How the Human Animal Collaborates

The simplest dictionary definition of collaboration is people “working” together. Note the term working, so it’s not playing or socialising. The presumption is, therefore, some form of product as a result of this joint labour. If we accept that collaboration is about producing something together, how then can we be sure of some kind of success?

Smallen and Leach (1999) list a number of basic principles that make up successful collaboration: need, intimacy, communication, equality, respect. Of need, they say:

The most important precondition for successful collaboration is the existence of a common, strongly felt need.

Obviously, if people are working together to fulfil a common need, there is at least motivation, consider how recent flood victims pitched in together. Need is often directly linked to survival.

Intimacy comes about through people speaking openly and honestly in what they feel is a secure environment. They must feel it is safe to share information, to look and sound a bit foolish, and to be open to challenge. People who are engaged in ground-breaking collaborations have high regard for people who challenge and test their ideas.

Once intimacy is established, communication is vital. Everyone knows the estate agent’s motto is “Location, Location, Location”. An experienced project manager will tell you the key to successful project delivery is “Communication, Communication, Communication”. Any collaborative venture is in effect a project with timelines and the aspiration of delivering some kind of “product”.

What makes the collaborative approach stand out from a hierarchical structure is the sense of equality between team members. A classic example is the aforementioned flood victims and others who usually self-organize based on abilities and most efficient contributions.

The final pillar in Smallen and Leach’s temple of collaboration is respect, and without this the whole structure falls like a house of cards. The authors are also realistic enough to state:

Working together intensely won’t necessarily lead to friendships, but collaborators must respect each other’s talents.

Disparate personalities may bring complimentary skills to the collaborative table, but not necessarily want to dine out together. It is sufficient to respect each other’s talents and contributions. A few in an even loosely aligned “team” can achieve more in less time than one Homeric effort, as Smallen and Leach contend:

…most nontrivial problems require collective solutions.

Some “proof” from the animal world:


Free photograph; carpenters, L., & Cynthia Mahoney, U. (2016). Free photograph; carpenters, fisherman, peacekeepers, students, collaborate, get, desks, rural, schools, Liberia. Public Domain Images. Retrieved 15 April 2016, from

Smallen, D & Leach, K. (1999). Making a NICER Transition to the Millennium: Five Keys to Successful Collaboration | Retrieved 18 January 2016, from

YouTube,. (2016). Animals Collaborating. Retrieved 18 January 2016, from