Is it a collaboration or did they just not pay you to do it?
Excuse me, but I’ll be relishing in my cynicism and skepticism towards collaborative projects this week. I’ve had my fair share of disappointments from collaborative experiences that I felt the need to go off brief from the expected output and create a little manual on what it really takes to work collaboratively.
Let’s back up for a second and define what collaboration really is: a collaborative process is one that involves some degree of interaction and coordination with another person or other group or team members. Collaboration does not require a specific group or team, since any two people that coordinate their task activities are collaborators. (Paulus, Dzindolet and Kohn, 2012)
In the workplace, the term collaboration is thrown around quite lightly. Sometimes, it feels like an empty gesture from those who hold power to make a work environment feel more democratic. Sometimes, it’s a tactic used to take advantage of skilled workers under the guise of a collaborative partnership. And let’s just admit that collectively, especially after a year in lockdown, we’re all feeling the burnout from digital collaborative tools: video meetings, cloud drives, shared folders. The constant need to be connected is exhausting.
According to research from Connected Commons, most managers now spend 85% or more of their work time on e-mail, in meetings, and on the phone, and the demand for such activities has jumped by 50% over the past decade. Faster innovation and more seamless client service are two by-products of greater collaboration, but along with that comes significantly less time for focused individual work, careful reflection, and sound decision making. (Cross, Taylor and Zehner, 2018)
“Much overload is driven by your desire to maintain a reputation as helpful.” (Cross, Taylor and Zehner, 2018)
In a TedTalk by Richard Watkins on working in groups, he mentions that the dynamics can cause us a lot of grief; they suck up a huge amount of our energy. (Watkins, 2018)
“A problem only exists in the absence of the right conversation” - Werner Erhard
Members of a collaborative group may struggle in various ways during the process. Waiting for their turn to express ideas limits their opportunities to contribute and interrupts their flow of ideas. Participants may forget ideas as they were, or decide they are no longer relevant. There may also be a tendency of group brainstormers to converge to similar topics or categories of ideas, thus limiting the range of ideas that are generated. Group members may also feel somewhat apprehensive in sharing their most radical or unique ideas since others might react negatively to them. Groups that are low in social apprehension tend to be more creative. As group size increases, there may also be an increased tendency for individuals to feel less accountable for their performance and hence to loaf.(Paulus, Dzindolet and Kohn, 2012)
Here are some common indicators that the collaboration you’re doing is just not working:
Doubt arises within the group or towards certain individuals
There is a sense of uncertainty towards the project
Your team is spending too much time in meetings; members of the team are fatigued
There are unsolvable personality conflicts that halt the process (Watkins, 2017)
To counter the downsides of collaboration, it’s important to note what it takes to make it a positive and constructive experience. According to Watkins, a group must have 5 vital conversations:
Belief; apathy and negativity are signals that we need belief
Structure; what is the plan, timeline, scope, resources, responsibilities, etc. The structure can also go wrong if too rigid.
Involvement; diversity in perspective and opinions, genuinely.
Progress; movement, trying things in the real world, navigating a bit of conflict
Care; human relations that we’re building when we work together, team spirit, staying together through ups and downs, giving honest feedback, having each other’s backs.
However, with those points in mind, it may not be enough for a collaborative group to perform well or produce creative outputs. Team members have to coordinate effectively, efficiently, and adequately share and combine their relevant knowledge, select the best ideas, and effectively implement them. (Paulus, Dzindolet and Kohn, 2012)
Perhaps this is unwarranted advice, but to all of my fellow graphic designers, please ask yourself the next time you’ve been approached with an offer to work together on a project: do they really want to collaborate or is this just a commission? Because if the above criteria cannot be met when you assess a potential project, you should be charging a fee and calling it a day!
For this week’s challenge, this brief how-to on collaboration took the form of a “choose your own adventure” storybook, which you can read here
Cross, R., Taylor, S. and Zehner, D. (2018). Collaboration Without Burnout. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2018/07/collaboration-without-burnout.
Paulus, P.B., Dzindolet, M. and Kohn, N.W. (2012). Collaborative Creativity—Group Creativity and Team Innovation. Handbook of Organizational Creativity, pp.327–357. Watkins, R. (2017). The ugly truth about collaboration. [online] Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/letsgohq/the-ugly-truth-about-collaboration-a21eb6422202.
Watkins, R. (2018). Five Vital Conversations for Getting Things Done in Groups. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rf3imYVetWo.