The majority of the time, my successful collaborations begin deep within me, and so do my unsuccessful ones.
(Part of the reason I’ve been so quiet these days since first talking about collaboration has been finding a way into my take. What is the most important story? How can I tell it? What advice, if any, does it yield? Consider this WIP, but I think I’m ready to take a swing at it.)
I am first and foremost a professional geek. But I’m also a professional coach of geeks. Both roles require collaboration, but the latter one, being a coach, forces one’s attention on collaboration far beyond what the former does. As a coach, the collaboration and its success or failure or more commonly mixture of both, is absolutely the center of the act: there are no moments in coaching that aren’t obsessed with social interaction, before, during, and after the act.
(NB: To be sure, geekery itself has fewer collaboration-free moments than are commonly assumed, but that’s a case to be made later, and even then, there are still some of them. In coaching, there are really none.)
What I’ve learned in twenty years of being an occasionally successful coach:
Collaboration begins at home, inside me, in aspects of my internal state, vision, health, identity, & practice, that are generally visible only to me and my most intimate associates. In the brilliant novel and movie Cool Hand Luke, there are two iconic moments, both voiced by Strother Martin as the Captain — the boss of the southern penitentiary where Luke (Paul Newman) is serving time.
The first one, nearly everyone will know this one, is when the captain says, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." Most discussions of collaboration start right there, at something called communication.
And the second? The Captain tells Luke over and over, several paraphrases, "Boy, you got to get your mind right." And that’s the one I’m thinking of first when I think of collaboration:
I gotta get my mind right.
When my mind is right, my collaborations usually work pretty well. When my mind is wrong, my collaborations usually flop dismally. Since right & wrong aren’t really binary, so my collaboration outcomes aren’t, really. But to the extent my inner stance is right, my collaborations generally succeed. With that in mind, let’s talk about what "having my mind right" means to me.
I’ll describe it as a series of questions. I might literally ask myself these, but more often I’m faintly aware of them. Sometimes it’s only after the fact I can answer them faithfully. We like to think our interior life is a thing we’re always sure about, but it just ain’t so.
Am I well rested?
Collaboration consumes energy. If I have no energy, I’m requiring my respondents to bring it. That’s sometimes okay, mind you, but me not knowing about it going in is hardly ever a recipe for success.
Am I means-focused or ends-focused?
The more I care about getting a particular outcome, achieving an end, the higher the risk, both that I won’t get my end and that I won’t have a good collaboration. I’m saying that the more I care about the collaboration itself, as strange as it may seem, the more likely I am to get the end I wanted anyway, or something near enough to feel good about, or something that actually forwards progress towards it. (Funny world, eh?)
Do I accept and forgive myself?
When I don’t, when I forget that all of my strengths are all of my weaknesses and vice-versa, I bring a whole array of broken tools to the table. I can still avoid using them, but it’s a lot easier if they’re just not there at all.
(I have a very great deal to say about self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. It might be the centerpiece of all my ideas about how to change the world. We’ve no room for that just now, we’ll have to come back to it.)
Is my me feeling tall or wide just now?
That’s such a strange thing to say you must think it’s a typo, but it’s not. This one’s gonna take a second.
My sense of who I am at any given time varies. It can be tall and thin, standing on a single point, with its center of gravity up there in the air and neither stable nor secure. It is very difficult to collaborate well when you feel your whole self-definition is at risk. But that sense of who I am can be low to the ground, based on more than just one of its feet, wide and stable and not at risk. It is very much easier to collaborate when I’m wide than when I’m tall.
Can I see them wanting to be better?
Please note the phrasing very carefully here. I’m not asking if they want to be better. There may be a handful of people who don’t, but I’ve never met one. I am asking can I see that.
(This one, again, touches on my deepest notions about changing the world, and is therefore far beyond what could fit in one little muse or pithy question.)
If I can’t see them as individuals who would like to step closer to who or how they wish they were, then I’m not seeing them as people. There’s no point in collaborating with non-people, at that point I’m just navigating mechanicals to get what I want.
So those prolly aren’t all the questions, but I think they’re enough of them to get my idea across: in order to optimize my chance of successful collaboration, I need to optimize the conditions of my inner life, I need to get my mind right. There are a lot of what I think of as myths about collaboration. (Many of them derive from naive interpretations of that first scene I mentioned in Cool Hand Luke.) I want to talk about those, too, because I think they’re important blockers.
You may ask yourself if I’m implying that raising my success rate at collaboration means me learning to be healthy. No, I’m not implying it, I’m saying it outright.
When I want to succeed at collaboration, the first thing I have to do is this:
I gotta get my mind right.
Absolutely gorgeous day here, sunny, cool, not-quite-fall but definitely-not-summer.
I hope you’re having an equally gorgeous day!