Reaching out is one of the secrets of collaboration

Secrets of Collaboration

A version of this essay first appeared in ASJA Magazine, a publication of the American Society of Journalists and Authors.

Like most freelancers, I’m accustomed to writing alone.  Of course, I do interviews and I’m glad to talk shop.  But for most of my career, most of my work was solitary.

All that changed in 2006 when I met Dr. Don Scherer. Like many other people of my vintage, I had decided it was time to retool so I enrolled in an MA program for Practical Philosophy, AKA ethics.  The last required seminar was taught by Dr. Scherer, an environmental ethicist who came out of retirement to develop ideas he hoped would become a book.  After years of research and activism, he had developed a unique way of approaching conflict.  In the seminar, he consistently guided students from a variety of disciplines through a process that produced unexpected breakthroughs in problems that looked intractable.

I was intrigued.  Athough I thought I understood what was happening while I was in the classroom, I couldn’t apply it after I walked out the door.  When I finished my degree, I asked if I could interview Dr. Scherer.  I would share my notes if he kept talking until I could do what he was doing.  After just a few conversations, we realized we had the basis for a book.

It took eight years to write Cooperative Wisdom: Bringing People Together When Things Fall Apart.  In some ways, working with a collaborator is like being in a marriage–simultaneously easier—and harder—than going it alone.   On the plus side, a good collaborator inspires, encourages and holds you accountable when things get tough.  On the minus side, you can’t simply do what you like because you have to take your collaborator’s expertise, preferences and even quirks into account.

Fortunately, we were writing a book about cooperation.  At its core, the book describes five social virtues that help people transcend conflict and find new ways to realize the benefits of cooperation.   As we were pleased to discover, our five principles were highly effective in helping us resolve problems that might otherwise have led to conflict.  The suggestions below are based loosely on the social virtues we recommend in Cooperative Wisdom.

Anticipate predictable problems.  Any form of cooperation is based on a simple proposition:  I do this, you do that, both of us are better off.  Before embarking on a collaborative project, think through the things that might undermine that proposition and try to avoid them.  Negotiating a contract is one of the best ways to do this.  How will costs and benefits be allocated fairly? What can you reasonably deliver?  What can you expect from your partner?  What remedies do you have someone reneges on their commitment and benefits aren’t mutual?  Working through these details is one way to have insight into how a prospective collaborator will handle other disagreements.

Identify core values. For a partnership to be successful, each person has to get something they value.  Be as clear as possible about what’s at stake for you and your collaborator.  If, for example, one partner is motivated primarily by a paycheck, she will push to get the work done as efficiently as possible.  If the other partner is more concerned about reputation, she may insist on rewriting until the work says exactly what she wants to say.  What truly matters isn’t always obvious, but your partnership will be more durable if you can articulate what’s important to you and appreciate what’s important to your partner.

Find another way.  When you and your partner disagree, you may be tempted to compromise.  Don’t do it.  If your partner feels strongly about doing something one way and you feel strongly that it should be done differently, you’ll need to be creative about coming up with alternatives that integrate both of your concerns.  Fortunately, collaboration multiplies your options.  Learn everything you can about your collaborator’s skills, experiences, resources and colleagues.  Share what you have to offer.  Bounce ideas off each other.  When you get stuck, ask open-ended what if? questions.  In our case, we struggled over the tone of the book.  A decisive moment occurred when one of us—I don’t remember who—asked, “What if we wrote this as a conversation?”   That format allowed us to retain what was distinctive about both our voices.

Honor each other’s contributions. By definition, a collaboration involves two perspectives.  In our case, my co-author is a philosopher, accustomed to scholarly writing and utterly comfortable with abstraction.  I spent my career writing self-help articles for mass audiences, so I pressed for specific examples and more accessible language. I’d be lying if I said this didn’t create tensions. Sometimes he thought a passage failed to capture the subtlety of an idea; sometimes I felt he was introducing unnecessary obscurity.  The book is stronger because each of us respected the other’s viewpoint, and we reworked passages until both of us felt satisfied with what we had accomplished.

Avoid blame. No matter how carefully you plan, outline and schedule, the work won’t always go smoothly.  During the time my co-author and I were writing Cooperative Wisdom, his house burned to the ground and my youngest sister died of cancer.  There were other less dramatic disruptions too.  On one occasion, we were rewriting different versions of the same chapter.  In another case, a section had to be rewritten because details from a key anecdote were inaccurate.  In situations like these, it’s tempting for each partner to blame the other, especially if both feel they’ve done what they were supposed to do.  A better approach is to assume goodwill unless you know for a fact that your partner is trying to take advantage.  Most problems really are inadvertent, and you’ll get to a solution more quickly if you don’t activate your partner’s defenses by making accusations.

Collaborating on a piece of writing or, for that matter, anything else takes compassion, discernment, imagination, integrity and courage.  As it happens, those are the social virtues that make up Cooperative Wisdom. I’m not saying you need the book to make collaboration work, but it couldn’t hurt to have a copy handy!!

Carolyn Jabs

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