Talking and Walking Collaboration

Big A Moleskine Exchange, Big A's book, part 1
Creative Commons License photo credit: steev-o
A bit ago Shawn Callahan of Anecdote (friend and collaborator!) wrote an interesting blog post about people who write about collaboration – by themselves. Anecdote: What do you notice about these recent books on collaboration?. This triggered some reflections in the comments about the process of writing collaboratively.

Recently, more of my writing has been collaborative than solo (as evidenced by my paucity of blog posts!) I have written 3 articles collaboratively (more on those later, one of which was with Shawn and his biz partner Mark Schenk), one in the works and have been co-writing workshop documentation with our team. And of course…. THE BOOK.

As I responded to Shawn’s post, I realize that in reflecting on the collaborative writing process of the book, there is a point where it is impossible to separate the talking about collaboration with the walking the collaboration talk for me. That is because collaboration requires reflection, which is a sort of “talk,” no?

Here is what I wrote on Shawn’s blog:

As I’m just on the (hopefully) finishing edge of very collaboratively co-writing a book with John Smith and Etienne Wenger, I feel fully able to comment on the experience.

First, it takes a lot more work to write WITH others. And I’m not talking about pasting chapters together, each written by an individual. Truly co-writing and co-editing is both an amazing act of commitment to each other, learning and love.

The first year, when we thought it was “just an update to a report” collaboration was difficult for me. I did not know how to negotiate meaning. I was impatient. I alternately felt guilty or impatient with my collaborators. I was a lousy co-writer.

In the second year (yes, second year) we learned to listen to each other. We dealt with things we did not speak about in year one, like being heard, or feeling less for some reason or another. I learned to understand my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and a thinker, and to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of my cowriters.

In the third year (yes, the THIRD year) I was enlivened by the learning. I was applying what we were writing/making sense of so there was an electricity. But slow electricity.

The fourth year (this year) IMPATIENCE to finish. Tired. Worried that our slow place was great for our learning and personal application in our practices, but too slow for usefulness in the world. I became impatient with the finishing process. Yet I’m so glad we revised and revised. It got better.

Am I happy with the final book? Well, I’ll confess, I have to wait until the world tells us if they find it useful. But I’m 100% happy we took the time, the practice, and the patience to write together. I’d equate this with a PhD course of study. It is irreplaceable.

And it is ENTIRELY DIFFERENT than writing on my own.

How do you reflect on your collaborative experiences so that you can do it even better the next time? Do you reflect alone? With your collaborators?

8 thoughts on “Talking and Walking Collaboration”

  1. So true – there’s more talk and writing about collaboration than actual successful collaboration. Those who cannot do, teach? That’s probably not true here, either.

    But I do find that, on reflection, most of my most successful and satisfyingly collaborative experiences were stumbled upon rather than planned. Others with similar interests and I happened to come together around a task we all realized needed to be completed. We acknowledged that among us we held the skills to complete it. There was little in the way of assigning or choosing roles; we simply volunteered to take on the pieces that fell to us and that we knew we were qualified to perform.

    What’s to be learned from this? Maybe that shared motivation to get the task done and done well is more important than “making a plan” with a structure and rigidly defined roles. Also that constant communication serves to prevent duplication and gaps. Spontaneous collaboration may take longer to complete once the task is underway, but it saves time in the formal planning and coordination. It may save time in the actual execution if the planning doesn’t fit the skillsets and motivation.

    To be completely honest, I’ve also been part of miserable failures that came out of spontaneous collaboration. Best to begin with tested working relationships with your partners.

  2. Cliff, I relate to that experience of JUST FRICKEN DOING IT and communicate along the way, vs plan. What I’ve noticed is working globally, there is a lot of cultural variation. Sometimes it is about surfacing and understanding differences to use them productively (Socialization). Sometimes it is about such detailed planning I feel I am about to lose my mind. Sometimes so loose, I feel like – yes, I’m about to lose my mind.

    But no motivation – no collaboration. However, that motivation can be diverse. I may be motivated to collaborate because I want to work with you. You may be motivated on some tangible outcome. We don’t have to have the same motivations, they just have to be aligned. Does that make any sense?

  3. I’ve been involved in many solid collaborations. The best, at least for me, are stumbled upon as Cliff notes. I tend to work with people who have very different backgrounds, so I see these as learning experiences. There is a certain depth needed in your own contribution if you are to explain it well as visa-versa. The need to offer this explanation often gives new insight.

    The effort required is more than working alone, but the opportunity for new discovery and potentially finding a new friend makes the effort worthwhile.

    An observation – there are architectures and cultures that encourage this. I was lucky enough to have been at Bell Labs in Murray Hill when it was a serious organization. Collaboration with people outside of your laboratory was encouraged by the culture (people did invent new fields and these were usually the result of cross organization work). People also tended to keep their offices for decades even as they changed groups so long and circuitous walks were necessary throughout the day. The probability of running into someone interesting you hadn’t seen in a year was high. Much of my best work was ignited by these chance conversations. Serendipitous architecture.

    Being open to unusual sources is important. I’ve done enough amateur anthropology (the result of a great collaboration 15 years ago) to realize there are many interesting people who may not have “the right” academic credentials or experience you thought was necessary. You develop a taste in finding people where the idea flow is good and you are happy to be around. Most recently I’ve been thinking and writing about some aspects of energy and the environment with an athlete. The process we used to learn each other gave me a much better sense of how to re-frame my problem. She may not know physics or engineering, but she is very smart, knows how to stop me when things aren’t clear and is good at going beyond my explanations and to cause me to learn.

    you never know…

    I find collaborations important enough that I set apart time independent of my regular work so there are always projects boiling away.

  4. Steve, as I read your comment, I was struck by the thought that one piece of the architecture of collaboration is internal – curiosity.

  5. You would think that it is easiest to have fruitful collaborations with people who are very similar to yourself. But the more I collaborate (with good and bad experiences) I realize that the most satisfying experiences were with people who were similar and different to the right extent. There is something crucial about shared values, quality standards, social courtesy and a certain overlap in knowledge domains (at least enough to basically understand each other).

    However, in my nicest and most effective collaborations, people were rather different in work styles: Writing collaboratively with a bunch of creative, exploring “starters” leads to a great mass of wild and inspiring ideas – but to get to a finished product that you can actually share with the rest of the world is so unlikely and a lot of the great ideas will never see the light of day. On the other hand, if you have just the pragmatic, grounded, “finishers” and no one adds some wild-idea-energy to the process, you might be able to produce reliably and in a timely fashion… but the results may not be very inspiring.

    So, when I look for people to write with, I am rather honest about what I am good at and where I need support, and I do look for people who have a different profile.

  6. Eva, thanks for your stories. I am nodding in recognition both of working with people who are different, and the self awareness and communication to make that collaboration complimentary rather than a battle.

    The one thing that amazes me – and shows up even in long term collaborative relationships – is that we are constantly negotiating our identities because our close collaborators help us see ourselves in different ways. It is one of the unexpected benefits that I have accrued in recent years.

  7. Collaborative or Cooperative learning are the same concept of learning together.
    Now I prefere Co- operative learning in a project paradigm.
    Agora um pouco de português e um conselho para viajar até ao “ALLgarve”.
    Até amanhã!
    Good work

    M. Henriques

  8. We’ve written everything from articles for professional journals to major accreditation reports using the Inspiration Software projected on a screen. Participants ranged from another single individual to up to ten faculty members. We start with developing and arranging the outline, then move in to each item and expand. When the outline is at the advanced draft level, we go to creating the text. Everything is written and edited live and together.
    We find that it does not take more time if you compare to one person writing, passing it around for revisions, and more revision, and more revisions. With that approach we never reached the level of quality or consensus that we do with group writing. Two key factors are that the text is projected for all to see and that the process is live.
    We have also done the approach of individuals writing sections and the group revising, but the result is not as good. Hard to adjust the ‘individual voice’ to become a ‘common voice’ so the individual sections remain in some ways distinct.
    This is being done by a very bonded and trusting group. The text is not owned by any one individual so discussing ways to make it clearer come easy and without defensiveness.

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