I have had the fortune to work in many successful collaborations with great collaborators, and these experiences have given me perspective and time to observe the nature of good collaborators.  The ratio of my projects with good collaborators to projects with sub-par collaborators has been high, maybe somewhere in the range of 3 to 1 or so.  So, are you looking to be a better collaborator?  I think it’s a worthy investment of your time and energy because it’s an artistic, professional, and social skill that you can use every day (even when you’re not working on a piece of art).  Here are some of my tips:

  1. Be curious.  Many times the best solution is not the one that is the first, but the one that comes from trying to make the solution even better.  A sense of curiosity can turn an acceptable solution developed by a group into an excellent solution that fuses the best of each member.  Poke and prod, massage the ideas with your team, and as Cage said: treat everything like an experiment.
  2. Listen as much as you talk.  Don’t talk all of the time, and don’t listen all of the time.  Take a good balance of both–your ideas may be very valuable or may spark further discussion (so, express them!), but learn to consider the ideas proposed by others carefully and fully (so, listen!).
  3. Take everyone’s ideas seriously.  Unless one of your collaborators is a complete joker, don’t discount another person’s ideas simply because they’re not the most commanding, extroverted, intelligent, or creative person in the group.
  4. Take the project seriously.  Collaborations most often result in something to be shared with the public, and thus need to be focused and polished.  Make sure that you’re a good investment of your group’s time by taking the project serious enough to focus and polish your work to the standard of putting it out for public consumption.
  5. Be constructively critical when you’re being critical.  Don’t put anyone down, don’t discredit people’s ideas bluntly, but instead: suggest ways to improve the idea, or continue with the idea and expand upon it to make it better, or explain why you think the idea they’re proposing wouldn’t work based on the issues that it raises (addressing the issues specifically and calmly), or indicate how the proposed idea might help in other ways that the speaker may not have anticipated, even if the core idea isn’t the path you think is best.
  6. Know that you’re never going to get 100% of what you want.  Good collaborators push and pull with each other, and no one person gets all of what they would ideally desire.  This is good, because it means that the product has each person’s input, and that every issue that each person thinks of is (in general) addressed.  This leads to a better product.
  7. Answer your emails and phone calls–communicate!  There is nothing more frustrating for a collaborator than someone who never returns calls or emails, because that leads to a dead end.  Communication is the very fabric of collaboration, so a lack thereof is unacceptable.
  8. Be on time.  Don’t arrive late to meetings, don’t forget about meetings (use a physical or virtual planner or calendar; or have an electronic alert on your phone or computer), and if you’re running behind on either arriving to a meeting or on the production schedule, at least have the courtesy to inform your collaborators that there’s an issue.  If you’re proactive about stating problems then the other collaborators will feel better about, and more inclined to, help you out.
  9. Be a nice person.  I really shouldn’t have to say this, but it’s true: a harsh personality stifles collaboration.  While it is important to take things seriously, you have to understand that everyone makes mistakes, revisions will always have to be made by every member, and creativity is built on a sense of playfulness and comfort level.  With fear of harsh criticism or a lack of freedom to be whimsical, creativity suffers and the ideas generated are generally very in-the-box.  Allow you and your collaborators the leeway to think outside-the-box.
  10. Don’t put any task below yourself.  It’s one thing to not have the skills to program a computer for a project, but it’s another thing to not be willing to help do the dirty work of a project when you have the skill set with which to do so.  Don’t be a carpet and let people walk all over you, but at the same time recognize that everyone has to get their hands in the mud, and we all have to go above and beyond to make anything worthy of success.

I hope you can gain something from these tips.  Are they useful?

Thanks for reading,

Dan