Collaboration Best Practices
To understand how collaboration works between individual people, between teams, in organisations and beyond, it helps to understand the history.
In the field of collaboration practices it has been common to just blatantly copy what others have done before and making some minor improvements, often by accident due to errors in communication.
The best thing before sliced bread
It all began a few billion years ago when a bunch of organic compounds in the primordial sea happened to join together and gained the ability to self replicate. This gave an unprecedented advantage over the rest of the goo just floating around and reacting randomly, by working together these molecules created the foundation of life on this planet.
A few hundred million years later strands of DNA had built a shield around them and there was an abundance of single cell lifeforms in the sea. For some, working alone and just replicating has worked pretty well as there’s still plenty of bacteria around today. However, the game changed completely when some of the cells figured out that by working together with a different kind of cell they could do more and over time took the next step and merged together.
Long Term Collaboration
Some time later, some of the eukaryotes discovered that if they stuck together with their clones and worked together as a single organism, they were able to be even more energy efficient.
Over time, this collaboration lead to some parts of the organisms to specialise more and further increasing the synergies of working together. This continued for a few hundred million? years and the groups gained many cool abilities such as the ability to move around and rudimentary ways of sensing what was around them instead of just attempting to consume everything around them.
What happened next is a bit hazy as a couple of global extinction level events wiped out almost all life on the planet and it seems like no one bothered to document any details in the company intranet.
However, based on what we know today, it’s likely that there was a steady increase in the complexity of the organisms and slowly the groups of cells gained more sophisticated abilities that enabled them start reacting to other groups of cells and the diversity of different kinds of groups exploded.
Beyond the individual
The next major innovation in collaboration was moving together as a group so that the species would be more likely to survive with the expense of some individuals being sacrificed in the event of another animal attacking them. This enabled animals that had no chance of surviving a 1–1 encounter with a predator to survive and thrive. This seems like a strategy that was reinvented multiple times over the course of a few hundred million years as best practices were not globally enforced.
Once again, due to severe lapses in proper documentation, there are considerable gaps in our knowledge of what happened, who was guilty and why wasn’t I told about this earlier???!
All About the Family
Around 200 million years ago a brilliant new strategy was coined by some Synapsid individuals. Instead of just laying eggs and buggering off, guarding the eggs and taking care of the young of the species they could significantly increase the likelihood of their genes being passed on. This cross-generational approach enabled species to overcome much more interesting challenges in the fast paced world.
During the same period, some of the predators also figured out that instead of independently chasing food they could form packs and hunt together. The most well known example of this are velociraptors who according to this documentary hunted in groups of 3–4 and were able to take down prey much larger than themselves by coordinating their actions using simple gestures and sounds.
Unfortunately even these strategies were not enough to protect all the species from total annihilation when an unscheduled rock impact significantly changed the playing field. This shows that plain dumb luck is sometimes the winning strategy. Working together as packs and families, however, is a solid strategy that worked for many species even during more difficult times.
In the field of collaboration practices it has been common to just blatantly copy what others have done before and making some minor improvements. This has radically changed with concepts like continuous improvement and social learning.
Rise of the Social Apes
Working together in small packs as the de facto collaboration standard wasn’t disrupted until around 30 million years when some of the smaller mammals had figured out that by climbing a tree they had better chances of surviving that just hiding in holes in the ground. Over time these crafty fellows with their fancy little opposable thumbs were able to forage so well that they started to have time to do more than just find food, procreate and sleep. Slowly the biggest thing since DNA in collaboration emerged: mentalizing.
The capability of seeing the perspective other members of your tribe and to start understanding their thinking without the overhead of communication is the closest thing to real magic we have.
Over time some the primates who had steadily increased the amount of resources dedicated to social processing took over the world and displaced all other land species on the planet.
Initially they worked in small tribes where everyone took care of everyone and with some specialisation in roles were able to work together very efficiently much like the original multicellular organisms where each cell played its part in the wellbeing of the whole.
The benefits of this social interaction really started to kick in as the hominids developed language and started telling stories. This enabled them to not only spread complex information faster but also store it over generations. This supercharged their ability to learn as every new generation could build their learning on top of what their ancestors had learned instead of starting from scratch.
Trouble in paradise
A few million years ago there was a lapse in collaboration policy enforcement. This was largely due to humans being able to work together against external threats so well that the only existential threat they had left was running out of sustainable food sources.
This lead to conflict between tribes as they were unable to sustain their organic growth indefinitely without innovative new food solutions. Unfortunately the conflict further decreased the likelihood of such solutions as more and more people were stressed out by the increasing conflict.
Luckily for the species at some point people who had wandered to more fertile areas of the planet realised that they could work together with some of the local flora and cultivate them for food, which enabled significantly larger tribes of people to live in the same area.
This innovative collaboration between different branches of the tree of life also enabled more and more people to spend time on things completely unrelated to basic survival needs and opened a whole new world of culture.
The Dark Ages
To this day it’s still unclear what went wrong but some time a few thousand years ago things started to fall apart. Concepts like nations, religions and races popped up that divided the species into factions that wasted much of their energy in competing with other factions.
More recently during the last few hundred years there has been additional confusion in managing nations and organisations. Hierarchical models, ethically unbound capitalism, so called “scientific management” and other utterly silly and way off line methods from the well established best practices have been applied.
The Road to Recovery
During the past decade or so we’ve finally started slowly recovering from the dark ages of collaboration and we are seeing some signs that we will be able to work together as a species. Hopefully in time to start working together with the planet as a whole before the consequences of the mistakes made in the last few thousand years wipe us out.
Technology gives us the ability to share our stories, collaborate across vast distances and we’re getting close to a point where it will also allow all our basic needs be met without anyone needing to work.
I believe, despite what the news look like right now, we’re witnessing the dawn of a golden age of collaboration. What will you do to foster collaboration on Spaceship Earth?