Collaborate to Stay Relevant

To stay relevant and sought-after in this increasingly complex yet connected world, strengthen two intertwined traits that will also enable you to lead a more adventuresome, meaningful life with others. First, continuously hone your greatest talent. Second, seek out others with complementary talents and a “sweet spot” of shared interests, then adopt a collaboration method that enables you to accomplish more together than you can on your own.

Collaboration is not a new concept— just one that is becoming increasingly inevitable if we are to survive, let alone thrive. As Charles Darwin observed, “In the long history of humankind … those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”

But collaboration, as Morten Hansen emphasized in his book of the same name, only becomes worthwhile when two or more people adopt a way to work together that generates more value for them than they could achieve by working alone. The greatest keys to productive collaboration are having the right players, an apt collaboration method, and a strongly felt common benefit in collaborating and/or agreed-upon rules of engagement.

From first-hand experience and helping hundreds of groups collaborate, I’ve learned that one vital rule to collaborating is establishing conditions under which an individual or organization can be kicked out of the collaboration. As Robert Axelrod noted, “Groups need both carrot- and stick-based rules to remain stable.” An agreed-upon mix of boundaries and boundless possibilities tends to bring out the better side in participants and support productive work.

Because it’s easier than ever in our connected world to find the right partners, good (and bad) things spread faster and from more places. An upside example is the strength of small special interest groups within Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church. Active groups strengthen relationships, build loyalty and enable the overarching organization to be in closer touch with what the community knows and the changes sought by its members.

Collaboration also spurs people to become more active after experiencing the use of their best talents around others. This effect also brings out their best temperament. We may exist as a community, yet we achieve as teams. As social animals, we thrive on feeling our collective strengths in action around projects that are meaningful for us. After a few positive interactions, our trust in the smaller and larger group grows, as does our sense of belonging. We are better able to talk through conflicts and overlook others’ irritating behaviors because of our desire to stay affiliated.

Ironically, the more we feel attached to a group, the more likely we are to take extreme stands on behalf of it. That’s how tightly knit groups become more extreme over time, as two books— Going to Extremes and The Big Sort— point out.

To avoid this downside, savvy organizations arrange their affairs so that small groups, chapters or other subsets can regularly interact with people outside their unit. This allows them to bring fresh perspectives back to their group and form relationships outside of it. As Steven Johnson wrote, “We need to play each other’s instruments.”

Of course, self-organized small groups within a larger organization are just one of many specific collaboration methods that you and I have come across. Others I’ve found useful include co-creation, cross-promotion, mutual mentoring, crowdsourcing and minicharettes. I’ve written about several of them at my blog, Moving From Me to We. I’d welcome hearing about your favorite methods, collaborative behaviors, rules of engagement and success stories.

This article was first published in: Information Outlook, the magazine of the special libraries assocation.

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