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The Art of Collaboration

Booker T. Washington

It is true, isn’t it? Helping someone is a great gift to yourself. So I say: keep giving yourself this gift! Collaboration is an exchange of gifts, helping each other achieve extraordinary things.

Photo by Matteo Vistocco on Unsplash

When I started on this article, I randomly considered famous collaborations. In the world of the Arts for example, there’s Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Dawn French and Joanna Lumley, the Two Ronnies and so many more. What I get from them is that they collaborated but still kept their own style, their own personalities.

Collaboration didn’t dimmish them as individuals. Quite the opposite.

And one of the most unlikely but famously successful collaborations was between two hugely culturally diverse characters: Sir Edmund Hilary and Sherpa Tenzin when they conquered Mount Everest. Eurostar is a highly successful collaboration between two countries. Despite centuries of historical disagreements (remember Agincourt?) and challenging logistics (22 miles of sea), France and the UK came together to create a fast and convenient train service between London and Paris.

In the corporate world…

There are also some surprising, even unlikely, collaborations, often called co-branding partnerships, with the aim of creating a “win-win” for all players. Casper Mattresses wanted their prospective purchasers to be able to try out the product before buying; West Elm, the bedroom furniture retailer, provided the opportunity in their showrooms and in return got wider advertising for their products, demonstrating that collaboration can be a great way to expose your product to a brand new market.

In the social enterprise sphere,

UNICEF teamed up with Target and created Kid Power; kid-friendly fitness trackers enabled greater fitness and in turn food packets were delivered to under-privileged kids around the world. Everybody wins!

Then there are some famous founding partnerships.

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield created one of the world’s most loved ice-cream brands. Francis Crick and James Watson found the DNA molecule and the human genome. The Wright brothers were indirectly but fundamentally responsible for the Jumbo Jet. And Larry Page and Sergey Brin met at Stanford and formed the collaboration that became Google.

Just considering the extraordinary impact that these co-creations have had on our world — and continue to have — I’m struck that collaboration has re-framed our world just as much as competition, the traditional commercial driver. And I know which I’d rather invest my energies in. I like the enterprises I’m involved in to be fueled by the fun of shared endeavour, not by the fear and frustration of energy-wasting corporate suspicion.

So how to go about forming a collaboration?

Well, as the title implies, we need to set satisfying our ego to one side, keeping it in readiness for our next ten-pin bowling session. Instead of thinking what we want to get out of a collaboration, we need to consider what the collaboration needs and what those we are collaborating with need. It becomes a competition, a battle, either for the greatest financial gain, squeezing more out of it than the other guy or for getting your view accepted and adopted willy nilly, despite others’ views.

As Patrick Lencioni said:

Getting to know someone, spending time with them, doing stuff with them, are all ways to develop trust. Trust in them but also trust in yourself, trust that you can stop being a corporate King Kong, that you don’t need to be right, best, first or toughest all of the time.

Of course part of developing trust is being watchful, being quietly vigilant around others as you gradually bond, and having a solid agreement in place — and in writing — is a good place to start. Ideally one written with facilitation and mutual support in mind. This all takes time as you can’t guarantee that your collaboration will happen instantly and magically, like one of those special looks “across a crowded room”.

Having as your focus the meeting of a real need can help eliminate competition between your peers, your partners, and instead provide an exciting and fulfilling shared journey.

Now, in my experience doing something because it is needed and is the right thing to do, doing something that doesn’t necessarily need to make pots of money, a kind of experiment in generating benefits for others, is immensely satisfying and feeds our soul. Not everything we do needs to be or can be done without a profit motive but it can be one of a number of things we do, an extra to our usual mode of enterprise. But be warned: it can be addictive!

Doing it with others can potentially elevate it to a life-changing experience and one whose insights and outcomes can nourish us and be our life’s classroom. And it can inform how we go about making a profit, how we interface with traditional commerce and how — if we choose — we gradually transform business into a power for the good, into a way of helping others succeed.

It may seem rather obvious, but collaborations based on respect and mutual and wider benefit, on co-creation, and not being on our own all the time, can mitigate against the loneliness of working for ourselves, of being the “boss” in our enterprise. The buzz of working with people I respect, sparking ideas off each other, co-creating with people I’ve learned to trust, is for me one of the most satisfying ways of doing business.

And the “Me-me” gradually retreats — except of course on bowling nights!

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Max Comfort

Max Comfort trained at the Architectural Association at the time of Archigram’s plug-in cities, student riots and flower power. | @beta_drops guest writer✒️