First, there was creation
Then there was curation
Now, there’s a new C word flying all over the internet and peppered throughout intellectual conversations
No matter where you turn, the concept of collaboration seems to be the new buzzword. And for good reason too! It’s the necessary next step in the cycle of creation.
Collaboration is one of the most powerful tools to encourage different ways of thinking and encouraging invention. From bringing in new ideas to connecting seemingly unrelated topics, collaboration is considered a most valuable asset because it helps us navigate the unknown, innovate and adapt to new environments and changing situations.
If we’re being completely transparent, collaboration isn’t actually a new idea. We are pack animals after all. Deep down we’ve always known that we work better together. It’s what led us to create tribes and eventually the interconnected global society we now pride ourselves upon. We stopped surviving on our own and embraced pack mentality so that we could improve our quality of life, availability to food and protection from external threats. This connectivity is what anthropologist Margaret Mead described as the first sign of civilisation in a culture. Giving the example of a broken and subsequently healed femur (thigh) bone, she explained that alone, that type of injury once meant certain death, but together, tended to and protected by the group, individuals were able to heal.
But over time, our egos got in the way. We stopped thinking of ourselves as an ‘us’ and started thinking of ourselves as a ‘me’. We became arrogant and overconfident in our own individual abilities, our skills, our prowess. And in the process, we disconnected from the collective and looked only at what the world could offer us. We hid in our rooms, in our labs, in our offices and we tinkered away at what we thought was sure to be ‘the next big thing’, the item that would free us from the rat race that everyone else was trapped in. This was the process of creation.
The problem with creation in this form is that it exists in a silo. It is limited by the experiences, perceptions and expectations of the individual who creates. And the longer this goes on, the more people there are creating with little feedback or input into their ideas, simply throwing them out to the universe for someone to grab onto. This is the point at which curation takes hold. Those gifted in processing information, in recognising patterns or clumping together ideas became the new heroes of the day. They could collate information for those who became overwhelmed by the masses of content that had become available. This was the surge we saw take hold in the early 2000s. We were introduced to streaming services like Pandora and Spotify, to social media platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn and content curation platforms like Buzzfeed, Youtube and even learning platforms like Coursera and Udemy. These platforms serviced a need to help make the search less overwhelming. They forged their path as reliable sources on par with the level of trust once afforded to newspapers and the radio. They gave people an out that alleviated the stress of a potentially unsuccessful hunt.
Which leads us to where we are today. We now have our ‘thought leaders’, our experts and our platforms and are finally as a collective realising that these people, along with our own personal networks can be leveraged. We now have platforms to put forward our ideas for feedback, we are able to work with teams across the globe to fast-track projects or scalability. Look for example at small business owners all around the world coming together on online platforms to voice their concerns and share suggestions for how they are getting through these difficult times. Similarly, just look at the global efforts of research scientists (both social scientists and biomedical ones) in their efforts to develop a vaccine or influence human behaviour to curb the effects of the Corona virus and with luck, remove it from our societies like chewing gum being scraped off your shoe. Most of these projects involve small teams going off, conducting their own experiments and then sharing findings. But this is only the beginning of the collaboration chapter.
The below TED talk by Steven Johnson gives some great examples of collaboration in it’s next stage, one that requires yet another C word that is already starting to emerge.
You see, the type of collaboration discussed above spoke for the most part about a society where people are looking to groups to help them with their own problems. They involve compounding efforts to fast-track an outcome. But true collaboration is so much more than that. True collaboration removes the ‘me’ and focuses on genuinely working together at all stages of a project. It shifts focus to how you can leverage not just man-power but mind-power and collective knowledge.
But in order to achieve this, we noted that there is another C word that needs to come into play.
True collaboration requires a safe space in which to voice your craziest ideas without fear of judgment, without fear that they’ll be poached and used against you, without fear of consequence.
This concept is nothing new. David Brooks’ book The Road to Character provides some fascinating examples of people whose great achievements we have separated from their environments. From Ike Eisenhower to George Marshall and George Eliot, he explores the ways in which their lives were shaped by others, the environments they lived in and the ideas exchanged among friends. Even delving into the business world, countless books include case studies on excellent leaders who recognise that although they may have been the figureheads, it was the fact that they had whole supportive teams behind them that allowed them to make the impact they did (The Culture Map by Erin Meyer and Mindset by Dr Carol Dweck give some great examples).
A few years ago, Google conducted a study into what makes a company culture successful. The top item on the list was that it created a sense of psychological safety. To create a sense of safety within a culture is no easy feat. It requires great self-awareness of our flaws and limitations: awareness of biases, heuristics, group dynamics. It also requires us to leave ego at the door. It requires us to trade the ‘me’ for the ‘we’ and to create a safe space conducive to a trusting environment. Only in this space can we bring together different individuals who don’t fall victim to group think, who feel safe enough to bring their varied experiences and perspectives to the table when it comes to collectively brainstorming, collaborating and leveraging their individual skills to create the best possible outcome.
So go back to your roots, find people who are just as passionate about similar topics as you are. They may come from completely different backgrounds but that’s not a bad thing. Because it’s in friendships, authentic mentorships and other partnerships that we are able to truly create and collaborate which in times as uncertain as these will become absolutely necessary to adapting and thriving in the future.