Get E-Mail Alerts
RSS Posts

We’ve all heard and said things like:

“If it weren’t for my wife I’d . . . “, or

“If only I’d gone into business with someone else I’d . . .”

Somehow, the fantasy outcome of collaborating with a different ‘other’ is always glittering in comparison to our current existence. In this way we condemn not only our partners, for their inadequacy, but also ourselves, for our bad judgment in picking them in the first place.

Fundamental to these kinds of complaints is a victim attitude, as if somehow we weren’t responsible for contributing to our present situation. The truth, of course, is more simple: our current partnership is the best possible given our particular mix of personal characteristics and life dynamics.

It’s actually not too hard to imagine that you and your partner are doing a brilliant job of mixing disparate skills, hopes, prejudices and everything else. Some might say that if you’re still talking then you’re a great success.

In the event that you’re not entirely convinced of this, I offer the following thoughts to help you assert your uniqueness vigorously in your relationship.

In Pursuit of Collaboration: complex, elusive and beautifully effective

“Well that’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!”

Oliver Hardy’s screen condemnation of Stan Laurel is one frequently heard worldwide, in settings as varied as kitchens and boardrooms. In its denial of personal responsibility, it signals a failure of an essential component in any significant alliance: collaboration.

Collaboration is a key factor in the success of any project, at work or at home; with colleagues, business partners, family members and significant others of all kinds. It is also one of the hardest states to achieve and maintain.

This issue’s review of the collaborative environment is in two parts. This bit looks at some of the definitions and ‘rules’ of collaboration. The second is taken up with some self-tests you can try for yourself and have your partners take, too. These came largely from work done by the faculty of Iowa State University. Thank you to them.

The general principles examined here apply to all joint enterprises, whether involving two people or ten corporations. However, I have focused on collaboration in couples’ relationships because, being multi-faceted and emotionally loaded, these tend to be the toughest to work in.

So, to start at the obvious place:

What is collaboration?

Collaboration is the ultimate form of working together. It is a wider and deeper mutual involvement than cooperation or inter-operation. It is a synergistic process of shared creation.

This means that two or more individuals or groups interact to create an entity which didn’t pre-exist and which none of them alone could have brought into existence. This entity can be abstract or material, a life, an understanding, a building, a work of art, a company or whatever.

This sense – that the outcome of collaboration is larger than that which either partner could have achieved on their own – is a key factor in separating collaboration from other co-working forms. It is also developmentally oriented: collaborating partners operate as a team to achieve a common purpose by working together but they also gain new insights and build on those as they progress.

A collaboration, in other words, is functionally autonomous and open-ended where other forms of co-working are proscribed and discrete.

Collaborators are equals

True collaborators are always equals, but his does not mean they are the same. They may well bring very different philosophies, skills, etc to the collaboration. However, for a true collaboration to take place each party must accept full responsibility for their half of the process.

While it is imperative that these two equals have a common goal overall, the actual tasks collaborated on may not benefit each in the same way.

For example, a couple may be collaborating on building a whole life. As part of that, partner A might collaborate with partner B on the shared project of qualifying partner B as a brain surgeon. This kind of arrangement quite often occurs in marriages and between organizations of unequal size.

Such ‘unbalanced’ collaborations carry many risks. They need a lengthy prior introspective examination if they are to survive. They may also require a practical level of protection for both parties in the event of a failure in the process or a failure to reach the goal of the collaboration.

In this way, it’s possible to avoid the cry of: “I gave everything up for him!” (or her) and stay away from the Laurel and Hardy cliche.

Collaboration is not capitulation

This is one of my favorite expressions and ought to hang on the wall in every home and every office. Many of us have a deep fear of being overwhelmed by someone else and are very reluctant to surrender any part of our autonomy in a relationship.

Yet the truth is that collaboration is the co-working arrangement most protective of individual autonomy. Its greatest successes occur when neither partner is prepared to give an inch and they are both thus forced to come up with a solution which meets the needs of both.

If you are collaborating with someone and feel yourself ‘giving in’ to their ugly voice, hectoring style, or apparently ‘better’ grasp of the facts, take a break. Your inner voice is sending you a warning. This inner information source is an essential component in the overall success of the project, even if you can’t immediately put your finger on what it is you don’t like about the process.

A good technique at times of baffled resistance is to remind yourself of your experience and intelligence and then ask yourself: “I’m capable of good judgment. If his facts are true, how come I don’t agree with him?” It means there’s something else going on. You may be picking up on his being over-assertive in an effort to hide his own doubts. It may be he’s attempting to bully you into agreement, or it may be that you are trying to establish dominance.

Whatever the reason, where facts aren’t mutually accepted and logical steps easily agreed, it’s time to check the underlying dynamics. It may also be that you’re both struggling with inadequate information.

The more you need collaboration, the harder it is to achieve.

It’s easy to collaborate with someone hardly known, in a transient process of limited significance. I will put down my bags to hold open the door for a mother with a baby buggy, then she will hold the door while I pick up my bags and come through with my hands full. We’ll smile at one another, say ‘thanks’ and move on.

But when I get home and find the door locked, I bang angrily on it. When my wife appears to open it for me I demand to know why it wasn’t left unlocked as agreed. I then storm into the kitchen, dump the bags in a heap on the table and head off to download my emails. I fully expect that everything will be put away before I appear again.

This is collaboration of a sort: the project called ‘shopping’ is completed and the integrity of the food protected. However, the property of mutual respect has taken a downturn and the process could hardly be said to have resulted in a greater level of achievement than either could have managed on their own.

Oh. And it turns out I bought the wrong brand of goat’s milk!

What’s going on here?

We’re running up against the fact that marriage is a life-level partnership and links two people as closely as can be. Business partnerships can sometimes seem like marriages but never really achieve the deep psychological connection of an actual marriage.

The basic rule is: the more closely associated with fundamental life needs, the more intensely experienced is the collaboration. Quite simply, it is more risky because we render ourselves more vulnerable. It therefore requires greater attention to the maintenance of a collaborative environment.

Many couples resist this work, believing that ‘love’ should solve everything. However, if the principals of collaboration were obvious, then we would all be working in ideal organizations and living in ideal families. In reality, underlying psychodynamics and conflicts manifest confusion in virtually every facet of business negotiations and family relations.

The resulting behavior of “You against me” rather than “You and me against the problem” is like a disease which can spread until it chokes the entire ‘project’.

The dynamic living way to achieve ongoing, effective collaboration lies in developing new insights into one’s partner. Specifically, we need to identify “their” primary needs and motivators, and also what “their” needs have in common with ours. We’ll take a closer look at this in a moment.

Collaboration is not the same as consent

The D/s community has a saying: “Safe, sane, consensual” to summarize its approach to enjoying their more unusual and sometimes risky couples’ behaviors. The worthy objective is to ensure that no-one is coerced into taking part in something they would rather avoid.

However, when I work with clients in such relationships I urge them to substitute the term ‘collaborative’ for ‘consensual’. This is because a great deal of consent may arise from concealed coercive elements such as an imbalance of financial or psychological power. These can result in the weaker partner ‘going along with’ whatever’s proposed because they really can’t see any options.

The same situation can arise, albeit less provocatively or conspicuously, in all other joint operations. When working with another, it is important to monitor one’s feelings and check constantly to ensure that one is truly collaborating in an act or venture. Otherwise you run the risk of simply going along with it from fear of the conflict that might ensue if you raised an objection.

The answer is: trust the process and raise the objection. The result, as D/s couples are often surprised to discover, can be an enhancement to the proceedings rather than a rejection of them.

By now it’s pretty clear that collaboration is a rather more complex concept than might at first have been considered. It’s also clear that for collaboration to be effective, both or all parties must be aware of the nuances of difference.

Here’s another distinction:

Collaboration is not the same as cooperation

Collaboration emphasizes ‘labor’ while cooperation focuses on ‘opera’. In other words, collaboration is about the process of working together while cooperation is about the result of working together (‘opera’ is the noun for ‘works’ in Latin).

So, if you want to build a bridge, I can cooperate with you by supplying you with the materials you need and delivering them at the time requested. If we are to collaborate on building a bridge I will be involved from the outset, even from the point of determining whether a bridge is necessary.

The two styles of working together are experienced at different levels within the individual. Collaboration is visceral, derived from conviction, whereas cooperation is a more cognitive activity. You can develop methodologies to support cooperation, but collaboration is a more organic, more ambiguous dynamic.

Collaboration suggests a way of dealing with people which respects and highlights each individual’s unique abilities and contribution potential. It requires the sharing of authority and an acceptance of personal responsibility for the outcome. Cooperation, as indicated, implies a single authority and an ordained set of processes by which an objective will be achieved.

Many people are content for their marriages to operate at this level and sometimes practical necessities of finances and children make it inevitable. However, a full commitment to life will always leave us yearning and pushing toward something fuller.

Collaboration requires communication

A high level of communication and intelligence-sharing is essential for successful collaboration. This is because information eases the inevitable anxieties provoked by working in an ambiguous and organically changing environment.

Communication is much-heralded between partners, but rarely achieved to the satisfaction of all. This delightfully quaint piece of computer-ese exactly mirrors the human problem:

“Collaboration tools need open Java ports to exchange data using communication protocols such as User Datagram Protocol (UDP). Because firewall systems have difficulty filtering UDP, especially for malicious code and new viruses, organizations may not be willing to open these ports for collaboration.”

Indeed. Human organizations, too, are often resistant to opening up their ports for collaboration. And our sophisticated firewalls, brilliantly designed to protect us from threatening approaches of all kinds, are all too frequently present and erect.

Once again, understanding the motivations and needs of our communicating partner is half the battle, enabling us to present matters in a way that has significance for them and is sensitive to them. It can feel a bit awkward, but it is a great aid to collaboration to be very precise in defining the objective of the joint process. It also helps to keep redefining it in a non-threatening way whenever the purpose seems to have got lost.

Oh. And it helps to speak UDP, too!

The start is only the beginning

Once we’ve agreed our objective (to marry or to set up Best Pals Inc) it sometimes feels as if the hardest part of collaboration is behind us. After all, we’ve proposed and been accepted so we must be all right, mustn’t we?

Mustn’t we?

Only until the significant other disagrees with us. Or until any disagreement arises, no matter how trivial.

We then enter a period which may not feel like it, but is actually negotiation. This gives rise to a rule which many find surprising: go to great lengths to avoid compromise.

Collaboration is uncompromising

Negotiation can take many forms which are not collaborative. They are frequently to be seen operating in domestic disputes and in corporate meeting rooms and include:

  • Competing, when everyone basically fights for their own way using whatever strategy suits them best;
  • Compromising, which can look like a mature result of negotiation but is more frequently capitulation, building problems for the future;
  • Accommodating, which is a more distancing form of compromise because we basically say: “I think I can live with that.” while simultaneously separating ourselves from it and the person proposing it; and
  • Avoiding, which doesn’t sound like negotiation at all but is actually a very common technique. It might be heralded by a cry of: “I’d love to explore it with you but I’m afraid I don’t have time right now.”

None of those common methods of negotiation are collaborating.

I believe that true collaborating means never compromising, but few of us have the courage to test our beliefs in the process that far. It is fair to say, however, that if you wish to collaborate you must be ready to be totally uncompromising.

What makes an uncompromising stance essential? The true value of a collaboration derives from the unique qualities and contributions of the collaborators. If they surrender these too quickly, ‘for the sake of peace and quiet’, then their value is totally lost and it might as well be one person making all the decisions.

So what happens when a life-time collaboration like a marriage reaches an apparently impossible conflict? You go to the next level of collaboration.

Seek the proper level for collaboration

A whole-life collaboration exists on several task levels. I’m going to refer here to Maslow’s pyramid of needs, but there are many other models available to you, or you can create and use your own.

Expressing Maslow’s pyramid as eight levels, starting from the bottom, the needs are:

  1. Physiological: hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.;
  2. Safety/security: out of danger;
  3. Belongingness and Love: affiliate with others, be accepted;
  4. Self esteem: to achieve, be competent, gain approval and recognition;
  5. Cognitive: to know, to understand, and explore;
  6. Aesthetic: symmetry, order, and beauty;
  7. Self-actualization: to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential; and
  8. Self-transcendence: to connect to something beyond the ego or to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential.

Maslow’s basic position is that as one moves toward being self-actualized and self-transcendent, one becomes wiser and automatically knows what to do in a wide variety of situations. The same progression is true for collaborations (couples or companies) as well as for individuals.

However, the needs level of any collaboration is determined by the needs level of the slowest-developing member. This is a good reason for couples to invest heavily in self-development for themselves as well as for their relationship.

Most collaborative conflicts appear to arise at the lower levels of the pyramid. An example might be where one partner wants to live in one place while the other wants to be somewhere else. How can the couple meet their individual needs while still collaborating rather than by one of them capitulating?

The answer is: by checking up the pyramid to see what is of a higher level of importance than where I live. Immediately we can see that level three, the need for belongingness and love, is a higher order of need than mere location. When we view our problem from that level we can see that it doesn’t really matter where we live as long as our love needs are met.

We have now moved up to a point of agreement and can reassure each other that whatever happens we will continue to be together.

We are then freed to vigorously and painfully argue for our locational preference until it emerges that it really does matter to one person more than the other. Then we can collaborate in managing the move or improving our present circumstances using the information that will have emerged during our passionate discussions.

We may find that moving our discussion to a higher order of level fails to find a point of common agreement. Then we need to assume that a deeper problem than location is at the heart of our dispute and collaborate on recognizing this fact and exploring a solution to it. This may include discovering that the fundamental reason for our collaboration no longer has sufficient meaning to justify the effort entailed in maintaining it.

This conclusion does not mean separation, necessarily, but might just involve a shift to a different form of co-working such as cooperating.

Summary: points to ponder

We’ve all been hurt by collaborative failure. We can use that hurt to toughen our resolve to push harder on our own behalves ‘next time’.

The next section of this month’s ‘Dynamic Living™’ [on this web site: “How Effective a Collaborator are you?”] is a self-test assessment tool which may be used to measure where you and your partner(s) are in the collaboration process.

Before then, here are some other points to consider before embarking on any collaborative venture, be it a marriage, a business venture, or joining a sports team:

  • Don’t enter long-term collaborations for short term benefit. We are frequently tempted by our short term needs into signing on to long-term collaborations for which we are unsuitable. A shortage of cash might lead us into a new job, a working partnership, or even a marriage. Unless an exit strategy is clearly defined beforehand (difficult with your new spouse!) the end result is bound to be painful and damaging to the integrity and self-esteem of all parties.
  • Look long and hard before you leap. A natural follow-on from the last point. It is generally easier to leap enthusiastically into something than to pull yourself out of it. Be warned, though, that no matter how hard you look beforehand, if you are living fully you will still occasionally find yourself in collaborative cul-de-sacs. However, the benefits derived along the way should still add up to be more constructive than destructive overall.
  • The collaboration overhead is high – make sure you want to pay it. As this article has demonstrated, true collaboration demands a great deal of communication at an intense emotional level. It also demands access to large quantities of information to fuel discussion and prompt creativity. It can also be financially expensive if experiments have to be conducted with a price tag attached.
  • Be clear and candid with your collaborator about your motivations – before you start. As all the above shows, you have nothing to loser by being totally clear about your goals, intentions and beliefs before you sign on the dotted line. It may not seem very friendly to tell your beautiful Italian girlfriend that you’re a sucker for a pretty face but can’t abide Catholics, but it’s better than having her find out when you each turn up at a different church to conduct your nuptials. Remember . . . she has a lot of brothers!
  • Avoid collaborations which are just for the fun of the collaboration. Sometimes it can seem that just getting together with somebody to do something can be an end in itself. It often is the end. The lack of a clearly defined common goal will kill the collaboration and possibly a nice friendship with it.

Finally, some quick insights into collaboration which don’t need further expansion:

  • Togetherness is not follow-the-other-ness.
  • There is no managing partner in an equal partnership.
  • Explanation honors both: dictation dishonors both.
  • You can’t take someone where they aren’t ready to go.
  • Know your own priorities.
  • Neither of you knows what’s best. (Only God, the universal system, or whatever does).

Generally, ill-considered collaborations, possibly rooted in hidden or unconscious agendas, always end in pain, expense and a damaged sense of self.

Successful ones, however, which are nurtured thoughtfully to ensure they last their natural course, can begin and end in trust and truth, resulting in a hugely enriching experience for all participants.

The basic rule? Push your hardest for what you want and accept total responsibility for what you agree. Laurel and Hardy had it all wrong. We can never justifiably blame the other if our collaboration ends up in another fine mess.


[If you’d like to assess your own collaborative skills, review “How effective a Collaborator are you?” or download a PDF of the assessment tests here by right-clicking on: “Dynamic Living Collaboration Assessment Tests” and selecting “Save target (or “link”) as” ]

Leave a Reply