds of projects need leadership and management. Sometimes, leaders emerge naturally from the groups, but don't mistake assertiveness or perceived rockstardom for effective leadership. The loudest voice in the room isn't necessarily the best leader.
Project managers need to be capable of listening attentively (which requires not talking), acting as a bit of a mediator and bridge to foster communication, and help constantly ask "okay, where do we go next and who's doing what" to keep the project on track. Simply put, they're the glue that holds the group - and the project - together, and they know how to make the best of everyone's talents, skills, and capacity to get everything done.
5. Validation and Investment
When I asked about it on Twitter yesterday, so many people said that collaborations fail - or perhaps don't even start - because people are afraid to relinquish control or share the credit. The solution to that, at least in part, is to ask at the start what would make each member of the team feel they've gotten something valuable out of the project when it's over, and try as a group to deliver that.
Encouragement and acknowledgment of people's contributions to the project go a long way to diminish fear that if you don't own something completely, you aren't getting anything out of it. And truth? Attention hogs and those who need sole credit in order to justify doing what they do? They're not the people you want on your project, and you're not going to change them. Avoid putting them there in the first place. You know who they are.
I'm not a fan of over processing things, but I'm a fan of frameworks, of the scaffolding around the project that helps clarify paths, tasks, and roles, and makes room for the more human-brain-generated stuff to happen around it.
Processes need to be flexible and adaptable, but clear enough for people to understand the guidelines within which they should operate. That includes any rules or regulations, policies, etc that need to be adhered to, should those things be in play. And if everyone understands the ground rules from the get go, the ideas can flow more smoothly and freely, and everyone will understand their part in turning them from conceptual to concrete.
So that's my brain dump of the things that make for successful collaboration in my book. But we don't always do it well, so it must not be a universal - or simple - formula. What stops you from collaborating? What's missing in your process that could make it easier to do? And what have you done that's worked well in the past? Looking forward to hearing from you.