Collaboration is not a soft skill at all.
Good collaboration is a set of skills you can be taught.
As it stands you cannot learn them in a classroom, but once you step away from the idea that collaboration is some sort of mysterious personal attribute you realise that you can learn collaboration from the people around you.
Last year I was involved in a project called ‘The Learning Boat’ through which I shared a real boat moored in Battersea in London with a diverse array of other collaborators — using the barge as a collaborative workspace in which each partner took on a question to research.
My question was to seek to understand what it took to become a better collaborator.
Today collaboration is critical at work, at play and at home. To say that is almost cliché. That said it was still the first time in my life that I had ever thought to learn how to do it better.
I spent months asking people how they collaborate — and how they experienced people collaborating with them.
I asked some people who I thought did it well, and some people who I thought found it harder (and many who might categorise themselves in a different group than I did).
People express what makes a good collaborator in different ways. Its clear there is not one archetype.
Strong patterns did emerge though.
There are essentially three ways to be a good collaborator.
Which is to say there are really three roles you can take on within a collaboration;
The Nurturer — the grower
The Nurturer grows ideas and people. They bind people together, but also protect from anything outside that might hurt the idea too early.
This is the traditional idea of the good collaborator — adept in the communication skills that ease co-operation, and in negotiation within a team in times of conflict.
Sometimes it can be hard for outsiders to see what difference a Nurturer makes — but that’s a mistake. The nurturer is integral. Companies that see Nurturers as pure cost quickly end up in trouble.
That said Nurturers are not the only kind of good collaborators.
The Maker — the craftsman, who brings real expertise in a particular area.
The Maker is a good collaborator because they bring a craft. They might be coders, or book-keepers, or facilitators, or leftbacks but they collaborate by contributing a discrete element.
The confidence people have in the Makers abilities rubs off on a project — other people feed off the energy and belief of a good Maker.
Importantly, Maker’s are quite often bad at the ‘soft’ communication people often associate with collaboration — the sorts of things Nurturers are good at. In reality, teams that only have Nurturers often struggle to make big breakthroughs.
Sometimes you can be a good collaborator as well as being a difficult personality.
The Jugaad — the creative improviser.
The Jugaad is the creative improviser. Jugaad is an Indian word and a big idea — it is about inventiveness, ingenuity, cleverness. The Jugaad thrives on constraints, but not on rules.
Jugaad collaborators see they way that the team they have (rather than they wish they had) can deliver what is needed in time. These are hard problem solving skills of course, but with the facilitation skills too to understand and drive the people and the opportunities around them.
Makers and Nurturers tend to enjoy the process of collaboration — they tended to be most willing to talk about it too. Yet when you look at teams that really worked you would quickly find you needed this third partner.
When I first started to see these patterns the obvious questions seemed to be ‘well, which type of collaborator am I?’
Over time though I have realised that the secret is not to grow to be a better Maker, or Nurturer or Jugaad.
It is in fact to learn the tools of each kind of collaborator.
It is to think about what role the collaboration needs you to play at that time.
Which type of collaborator do I need to be today?