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Collaboration Scars

6 minute read
by Alex Hillman

Years ago I was invited to speak at a luncheon in front of a group of near-retirement executives. Before the talk I was standing in the lobby, speaking with one of these experienced execs.

He was curious of me – dressed down by comparison, him an a sharp plaid suit and me in a navy seersucker blazer over jeans. But he was genuine in his questions about Indy Hall.

As I described the kinds of people who are a part of our community, the way people chose to work alongside each other instead of alone, and the amazing things they produce together, his eyes softened and his smile widened. I could tell he was charmed, maybe even nostalgic for a work experience from earlier in his career.

As we neared the end of our conversation he asked me, “You’ve created something very special, and I can tell that you know and appreciate that. What’s the most surprising lesson you’ve learned from all of this experience?”

I’ll share the answer I gave the grey-haired exec in a moment…but first, I want to make sure we’re on the same page about something important.

Have you ever noticed how the mere mention of group work gives some people flashbacks to high school or college group projects?

She isn’t pulling her weight. He is being a diva for not getting his way. More time is being spent debating, than doing. Deadlines creep up. Everyone is scrambling. Work is sloppy. But it’s your ass is on the line, so you end up pulling a red-bull fueled all night nighter just to make sure that this sinking ship doesn’t get you an F.

The professional version of these scenarios are even worse, often with money or power on the line. The stakes are higher, and in a lot of cases the fallout is worse (like when “getting an F” means “getting Fired”).

But the elements of a failed collaboration at work isn’t that much different.

Everyone has scars from these tragic attempts at “collaboration”. I know I do. You probably do, too.

And like most things that leave scars…we spend most of our lives avoiding working with other people unless it’s either absolutely necessary or in rare situations “comes naturally.”

(More on why “comes naturally” is in scare quotes in just a second.)

So it’s not really surprising that as adults and professionals, collaborative work isn’t everyone’s strongest suit.

How are you supposed to get good at it if you’ve spent your whole life avoiding real collaboration, or simply having your traumatic experiences working in groups reinforced?

We need to understand what makes those natural collaborations work.

  • Do the stars just magically align? No, and as Anthony Bourdain says, “…luck is not a business model.
  • Do the collaborators just need to like each other? No, because plenty of seemingly great friendships have been destroyed by collaborations.
  • Can you “manage” a collaboration to success? Kind of…but be very very careful about being a dependency (or creating one in someone else). This is a band-aid and it’s not sustainable.

There’s something else at play.

And best of all, it’s something that comes more naturally than we think…we just forget to do it, especially at work.

I told the man in the suit:

“The people who need to talk to each other the most, talk to each other the least. Or worse, they only talk to each other when it’s absolutely necessary.”

He nodded. “Damn, you got that right” he said.

The biggest value in coworking isn’t even workspace

Honestly, I’ve never been really that excited coworking from a perspective of shared workspace. Worse, I think that the “workspace” part of coworking is a massive distraction from the real opportunity to impact the workplace.

It’s kinda like a carpenter getting more excited about a hammer than they are about building someone’s home. A coworking space is a hammer. The community is the home.

And here’s why community is such a crucial part of the coworking equation.

Think about this:

What do most group projects in school and most professional collaborations have in common?

The answer is that the work was the reason for the collaboration.

  • That group project in school was probably an assigned group. The only reason you were working together was to get the grade.
  • That professional collaboration was among coworkers with the necessary skills to complete the project to earn the company money to pay your salary

In short, if it weren’t for the work, the collaboration wouldn’t happen.

But in a coworking space, something very unique is allowed to happen, something that’s very difficult to replicate in other workplaces.

Relationships get to form before work changes hands.

People begin to get to know one another before they need to rely on one another.

Trust forms. Knowledge changes hands. Laughter and meals are shared. All without one lick of “work” between the members themselves.

In coworking spaces, collaboration can happen not because the work dictates it, but because people want to work together.

Collaborations that start in a coworking space can happen on a foundation of trust, rather than trying to build trust while racing against deadlines and conquering each others egos.

It still isn’t automatic. Old habits die hard.

But our role is simple. It’s not to connect, or network, or make introductions. It’s to create places where people can do that on their own.

“I can’t tell you how many times, I’ve seen so much money time energy and aspiration wasted by people trying to create a shared vision. And I say “let the people talk to each other.”

You’re here busy trying to build a shared vision, but you’re turning your back on the very thing that will lead to shared visions, which is to create an environment where people can be continually reflection on what matters matters to them and be in conversations where they can connect with each other. And you will start to discover elements of the shared vision.

There’s more to do, but it’s sort of like trying to build a house without building a foundation. This is the foundation.” – Peter Senge on creating shared visions

We need to understand the unique tool that coworking provides. It’s not a floorplan or a pricing model, it’s an opportunity for people to build trust before they need to work together.

Once we understand that we can see people truly collaborate – where the sum is greater than the individual parts added up – and those group-work scars can start to fade.

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.