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“Ok, everyone! Get in groups of three - we are going to work on a group project.” Do you remember how you felt when you heard these words come out of your professor’s mouth? For most people, it’s a strong feeling of dread. The experience leaves some with such negative feelings that, even after becoming professors themselves, they refuse to include collaborative work in their curriculum (I have met some). Even those who choose a non-academic career path experience the same dread of collaborative work.In both cases the reasons for the dread are very much the same. You see, whether we are working in a group to put together a video presentation for a class project, or we are part of an interdisciplinary department working together on developing workflow automation, we still worry about ending up doing all the work; about being too domineering or too submissive; about dealing with the domineering person; about someone else getting the credit for our work; about disagreeing with the direction the team seems to be going but too worried about self-image, future repercussions, or fill-in-the-blank, to speak up... The list goes on.
In both the academic and non-academic cases, we can trace back the dread to the way humans think and react. After all, human emotions are pretty universal for the most part, at least within the same cultural framework. When I dig even a bit deeper, though, I see yet another interesting pattern: the emotions that arise when we need to work collaboratively are similar to those that arise when we are in a situation where we feel that we have little control over the outcome and are afraid of the consequence. The question, then, becomes how can we maximize the feeling of control within a collaboration for everyone involved?
Regardless of the type of collaboration, whether it involves the CIO, faculty members, or students, whether it is virtual or in-person, it is imperative that we have explicit guidelines for how to work together, including clear definitions of roles and responsibilities, methods of accountability, and decision-making procedures, just to name a few (there is a myriad of research and resources when it comes to the group dynamics of and best-practices for effective collaborations). There are those who will dismiss this crucial initial step of discussing and agreeing on collaboration guidelines and procedures with their teams, perhaps even quipping “surely a group of adults can figure out how to work on a project together without needing a rule-book.”I’d invite you to compare their team’s turnover rates and workplace health indicators with teams that either create such guidelines together (the ideal) or have taken the time to come to consensus around using a previously-built set of guidelines. You will see a distinct difference, every time.
Whether we choose to have the team itself spend a couple of meetings discussing and building the collaborative process, or whether the team lead builds it and presents it for discussion, it is easy to see that this critical step will prolong the overall project timeline. I cannot emphasize enough the advantages of taking this time, though, if at all possible. In return, you will have happier (read more motivated) colleagues or students, more engaged participation, and even higher voluntary adoption rates of the outcome, to name a few gains. Therefore, it is imperative that we give as much importance to intentionally and proactively developing the process for a collaboration, as we typically give to developing the product or the content itself.
Despite knowing these advantages, there will undoubtedly be times when we just don’t have the necessary time and resources to develop the collaboration process; in this case, work alone. If we don’t have the time to either create a process our self or create one collaboratively, then we should not work collaboratively, or pretend to do so.
The next time you decide to embark on a collaborative effort, I invite you to a small challenge: whether you are the lead or “just” a contributor, whether it is a virtual or a traditional collaboration, bring the collaboration process to the forefront. You will be pleasantly surprised by how far this step will take you, your team, and your initiative. After all, as this African proverb says, "If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."