The Truth About Collaboration

Creating and making stuff can be relatively easy. Doing it with other people? Not so much.

I’ve been writing a lot lately about honesty, self-responsibility and self-worth, and now it seems appropriate to talk about an oft misunderstood phenomenon: collaboration.

To be perfectly blunt, collaboration can be a real motherf—er.

I’ve probably collaborated with people on, I don’t know, five dozen projects (60+ rides on the merry-go-round)? Some were commercial efforts, and I’m not including the 50+ ventures (startups) I’ve had my grimy hands on over the years. I’ve been a part of a lot less ‘successful’ collaborations in corporate environments, for obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. In the end, most of the collaborations in which I took part were passion projects or things for which I and other people really had affinities, and so we decided to take action.

There’s a lot of science and respective data around collaboration, and what kinds of teams ‘succeed’ and all that, but in my experience, a lot of it really boils down to intentionality, and to a large degree, personality.

To caveat the rest of what I’m about to say, I’m a pain in the ass at times. I have a healthy ego, a lot of confidence (sometimes of the blind sort), and while I genuinely like people, I am not always patient with them, and I can be very critical of them, as well as of myself. I work hard on confronting my shortcomings and insecurities, but I am by no means a beacon for collaboration, or even great at facilitating it. Ironically, almost all of the work I do requires that I have a collaborative mindset, even while those associated skills need serious refinement.

The good news is that I’m discovering that I actually like seeding teams and ideas, and that I don’t need to impose my signature on those outcomes, simply because when I don’t, I’ve noticed that it shows up anyway. More on that in a moment.

The Difference Between Collaboration and Co-Creation

When you collaborate, you’re essentially saying “Let’s work on a problem together” or “Let’s explore something together”. It’s as if you’re declaring an open intention, and then creating an invitation to do something with another human being (or a robot, depending on the situation). The outcomes will vary, and they don’t necessarily manifest in something tangible, even if there is a lot of meaning and purpose to the act of collaborating. Most collaborations are simply ways to connect with other people through a new or renewed context, or a series of revelations about who you are relative to who they are, and there is tremendous learning in that.

Co-creation is something different. Here, you’re essentially saying “Let’s produce something” or “make something” or “develop an applied idea”. This is probably more conditional in nature, and can certainly be more intense because your intentions are tied to a more concrete result. That said, co-creation can also just happen as a result of a collaboration, meaning that intentions and things can come out of a looser agreement to collaborate, in which case you do actually co-create something with someone or a group.

I think it’s an important distinction to make given that collaborations are often really messy experiences, right, wrong or indifferent. You’re always operating in Ego in one shape or form, dealing with hidden or subconscious dynamics, and there is an innate tendency in people to want to mold outcomes based on what they’ve got in their heads. Which leads us to the next idea or precept.

You Can’t Remove Ego, But You Can Manage It.

People who say they don’t have an ego, or don’t operate in it are fooling themselves. We all have egos, and there is nothing wrong with having them, provided that we can manage them and use them to better understand ourselves in group environments. I actually view Ego as a navigation tool, a way to look at different energies, be present to my own shadows (and those of other people), as well as a means to see myself as a part of another, even if that person or group might seem misguided or difficult or just plain disruptive. Ego is actually a way of relating to other people on their terms, or more consensually. Why? Because we express many different sides of ourselves, and some that can be quite ugly or dark.

I remember a situation in which we were working on a new product release and the lead engineer came off like a magnanimous prick. This guy was about as difficult as they come — berating people, tearing into their work, beating up on early ideas. After we tried to structure the development cycle (a ‘sprint’ as we like to call it in tech circles) per his unwieldy demands and got nowhere, two of us decided to flip the script on him. We told him, literally, that we were his disciples, that we wanted to “conquer the entire dev team” with him, and create a mutiny of sorts, with no boundaries, and no means for anyone to have any say in ‘his’ process. 30 minutes and 3 resignations later, he begged us to “help him revisit the approach”… and we did. Swimmingly.

Being Motivated Isn’t the Same as Being Self-Possessed.

This is another really important distinction. Many, many people are motivated to do stuff, yet when it comes down to it, they often don’t have the emotional or mental tools to actually carry it out.

It’s analogous to saying “I’m really motivated to write this post…” and then you sit in front of your computer, staring at a blank screen, and proceed to write nothing. Or, you sit there, trickling out one little bit at a time. Essentially this points to the fact that you were motivated to get to your computer, situate yourself in a writing space, even carrying the intention of wanting to write, but ultimately couldn’t because for one reason or another, you couldn’t actually get your fingers to press the keys, or, you weren’t quite motivated enough to get into a flow.

Companies tend to obliquely operate in this way, since many times you are paid to log your hours, rather than make stuff happen. Managers and directors can then ride everyone below them, usually only getting solid work product from a select few people.

Startups are notorious for this: You’ll have two or three people who are true hustlers, wearing multiple hats, pushing themselves and others to get shit done, while the rest of the group sort of ‘tags along’ and waits for shit to happen. Good startup founders don’t just put together teams of highly motivated people, they weave together teams of people who are really self-possessed and willing to feed off of the good energy of others in the group. As far as collaborations go, this also means that they have the ability to collaborate and co-create practically at will, in turn maximizing productivity and taking a lot of unnecessary weight off of CEOs and managers.

Additionally — and probably most important — people who are self-possessed are able to create new opportunities for themselves (like new jobs, positions and/or promotions) because of their collaborative abilities.

Showing Up & How We Occur to Others.

I’ll say it outright: most people don’t show up to the main event.

What I mean by that is they’ll talk, and cajole, and make all sorts of declarations about how great it is to be a part of something… and then they don’t show up to actually do the hard work. Collaboration is a classic example of this, and I’m guilty of ‘appearance treason’ myself — I haven’t shown up for lots of stuff that I’ve committed to.

When we decide to collaborate, we’re really saying to ourselves and other people “I am here, I am present, I am ready, and I am willing.” A big part of embodying this is in realizing how we occur to other people we choose to collaborate with, meaning how we are perceived and how that perception affects the collaborative dynamic(s) of the group.

I’ve been in numerous situations where someone will physically show up to collaborate, and then proceed to degrade the intentions, direction and momentum of the group, simply because he or she isn’t really present, and isn’t all that committed. Further, that person will often impose his or her ego onto the physical environment and not even realize it, which is not surprising, save for the fact that it can create some very unpredictable as well as volatile outcomes.

Another element to this is understanding the nature of the commitment as it relates to other people. If you say something like “I’m in” or “I want to do this”, it is really critical that you understand what you’re signing up for, and why. I’ve been a part of lots of collaborations in which people (like myself) bailed because they didn’t take the time or make any real effort to think about the commitment and the agreement aspects of the experience.

Trust & Openness.

I’d like to debunk another myth about collaboration in terms of ‘building trust’: Trust begins and ends with you.

To be clear, trust-building exercises are very important in having strong collaborative environments, but it is also critical to recognize that you need to be trustworthy in order to build upon any trust in a collaborative setting (or any setting for that matter — personal or romantic relationships are great lenses for this).

There are, of course, different kinds of trust, and various levels of trust (you can read about how to design for trust here), but the main point is to determine whether or not you are ready to be trusted and to trust others ideally before you enter a collaboration.

I cannot emphasize this any more. The openness part of trust-building — what could be construed as “opening up” — comes by way of allowing people in, holding a space for connection, and in carrying trust forward as you collaborate and/or co-create.

In corporate environments this is a significant challenge, due to the nature of competition and ways people ascend the ranks by ‘owning’ ideas and using or manipulating trust as a secret weapon of sorts (usually by making it exclusive to certain people or groups). Startups can experience similar dynamics, although it is much easier to break through those barriers as there tend to be less cultural and operational hurdles.

Nevertheless, the collaborative part of ourselves needs the self-trust and group trust elements to align, such that the values we bring into a collaborative environment are the very things we can use to define the kinds of trust we want, as well as the ways we leverage trust to produce optimal results.

What is Your Signature?

I mentioned my ‘signature’ atop this piece. A signature would be the style for which you are recognized as a collaborator.

There are a few innovation groups that classify collaborators in terms of archetypes or personas, and this is really helpful in terms of understanding how to set the table for collaborative processes. What’s key, I believe, is to create a signature for how you collaborate, and in what people can expect from you when they call on you to collaborate.

I am known to have certain signature traits as a collaborator:

  • Analytical and/or strategic sensibilities
  • Directional capabilities
  • Visual capabilities
  • Listening abilities
  • Applied technological skills

And so on. The more you develop a signature, the more often you will receive the call. And when you do, your signature will help guide you in whatever collaborative paths are created.


Are you truly ready to collaborate?


My name is Gunther Sonnenfeld. My partners and I build platforms and apply tools that help people and organizations perform better, as well as reach their Highest Potential. How may we serve you?