Finding A Better Balance Through Collaboration

Consider a rose. We can all appreciate this rose without having any understanding of the interactions that needed to take place to form it. There are many influential factors but, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that the primary influential factors are soil, air, moisture content and the seed. A specific series of interactions between these factors had to take place for the rose to emerge. These four elements provide a frame for the rose. Within this frame there are a myriad of other forms of life that could have emerged. When we consider the possible permutations, our rose seems unlikely. A different type of interaction could have formed a white rose. Or another species of plant, a mushroom, a tree. Many of these emergent forms of life may come together to form networks of interactions themselves: ecosystems such as a forest or a jungle. The environment created within this frame is volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous and, given the interactions that can or do occur, it is hyperconnected. To be more concise, it is a VUCAH environment. In this environment, anything can happen.

 
Figure 1 - The unlikely rose.

Figure 1 - The unlikely rose.

 

Collaboration means different things to different people. It varies with context and has a certain ambiguity attached to it. Collaboration as a term lacks specificity. Just as our understanding of the soil, air, moisture content and seed interactions may be restricted to the interactions that take place in a forest or in a jungle, we can define various collaboration types: Coordination implies a very basic form of collaboration. There is a predefined goal and a clear direction for how to achieve it. Cooperation implies a higher level of engagement required by participants as ambiguity increases. Integrative collaboration takes place when different perspectives merge together to form a new perspective that would not have been possible for individuals working alone to achieve. So, rather than considering coordination and cooperation as synonyms for “collaboration”, it is more accurate to think of them as types of collaboration that make up the Collaboration Spectrum. Thinking in these terms, we can now attempt to understand the interactions that are required to bring about a certain type of collaboration and the implications of that type of collaboration. In other words, while coordination allows us to exploit opportunities within our immediate environments, integrative collaboration allows us to expand our thinking process beyond our immediate environments to explore the VUCAH environment.

This specific framework for collaboration is based on the work of Dave Pollard and is but one model. Instigator of The Art of Collaboration project, Dr. Paul Roe, summarised the work of Pollard in the following table. Paul writes:

“He assigns various contributory factors to each type in relation to preconditions for success, enablers, impact of approach, desired outcomes, optimal application, appropriate tools, degree of interdependence and finally degree of latitude.”

Table 1 – Contributory factors to different types of collaboration proposed by Pollard

Table 1 – Contributory factors to different types of collaboration proposed by Pollard

This table introduces another term that could be considered as a child of collaboration. That word is innovation. Just like Collaboration, Innovation as a term has a level of ambiguity associated with it and changes with context. It also exists on a spectrum, ranging from Incremental Innovation to Radical Innovation. Innovation emerges from the type of collaboration. So how might we better understand the relationship between Collaboration and Innovation? Both collaboration and innovation are subjective terms. We may perceive them through a wide range of lenses, each one providing us with a new perspective. The more layers of perception we add, the more multifaceted our perspective becomes (in fact, this statement may be a good summary of the collaboration process). While there are many different layers that we could apply in order to perceive collaboration and innovation in different ways, I will choose only a few examples to demonstrate that there is no “one size fits all” process for collaboration or innovation. I have chosen a mix of tangible and intangible factors (Note that the scoring is subjective and based on my own interpretation of documentation relating to these specific collaborations). Consider three very different examples of integrative collaboration.

Figure 2 – Examples of integrative collaboration that have created the space for radical innovation.

Figure 2 – Examples of integrative collaboration that have created the space for radical innovation.

Innovation is not about disruption of the status quo. It is about finding a better balance. In the same way that the rose is but one possible emergent system from the frame of soil, air, moisture content and seed, the integrative collaboration that emerges may be different depending on the interactions occurring within the “frame”. The frame in this case being composed of the layer elements shown above. The balance of the chosen layers in these three examples is very different, but integrative collaboration has created the space for radical innovation to occur in each scenario. There is one factor that remains consistent in all three examples: a high level of trust. Here’s how Picasso described his relationship with Braque:

“… a second marriage, a kind of laboratory research from which every pretension or individual vanity was excluded”.

While Braque described it as,

“…effacing our personalities to find originality.”

Mark and Simone were engaged to be married when he had the accident that resulted in his paralysis. They decided to postpone their marriage but after working closely with Simone for the past few years, here’s how he describes their relationship now.

“In terms of commitment, if that’s what marriage is about, I feel like we’re closer than we ever were.”

And Miles Davis speaking about Dizzy:

“He was like my brother.”

For all these examples, the quality of the relationship is what matters most. That is not to assume that this trust existed before the collaboration. It may have emerged over the course of the collaboration. Trust might begin as trust in the other’s abilities, trust that the other perspective can only enhance your own, or trust in yourself that your perspective is valuable to the group. The trust can develop in different ways over time and so, with this in mind, we might think of collaboration as a practice.

We do not choose a type of collaboration from the outset. The type of collaboration that we end up with is a product of our environment. Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso were meeting to converse as good friends do, with no expectation of creating something. It could be that the salons of Gertrude Stein in Paris in the early 1900s had an integral role in creating the environment in which Picasso found himself. Stein said that from 1906 to roughly 1910, the Stein family were the only ones that would buy a Picasso [2]. It was this patronage that supported Picasso’s rise to fame. Had he remained a struggling artist, the likelihood of meeting Georges Braque, let alone collaborating with him, would have been unlikely. Mark and Simone may be living a very different life now if Mark had not had his accident in 2010. Miles Davis was part of jazz scene composed of superstars such as Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Jazz in the USA emerged from African-American communities and so there was a certain tradition associated with it. It was not unlike Irish traditional music in that it was/is an extremely expressive form of music. All of these factors created an environment which shaped Miles’ intense need to create, as highlighted by this excerpt from an interview:

“We don’t have time for Body and Soul, or So What or Kind of Blues. Those things are there. They were done, in that era; the right hour, the right day and it happened. It’s over! It’s on the record. Go buy the record… I would just want to be dead, if I couldn’t create. If I couldn’t create… there would be nothing for me to live for! It’s selfish, I know but… Geniuses are selfish. [3]”

At risk of muddying the waters of collaboration even more, I would like to propose “passive collaboration” as a way to describe the significance of our environment, influential relationships, key inspirations or the “frames” mentioned previously. It is this passive collaboration that creates the conditions for “active collaborations” to occur within the Collaboration Spectrum. By considering passive collaboration, we can identify a certain subjective order within a VUCAH environment and, through active collaboration, emerge from that frame with a marriage of the individual perspectives that comprise the collaboration group.

Exploring the VUCAH environment, daunting though it may be, can widen our perspective, lead us to unexpected places and allow us to create a better balance. It is an iterative process as we move between being guided by our knowledge and experience and being guided by our intuition and emotion. To engage in such a process effectively requires the practice of certain skills. Roe lists these as:

“The benefits accruing from joint processes are substantial, but the working methods associated require an equally rich and diverse range of skills in order to be effective. These skills entail emotional intelligence and substantial inter and intra-personal understanding. Personal awareness and attitude is a key to effective mediation, where openness, integrity and honesty are important enablers of the process. [1]”

Perhaps one of the aspects of iteration that remains neglected is the emotional iteration process. When we are aware of the stages of this cycle, we experience another key characteristic of integrative collaboration: distributive leadership (Figure 3).

Figure 3 - The Emotional Iteration Cycle

Figure 3 - The Emotional Iteration Cycle

Distributive leadership is one of the major characteristics that allows us to “get back on the wagon” and complete the cycle. Completing the cycle culminates in new learning which may vary in significance but provides the incentive to repeat the cycle again. In fact, exploring a VUCAH environment is often playful, since we exist in an unknown place rife with discovery. Reminiscent of childhood experiences, play becomes a valuable learning tool as we embrace creativity to make sense. Who says that play cannot be a serious business?

The emotional iteration cycle also demonstrates why integrative collaboration may not be for everyone and again indicates that collaboration is a practice. Under certain conditions, “falling off the wheel” may become a serious test of resilience. Collaboration may be about crossing boundaries to break new ground, but it is also about understanding and maintaining boundaries. That includes understanding our own boundaries. It is true that collaboration can help build resilience but, in any case, for true integrative collaboration to take place, the first collaboration that needs to happen is collaboration with oneself. The effectiveness of our mental health coping strategies may be another important characteristic required to get back on the wheel, especially when the stakes are high.

Collaboration is many things. It can be an educational tool through which we can learn and teach. Collaboration can be a tool for self-development: a way to build resilience and to improve the quality of both our interpersonal and intrapersonal relationships. Collaboration can be a tool for ideation and creativity. Innovation is not a choice, but a consequence of the types of collaboration that we choose to cultivate. In summary, Collaboration can help us to find a better balance.

References

1.     Roe P., A Phenomenology of Collaboration in Contemporary Composition and Performance (2007), Degree of PhD, Dept. of Music, The University of York.

2.    Shevlin A. (2016), The Unlikely Friendship of Gertrude Stein & Pablo Picasso, Culture Trip https://theculturetrip.com/europe/france/paris/articles/gertrude-stein-pablo-picasso-an-unlikely-friendship/  [Accessed 3 November 2018]

3.     Jazz at Lincoln Centre, 2017. Miles Davis on Dizzy and Drawing [online video] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hlzzminLRDE [Accessed 5 November 2018]