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A few thoughts on collaboration

A friend asked for additional thoughts about collaboration, so I shared a few of my recent observations for an upcoming article he is researching. I thought you might find the response would provoke some thoughts, as well...

I've been involved in several collaborative activities recently because hierarchical employment seems to be part of a different world ;-). Almost everyone I know these days seem to be "self-employed" and struggling to put together deals, teams and projects. Not all the projects I've been involved with have succeeded, but some seem to be developing well, and some having rocky stretches that might or might not smooth out.

These are some of the elements that I've observed as the most recurring...and most impactful in the groups.


Collaborating is a very high risk activity. Control has to be shared and that leaves ALL members vulnerable both to one another and the foibles of fate. Integrity is a hard-earned way of working together that involved everyone in the struggle for fairness, comraderie, mutual support and individual excellence...all in the hopes of being stronger together than the members would be apart. Building trust is a matter of negotiating small things to reach mutual understanding, compromises, and new visions that are greater than today's reality.


Having a base upon which to work is so, so, so beneficial. Starting with nothing becomes a ceaseless battle for survival, growth and survival, survival, and more survival. Fighting for survival induces fear along with creative solutions...but fear can also be blinding and require short-sighted solutions when the longer view is critical. Having a structure, even when financial resources are scarce, gives a sense of order and direction and stability...which are all important to achieve something lasting or sizeable in scope.

I'm working with a small group of movie makers who are considering turning their informal group into a nonprofit organization. We have found a nonprofit incubator that will help with the paperwork, has financial systems in place and provides training and consulting. That little bit of structure makes the future more viable -- even though they do not contribute any funding. In fact, we would pay about 9% of all the money we raise for their services, but there are no huge upfront costs. The incubator takes on projects that help build community...and they help build grassroots capacity to do so. (


Vision cannot be underestimated in collaboration. If there is no clear goal, people even with the best of intentions seem to get submerged in gossip, busywork, false starts on projects, and power plays as strong people focus of their own power more than on reaching a shared destination.

Self-defined strategies that fit

It's harder to manage smart, educated people than those who have been conditioned to follow their boss no matter how stupid or wrong he/she might be. Collaboration among educated, creative people is much more complicated and open to many more insurgencies and power plays and diversions. It sometimes seems like everyone wants to be the leader, and it's sometimes hard to find someone to do the grunt work that is the major part of every project. I think this is the hardest part of collaboration...finding common ground upon which everyone is honored, and every task that contributes to reaching the goal is honorable work. By openly talking about the value of each task and having everyone commit to a range of tasks, a collaborative approach can be forged -- not easily, but with an open awareness of necessity and respect for the entire process.

Might doesn't make for right

I've found that high energy people tend to have louder, more frequent voices in a group. Quiet, analytical people frequently get overrun and intimidated into silence even when they have valuable contributions to make. Collaboration needs processes by which all voices can be heard and thus a variety of methods can be helpful. Ex: group meetings, one on one meetings, spoken, written, drawings, creative, engineering, in-door, outdoor, mixed gender, single gender meetings...etc. Diversity of process is as important as diversity of people.

Collaboration is one of the hardest things I do...but the alternative of working in isolation is intolerable.