Think Collaboration!

Twyla Tharp’s late 2009 book called The Collaborative Habit: Life Lessons for Working Together, is my new favorite.  Collaboration is certainly something that has been essential to my working happiness and reading her book added new thoughts to that old joy.

I find creating collaborations to be a challenging intellectual puzzle.  Great collaborations happen every day, but they are hard to create and sustain.   When you do have one there is nothing like it and the synergy of the effort when two heads and hearts connect is a thrill like a roller-coaster.

Because I know what great collaboration feels like, I go into many with high hopes.  When they don’t work, it is always disappointing thinking of what could have been, if only…

Sometimes you want to collaborate and sometimes you don’t.  Sometimes you want to do something alone or sometimes you just want to hire someone to do something for you without your input.  Being clear not just on the outcome but the process will save you a lot of angst in miscommunication with those around you.

Some projects require collaboration.  I don’t see how buildings are built or restaurants are run without it.  Collaboration may not be something you desire, but the circumstances require it.  I think developing a book is one of those.  You may write alone, but successful publishing is all about putting many heads together toward a common goal.

You can read by clicking the link, in outline form about the steps involved and the professionals required in the Work of the Author.  Beyond the specifics, what is really required is a spirit of collaboration, the intent to enjoy the process and the willingness to make the art and act of collaboration part of your strategy for success.  Here are six things that will improve any act of collaboration:

1. Be candid. If you can’t say what you need to say, then you can’t really collaborate and it doesn’t matter whether you are intimidated by the people or the project.  Being candid is more than being honest – it means giving enough information for each person to help you fill in the missing pieces of project’s puzzle.  It means trusting each individuals’s integrity and sense of common purpose to allow them to enjoy the collaboration as well.  Tell everything you can to every person on the team and ask for their opinions and responses.  There is generally one team leader and that person will rightly make the final decisions.  Not being asked or heard is death to collaboration.

2. Think project, not person.  With a collaborative project, the project goals trump individual effort so sometimes you will give more than your fair share and sometimes less.  If you are mentally dividing the expected effort equally all the way through, you are probably going to be unhappy.  Your goal in a collaboration should be to give more than your share, not paying a lot of attention to what everyone is giving.  Of course, if this goes on for the duration of the project, this is probably not a sustainable collaboration.  But day by day there is no requirement for equal effort.

3. Think completion, not credit. The goal of a collaborative project is successful completion and you can no more think about individual credit than you can about the amount of individual effort. Group efforts are not intended to provide ego satisfaction to individuals, but there is tremendous satisfaction to being part of something larger than yourself, if you let go of personal expectations.

4. Talk through roles and expectations up front. It is our own expectations as much as the behavior of others that can sink the collaborative ship.  Voice the deal-breakers and must-haves before you get in too deep.  I’m a time person, so nothing upsets my collaboration expectations as much as someone who says, “I’ll email it to you tomorrow” and it still hasn’t arrived days later.  People who don’t have that same value will not be put off by that.  If your collaboration involves money, than talking it through isn’t enough – get it in writing as a confirming letter or a real contract.

5. Be responsible for controlling your own emotions. If you don’t get frustrated, anxious or angry during the course of a project than it probably doesn’t mean very much to you.  High emotions are expected when a lot is at stake and things really matter.  But each good collaborator is responsible for behaving well toward others, regardless of what he or she is feeling in the moment.  You can vent outside the group to a good friend, you can work on getting perspective, but eventually you will need to talk out your feelings with those involved, unless those feelings subside naturally which sometimes happens as you better understand the whole picture.

6. Underpromise and overdeliver. When people are counting on you, really think about what you can do and the time it will take.  So often in the moment and in our wish to please we make promises we rationally know we can’t really keep.  If you can reset from immediate gratification to something more long term, think how they would feel about you as a team member if you constantly beat your own deadlines!  Rarely are we required to overpromise – this is something we generally do to ourselves and we are the only ones who can change it.  I know service providers who always get the contract because they seem to beat everyone else’s timetable.  But they often to be the ones who are late or produce something of less-than-stellar quality.

It takes a village to create a book and great collaborations create great books.  Take a look at the acknowledgments pages of any book and you will find profound gratitude from an author who knows how pivotal the unsung heroes of the process were to the final product.

The next time you have the opportunity to collaborate, experiment with bringing a “what can I do to make this great” attitude into it, instead of the usual “what’s in it for me.”  Learning the collaborative art form and spirit may be one of the best lessons of the journey to a published book.

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  • Rabbi Ed  On January 15, 2010 at 8:49 pm

    Hi, Jan,

    First off, a belated happy, healthy new year.

    Second, thanks for your great article on the need for collaboration, especially when writing and publishing a book.

    As you’ve indicated, any author worth his or her salt should publicly acknowledge those behind the scenes who made their book come together as well as it has.

    In my book, Conquer Prostate Cancer: How Medicine, Faith, Love and Sex Can Renew Your Life(, your brief collaboration with me while the book was in the manuscript stage did a lot to validate its value. At the same time I’ll always be grateful to you for handily suggesting a subtitle that works!

    At the end of my book’s acknowledgments I underscore your point and take it to the next level in stating (and here I quote myself!) that “…it takes not only other people, but a world of experience to nurture an author.”

    Looking to others while looking within oneself is essential for the successful completion of most worthwhile projects. If we fail to rely on our own resources and while relying on others, we’d hardly ever transform out thoughts and views into actions.

    Warm regards!

    –Rabbi Ed Weinsberg, Ed.D., D.D.

  • Donna Cravotta  On January 15, 2010 at 9:19 pm


    Wonderful article! I am working with an author now and we recently drafted a communication to a group of parents to ask permission to use photos of their children in the book – we used the phrase “it takes a village” not unlike rearing a child!

    I look forward to seeing you again at BEA and hope we can “collaborate” in 2010!

    All the best

    PS My VAA Manual has become a permanent fixture on my desk and I cannot thank you enough for the wealth of information contained within!

  • Suzi Tozer  On January 16, 2010 at 10:31 am

    Hi Jan, I don’t know if you remember me but you helped me as I started my book writing journey. The book is in layout at this time and collaboration is the name of the game. I mapped what you said onto the current part of my book project. I am setting up collaborations with people in the party industry to add them to my website. The website will be selling my book, “Unforgettable Parties…Without Breaking the Bank” and my collaborators will be selling the things I talk about in my book. I’ll be selling party items and services that might be hard to find in all parts of the country. If I talk about confetti canyons, I’m setting up collaboration with suppliers of confetti canyons to sell them on my website. Thank you for the information. As always, it was timely, complete and informative. Thanks again.

  • Brandon Klein  On January 19, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    Great article. There seems to be a break, or something missing from the 5 points… like the interaction of online collaboration beyond e-mail.

    Also, Talk through Roles… how about language and terms and expectations…

    Think project, not person. This is difficult to understand- a project is the people.

  • Stephanie Chandler  On January 25, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    Hi Jan, Excellent perspective on how collaboration can work well and how to set the framework for success. I’m adding this book to my reading list!

  • Margaret Jacoby  On January 30, 2010 at 8:39 am

    Jan – How timely that I read this today especially since I am in the midst of a business collaboration – my first formal one, actually. I am printing the article so I can refer to it as I prepare for the conversation on roles and expectations. Thank you for your wisdom and friendship.

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