How to Collaborate?

A beginner’s guide to making collaborations work

Collaboration is more than just a 21st-century trend — it stems from a need to solve the wicked problems of our time. A need to shift our focus from the individual success story to positive movement as a society, from independence to interdependence. Collaboration is both a process and a skill. The more you do it, the better you get at it, and the learnings are transferable from one context to another.

Collaborations usually arise from a need for more, a lack of something, or to make something better. There are many great reasons to collaborate: more voices when considering an issue, more capacity to meet market demand, more modes of interaction to reach a customer, more inclusivity in the workplace, more creative ideas, more solutions to common problems, more shared resources, and more opportunities to learn and grow.

Why collaborate / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

A collaboration is a meeting of two or more humans, organizations, or combinations thereof. It may happen across countries, cultures, and disciplines. The more perspectives that need to be integrated, the more complex the nature of collaboration.

Nature of collaboration based on perspectives / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Irrespective of your reason or nature of collaboration, if you have identified a need to collaborate, here are eight simple practices I’ve learnt along my journey as an entrepreneur, curator, and educator to work effectively with the ‘other’ under any situation. Applying this starter kit has made my collaborative journeys effective, valuable, and drama-free.

Eight simple rules for a successful collaboration / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

#1 Start with mutual trust and respect

Mutual trust and respect is the bedrock of any strong collaboration, and that’s where you must start. If you have recognized the need to collaborate, you must respect the other person or entity for what they bring to the table and start the relationship with a belief that they know what they are doing. An honest discussion on your shared purpose and shared values can serve as your base. It’s hard to work with people you don’t know. I’ve experienced a high degree of mutual trust and respect when all entities strive for transparency, equivalence, and a willingness to fail. In one collaboration producing interdisciplinary festivals, the core team spent more than six months getting to know each other before embarking on specific tasks.

#2 Adopt governance and decision structures that facilitate collaboration

Collaborators should choose their governance and decision-making norms based on their purpose and nature of collaboration. There are several ways to avoid power concentrations such as an open flow of information, equal access to resources, and distribution of authority. This can get more specific as time passes and roles evolve.The open flow of information is important because information is power. The more one knows about how things work and what is happening, the more effective one can be. Equal access to resources also keeps a check on power as an entity who maintains a monopoly over a needed resource can unduly influence the use of that resource.

Regarding the distribution of authority, this can be checked on by adopting reasonable decision-making structures. I’ve outlined the pros and cons of the major ones here.

Decision-making structures / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

Everyone is familiar with hierarchies. The pros are decision making is fast and everyone knows how to work in a hierarchy. But hierarchies are not what collaborative structures look like as they are not egalitarian and many views tend to be ignored.

No structure is great at the start of a collaboration. Choose it to be free from too many rules. No structure works well for short-range tasks among equal functions. For larger group sizes, no clear structure tends to be chaotic, and you’ll soon see a few people start to dominate the decision making, which may frustrate others.

Majority rules is a quick way to make decisions in collaborating groups, and like hierarchies, everyone is familiar with the process. The disadvantage is that it could split the group into winners and losers and great insights could go unheard.

Unanimity is great when it occurs but almost impossible with more than two people, and if your group reaches a unanimous opinion quickly, there is probably a problem in speaking out or a lack of diversity in the group.

My favourite decision structure for collaborative working is building consensus. Through discussion and dialogue, many ideas can be synthesized, conflicts are brought to the open, decisions are thoroughly thought through, and group members have a high buy-in. Consensus building is time-consuming and is contingent on good facilitation and listening skills.

Governance structures like sociocracy and holocracy have been designed to optimize collaboration within organizations. They adopt consent-based decision making for policy decisions that affect the whole group, while keeping different operational structures for execution tasks. Consent-based decision making works with a consensus of ‘good enough for now, safe enough to try’ and adopts a feedback-based iterative approach to decisions.

#3 Build capacity for shared understanding

Capacity building starts with the questions, “who lacks what to make this collaboration effective?” and “who is missing from the table?” Skills may need to be built across various domains. Perhaps someone has a lot of technical know-how but has never worked in teams — they need the skill of teamwork. In the case of artists and scientists collaborating, an artist needs to spend a significant amount of time learning the language of science, and vice-versa, for effective communication to even start. Skills and knowledge exchange forums, safe spaces for discussion and feedback, technical vocabulary bridges, and programming common experiences for the group are all ways to build capacity for shared understanding.

#4 Agree on how to communicate

Depending on whether you are communicating across time, space, or organizational boundaries, it is important to choose tools of communication that work for all entities. If you are communicating across languages, investing in bilingual team members or interpreters can make your efforts more fruitful. A host of tools are available for online collaboration (Google Drive, Slack, Zoom, and RealtimeBoard work for me). If you are collaborating across very different cultures or socioeconomic classes, it also helps to learn about each other’s hidden rules of communication. If you are an academic working with a non-academic, you need to ensure that your language is jargon-free and everyone is on the same page.

#5 Plan and facilitate meetings

I highly recommend planned and facilitated meetings when collaborating. If your group does not yet have any skilled facilitators, it is definitely a capacity that should be built on priority. The task of facilitation should also be rotated to avoid power concentration. Good meetings have an agenda that everyone contributes to, a relaxed atmosphere, respects time, and is a space for listening and contributing without personal attacks. Facilitators are trained in encouraging good listening practices, keeping things on focus, discouraging personal attacks, motivating the group to share opinions, providing the necessary information to make decisions, and identifying and dealing with concerns and conflicts.

Liberating Structures Menu. Source

#6 Set feedback mechanisms and conflict resolution protocols

When working in new collaborations, it becomes very important to invite your peers into a feedback session where they provide both appreciations and actionable improvement suggestions. I prefer to have such sessions in groups unless the topic of feedback is something very specific. When receiving feedback, a trick I’ve learnt along the way to distinguish the information from the emotions or feelings that arise in me when hearing the information.

The better your group’s feedback mechanisms are, the less conflicts there will be. But don’t start the collaboration under the assumption that there will never be any conflicts. Instead, prepare yourself with tools on how to resolve disagreements when they occur. Conflicts are easiest to resolve when everyone involved is concerned with resolving the situation for themselves AND for the other.

Adaptation of the Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

To be in the green zone, my go-to tool for conflict resolution is the practice of non-violent communication, developed by Marshall Rosenberg, which takes you through a four-step process of stating observations in the first person without judgement, describing how it made you feel (feel, not think), the reason why you felt that way in terms of what need was not met, and a request for the future. NVC is great for diverse groups as it works on the basis that all humans share some basic needs like autonomy, physical nurturance, integrity and harmony, and it’s through connecting with these needs we can open channels of empathy to listen to the other person, and reach those win-win situations.

The four-stage process of non-violent communication (NVC) / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

#7 Find ways to focus on the individual AND the collective

Our individual needs tend to be overlooked in collaborative environments if you are someone focused on harmony, or they tend to be ignored if one or more entities are dominating. Each of us comes with different paces of working, priorities, ideas of perfection, group working styles, leadership styles, capabilities, comfort zones, and personal boundaries and limits. The collective will thrive if the individuals within it are also thriving. So take some time out to note down individual AND collective needs. Another important point to note when collaborating is to see where the other person is at in terms of their own personal journey. If you are collaborating with someone from a different socio-economic group from you, their performance will be tied to meeting a different set of needs from you. While you may deem aesthetics as something important, the other may deem safety as more important.

Basic human needs by Maslow (1970) and Rosenberg (2003) / CC-BY-NC-ND 4.0

#8 Delegate along rational criteria

Collaborations are about doing as much as they are about thinking and talking. It’s important to continuously make and evolve agreements based on the purpose of collaboration. When setting goals and timelines, delegation of tasks should happen along rational criteria. Selecting someone for a task, activity, or position because they are liked by the group serves neither the group nor the person in the long run. Ability, interest, and responsibility have got to be the major concerns in such selection. One of the first roles the group must delegate is the role of the facilitator, who takes the onus of preparing the meeting ground.

I’ve synthesised these eight simple practices in the form of a beginner’s canvas for effective collaboration. You can simply save this high-resolution image and start your journey to a successful collaboration!

Acknowledgements

The above learnings are synthesized from a number of collaborative projects I have been a part or participant of over the last decade, namely:

  • Universe Awareness, inspiring every child with our wonderful cosmos
  • The Story Of, an interdisciplinary, informal learning platform for the 21st century
  • Sublime ArtEd, inspiring creativity across affordable private schools in India
  • Queer Ecologies Network, exploring the intersections of ecology, politics, and artistic and cultural production.
  • AstroEdu, peer-reviewed astronomy education activities

I acknowledge all my interactions with numerous collaborators during this period.

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Creating courses & curricula and mentoring high school students (astronomy, physics, theory of knowledge, learning how to learn, scientific communication)

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Jaya Ramchandani (جيا رامچَندانِ)

Creating courses & curricula and mentoring high school students (astronomy, physics, theory of knowledge, learning how to learn, scientific communication)