Don’t forget where you’re going

One rule for working well with other people

When people talk about working together, they often start by talking about things like organisations and collaboration. What is an organisation? What is collaboration? Where does organisational purpose come from? Who has the right to start what and when?

And — because the conversation starts from imaginary things (like ‘organisations’) everyone can come up with imaginary rules and elaborate theories… and then trade them off, one against the other. And, in the end, I’m not sure how helpful that is.


When I talk about working together, I talk about car journeys. Because, everyone knows how car journeys work — and if you know how car journeys work then you know everything there is to know about ‘collaboration’ and ‘organisations’ and all the rest.

Here’s how car journeys work:

If I want to go to New York and you also want to go to New York, then you can help me by splitting the driving. Two people who would otherwise have had to do the same work manage to spot that they don’t both have to do the work. And — what an immediate and holy reward — now I only have to drive half the way to New York, and I can spend the rest of the journey curled up in the back seat watching TV on my iPad.

This is the beauty of working together. Two people realise that there is an overlap between the work they need to do — so only one of them needs to do it.

Here’s the next thing:

If there are four of us — hell — call us a team and we’ll all take it in turns driving.

Nothing special happened. Nothing was ‘created’. We’re still just four people in a car. You can call four people in a car ‘a team’ — or just call them four people in a car. The important thing is — we’re all going to New York and we get to spend three-quarters of our time not driving. (And spend it watching TV curled up on the back seat, curating a nice driving playlist from the passenger seat — or with your head out the window pretending to be a Labrador).

But what if I know a better way to New York?

If I want to go to New York as quickly as possible and I’ve invited you to drive with me and you know a shortcut, then — even if it’s my car and I don’t know the shortcut — following your lead and taking the shortcut helps. It doesn’t mean I’m ‘not in charge’ if I listen to the people who are helping me. Actually, if I don’t listen to them, there’s every chance the people who are helping me won’t be able to help me.

The important thing is what I wanted in the first place. If I offered you a lift to New York and the whole point of me driving to New York is to drive a particularly scenic route, then if you get in the car and keep on banging on about how your shortcut would be much quicker, then you are not helping. (I have no idea if there’s a particularly scenic route to New York. There must be, right? I’ve never driven to New York.)

If you want to get to New York by the quickest, most direct route and I don’t, then you either (a) you’re in the wrong car or (b) you have to accept that you’re not going to get what you want.

But, hey, what if we don’t want to go to New York anymore?

If I want to go to New York and I pick up three ride-sharers and, after a while one of them realises — hey, I think I’d rather go to San Francisco — and another wants to go to Vegas and another wants to go to Toronto… then, well, you’re going to need four cars.

Here’s the thing:

We work together when our paths run parallel for a while. 
Because if you’re going there and I’m going there, then maybe we can split the work. (This especially applies to people riding tandems.)
Because, if you’re going there anyway, maybe I don’t have to go there at all. (This especially applies to postmen.)

The important thing is to notice when our paths overlap (because otherwise we end up doing work that doesn’t actually need to be done twice).
And — even more importantly — we have to notice when our paths diverge. Nothing bad happened. No one did anything wrong. But it’s time to go our separate ways.

If we forget where we’re going, we get lost. 
Well, obviously, right? But it’s easy to get caught up with the car stereo or how nice it is to be curled up in the back of the car — enjoying the journey — that we forget about the destination. And, if the destination isn’t so important, that’s fine. Get lost. But if you actually want to get a particular place — it pays to keep one eye on the road ahead.

And if we follow a person, rather than a path, we go astray.
So, I think this is where working together most often goes awry. Maybe it’s obvious when you’re talking about car journeys.

Imagine sitting in the back of a car all the way to San Francisco, when really you wanted to go to Seattle? Only a lunatic would, right? (I have totally ended up hitch-hiking and getting dropped off in completely the wrong place because someone was being helpful and I didn’t have the heart to tell them I didn’t actually want to go to the place that they had set their heart on ferrying me to.)

When it comes to car journeys, it’s self-evident. If the car is going where you want to go, you go there. If it isn’t, then you don’t.

But what if your ‘team’ wants to go there? What if it’s not ‘the organisational purpose’ to go there? What if you’re in a collaborative, democratic workplace and everyone voted to go somewhere else?

Car journey rules still apply. 
And car journey rules are very simple. 
If our paths overlap, then we walk the path together for a while. 
When our paths diverge, we say farewell and head on our way.


For more on how to be clear when working together, see:

Or get in touch at www.howtobeclear.com.

Thank you!

Charlie