Collaboration Alchemy: Five Elements

Collaboration tends to fall either into the bad press camp or the good press camp.  The bad press camp sees it as a time-sucking way of working, a lowest-common-denominator-wins approach, where decision-by-committee and consensus-building trumps uncovering creative solutions and innovative risk taking. The bad press camp believes that collaboration leads to mediocrity.

The good press camp believes that good things happen when multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary minds come together to solve problems no single individual could solve alone.  Collaboration in the good press camp believes that better ideas surface, and can be developed further with more heads involved.  Collaboration in the good press camp says greater risks can be taken – with more intelligence – when a group of skilled individuals hold hands as a collective team in its pursuit.

But Collaboration does not just happen. Collaboration done well mandates a productive desirable outcome.  And in that way Collaboration can sometimes feel like alchemy: magical and mysterious when it happens.

So what does productive Collaboration need?  Here’s your toolkit:


Collaboration first and foremost requires people, but it does not necessarily require lots of people. Magical collaboration has come from just two minds meeting: think Siskel & Ebert, Tim Burton & Colleen Atwood, Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak, Bill Hewlett & Dave Packard, Ben (Cohen) & Jerry (Greenfield).  The important part of the people piece is to bring together complementary, but not equivalent, skill sets, knowledge bases, and competencies.  Alchemy comes from mixing elements in previously undiscovered ways, so best to try to bring interdisciplinary minds to the table.


Collaboration works best with a purpose.  Not coincidentally, so do people. Purpose can take many forms: a task-at-hand, a problem to be solved, a wish for change, or simply a collective passion point. Finding the common purpose, and then declaring it - openly, blatantly - goes a long way towards solidifying commitment to collaboration from people.


Related to purpose, collaborators need to be actively able and willing to contribute.  Taking a seat at the table of collaboration is not the same as collaborating.  As a collaborator, or the coordinator of collaboration, know your motivation, and ensure you work with collaborators who are equally motivated.  Not all motivation is created equal, however, and that is okay. Some are motivated by a teamwork connection, some by a competitive spirit to create something amazing, others by a desire to see a successful beneficial outcome go out into the world. While the source of motivation need not be the same for every collaborator, the existence of a source of motivation must exist for every collaborator.


There is a group of interdisciplinary people prepared and motivated to collaborate, a purpose has been identified and declared, now what? Just like a locomotive needs a railroad, and a ship needs its navigation, collaboration needs a path. There are many processes, frameworks and tools to support finding this path.  Whether employing a design thinking approach, or a more traditional brainstorming process, whether rapid or lengthy, research-based or not, highly independent or highly collective, what is important is that the collaborative team has a path.  When the journey gets fuzzy, as the best always do, the path is grounding.  Define the path, share the path, wander away from it at times if it makes sense, but know how to get back to it when needed.


Often overlooked or given second thought, having a platform is critical to the functioning of collaboration.  The platform incorporates the how, when and where of collaboration. It should be digital at minimum, but it is ideally both physical and digital. First, the how of collaboration. There are many amazing digital collaboration platforms available for use nowadays with new ones being added daily. Some options include Yammer, Google Group Email, Google+, Facebook or even Twitter.  Next, the when of collaboration. Digital collaborative platforms allow for a constant flow of communication between team members, as well as a location to store and access information, but there is a valuable role for formal collaboration check-ins for ‘all, at once’.  Hourly, daily, weekly, or monthly is for the team to decide, but ensure a balance of free-flow collaboration in combination with ‘all, at once’ collaboration.  Lastly, the where of collaboration.  As mentioned, digital collaboration platforms are getting better and better everyday, but where possible, the proximity of physical human connection cannot be underestimated.  Alchemy again is inexplicable and often it emerges from the cues that can only come from proximate humans connecting, responding to facial cues, voice inflection, a shift in the chair at a certain moment. When possible, collaboration benefits from meeting in person.

Help bring Collaboration out of the bad press camp and into the good press camp.  Give these elements a try and see if you can experience some of your own collaboration alchemy. Let me know how it goes!

Heidi McCulloch

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