What real collaboration looks like
You’ve seen a dog do it a million times. It slaps its front paws down, crouches forward, and wags its tail. You know right away...it wants to play!
Coyotes do it, too. And not just with other coyotes. In fact, a wildlife camera hidden in a storm drain recently filmed a coyote playing that way with a badger.
Coyotes and badgers are two notoriously sneaky and surly animals. But this odd couple appears to be having a great time. The coyote seems to leap for joy, playfully urging his squatty new friend to follow him on an exciting adventure.
Wildlife biologists say it’s actually not all that uncommon for coyotes and badgers to get together and cooperate like this. It turns out, they cover each other’s blind spots. The coyote is a fast runner and can easily run down an animal that has been flushed from its burrow. The badger, on the other hand, is a slow runner but an excellent digger, so it can dig its way into a burrow that the coyote can’t reach. Together, by cooperating, the coyote and the badger can successfully hunt animals that they couldn’t catch on their own. It’s as though they have figured out that 1+1 equals more than two.
One of my colleagues used to manage a mine on the edge of California’s Central Valley, and he often saw a coyote and a badger doing this same thing -- sneaking around the perimeter together, playfully hunting for tasty tidbits.
It's not just coyotes and badgers, either. The animal kingdom is full of examples of two very different creatures cooperating for a larger goal. It’s called symbiosis. Both animals get something out of the deal.
A shark can be a deadly hunter, but its sharp teeth are useless against the tiny, itchy parasites and bacteria that infest its skin. That’s why it makes a special deal with a little fish called a remora. The remora attaches itself to the shark’s body and keeps the shark’s skin clean and healthy. In exchange, the shark gives the remora some leftovers from a successful hunt.
It’s a shame that the natural world has collaboration figured out -- completely and effortlessly -- but it somehow still eludes us.
Collaboration is a silly buzzword in business -- one of those mindless little bits of human resources jargon you see carelessly dropped into a job description. Few stop to think about what it really means or what it really looks like, but we would be wise to take our cue from the world around us.
Good collaboration -- real collaboration -- involves seven important elements.
1. Bossing isn’t collaborating. If you’re managing someone, or micro-managing them, or giving them orders, you’re not collaborating with them. You’re doing something else entirely. Someone can’t see you as a collaborator and a boss at the same time.
2. Collaboration requires equality. You don’t have to have matching skills or aptitudes. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But you have to stand to benefit equally, relative to your starting points.
3. Collaboration requires humility. Even if you’re differently scaled from your collaboration partner, you both have to realize and admit that you need each other equally. For a larger partner teaming up with a smaller collaborator, it can be a real challenge to be humble enough to acknowledge that.
4. Collaboration requires diversity. Your goal is to complement each other’s skills, not to duplicate them. You can’t collaborate with a mirror image of yourself, since neither of you is bringing anything new to the table. Collaboration can only happen between people with meaningfully different skill sets and perspectives.
5. Your goal is to become even better at what you’re already good at. You want to grow but not lose sight of who you already are. You don’t need to emulate your collaborator or become more like them. Instead, you need to become more authentically yourself. You need to practice what you already know. You need to refine interests and talents you already have.
6. Collaboration turns your liabilities into assets. You and your organization may be too big, or too small, or too bureaucratic, or too loose to accomplish important things on your own. But a good collaborator shows you how you can overcome those limitations by leveraging them.
So what does this kind of collaboration look like in the real world?
Take Mike, the real estate manager for an S&P 500 company. He was planning to expand one of the company’s most profitable factories, but he had problems. He needed to buy 40 acres around the existing factory, but if word got out that a company with deep pockets was trying to acquire the land, the price would skyrocket. Because Mike worked for a publicly-traded company, acquiring the land would have to be disclosed in public securities filings, which meant his cover would be blown before he even got started!
So Mike decided to collaborate with Dave.
If Mike was a shark, Dave was a sucker fish. He was a small-time real estate investor who just happened to own a small piece of that 40 acres. When he got wind of what Mike was trying to accomplish, Dave suggested they collaborate. Dave would be Mike’s go-between with the other local landowners. For a finder’s fee, he would help Mike put together the 40 acres, piece by piece, on the cheap and on the sneak.
It worked out great for both Mike and Dave because they checked all the boxes of good collaboration. They were different sized companies, but they respected each other’s contributions. They both stood to benefit proportionally from a deal they couldn’t do on their own. They played their own roles, and they didn’t get in each other’s way. They even seemed to have fun doing it, delighting in the thrill of the hunt.
Which brings us to the seventh and most important part of good collaboration.
It has to be fun.
It has to feel like it’s the right thing to do.
It has to feel worthwhile for the sheer pleasure of it. It gives you the satisfaction of creating something new or making something better.
It has to make you wag your tail, just like the coyote did when he met the badger and set off on a fabulous adventure.
Are you collaborating with the right partner in the right way?
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