Collaboration is  . . .

a baton-passing relay team, a chamber quartet, a half-time show, Lennon and McCartney, the kitchen at a 5-star restaurant, the 2013 NY Knicks, first responders, a fire brigade, a flash mob, a ballet company, Jobs and Wozniak, a block party, the food chain, a family dinner.

Collaboration, the art of working with others, where the sum is greater than the parts, but not always.  I offer here some random observations on the topic of collaboration.

Telling it like it is

Those who take pride in telling it like it is, and letting you know that they’re the sort who tell it like it is, and of whom others refer as those who like to tell it like it is, rarely – if ever – like to be told what it’s like.

Sow early, sow often

I’m a believer in getting ideas out into the circle of trust, sooner than later, uglier than prettier, richer than poorer.  I have faith that the human mind is capable of incredible capacity to absorb and synthesize, and works in those mysterious ways, when people sleep on ideas, and ruminate, both actively and subconsciously.  Sow early and often.  There’s a lot to think about, individually and collectively, so try not to allot ideas to the culture like it’s a weekly allowance.  Get the holistic view out there, uncertain of what’s going to stick and what’s not, and allow the organic magic of the organization to do its thing.

And who the heck are you besides, to decide what folks should think about and ultimately are capable of grasping?


I heard it once said that creative and collective works need to go through seven iterations to finally arrive at a sufficient level of maturity where one can consider the idea developed.  I don’t know if seven is the magic number, but it’s a good rule of thumb.

If you are sowing early and often, then you need to adopt this corollary of iteration, and emphasize strongly to your culture that you are an iterating culture.  Otherwise you will constantly be explaining yourself to those who perceive your deliverables as less than adequate, not up to par.

Let them know that they’re looking at a work-product that is perhaps not even 24 hours old and tell them to just wait until another 2 or 3 good minds in your immediate orbit have opportunity to touch it, to riff on the ideas, and it’s 96 hours old.

That way you get the nitpickers off your back, those who have front-row seats in the peanut gallery and serve as the culture’s critics.

Do look for critics though, who might be stylistically challenged, but who actually contribute thought-leadership and constructive iteration, despite their best efforts to detract from the value of their own contributions through some irksome trait.  Welcome these folks with open arms.

Iteration is a fascinating process, part art, part science, a collective journey to the light at the end of the creative and visionary tunnel.

Barriers to Collaboration

In the early 1990s, Apple Fellow Gursharan Sidhu released an internal document on the barriers to collaboration.  He discussed these in the context of a new developer stack called the Open Collaboration Environment (OCE), intended to be the end-all, be-all, of enabling protocols and APIs.

Sidhu cited the barriers as: language, protocol, location, and asynchronous communications.


We need to be talking the same language, perhaps figuratively, more so than literally.  Common semantic is important to enable collaboration; common glossary too.  Words convey concepts; ill-chosen words, or words misinterpreted, will thwart collaboration.  Take time to establish and agree to common verbiage to describe the domain.


Style and formality can enable communication and collaboration, especially when interacting with those who expect it.  Protocol is the wrapper, the header information that ultimately gets stripped away, leaving behind the payload, the information.  Protocol might be required when dealing inter-function, across the ranks, inter-organization, inter-X.  Please note that I am talking protocol as it pertains to human communication here, referring to the formalities that certain groups expect, anticipate as de facto, when interacting.  I am not speaking here about bits and bytes, and the protocols of computer-speak.


It’s gotten much easier today to overcome the barrier of location.  There are a number of tools, audio and video, that compress space and create virtual co-location.  What is still lacking though, is the ability to create for people, the experience of being in a single room, with large whiteboards and plotter-size printouts on the wall, urns of coffee, trays of bagels, and the excitement of interacting real-time, eye to eye, shoulder to shoulder, sensing the momentum and the firing of communal neurons, as you advance ideas and work-products through the 7 iterations.


Talking to someone face to face – synchronous.  Email waiting to be read in an inbox – asynchronous.  Discussion, even being rude and talking over people, in heated, passionate, but constructive, exchange – synchronous.  Email waiting to be read in an inbox – asynchronous.  Enough said for now.


One last thought about collaboration.  Allow time to work its magic.  We are sometimes so caught up in fire-drills of our own making.  Daily fire-drills, weekly ones, drills that go on for months and quarters, that turn into death marches, of an inertia out of control, seemingly.  If we slow down, we’ll lose ground, yet the ground we’re attaining by continuing is slippery foothold.  Teams begin to feel a very unnatural state of human condition brought about by the pressure of believing that there is no time to take the time to do things correctly.

Many will push back and argue that to do things correctly, while desirable, will just not work, as it will take too much time, and that sort of “over-engineering” is just not acceptable in the company of mavericks like us.  Their alternative, while not overtly articulated, but certainly manifest in the behavior, is to continue things as they are, exacerbate the situation, in a perpetual feedback loop that leads to greater and greater stress about Time.

So here’s the paradox:  take time to immerse yourself in collaborative experiences, to save yourself time.  People need time to pore over the possibilities, to explore the angles, to synthesize the dependencies, to resonate with others, to arrive at common visions, to commit to one another, to truly collaborate.

Don’t shortchange yourself on this quality time, believing that it’s got to be go-go all the time.   Daily wall-to-wall schedules of  short bursts of 1-hour, back to back meeting frenzies, where nothing gets done, is not the way to go. Business is not High School.

I’m not advocating that you loll around.  I’m suggesting that collaboration, and the genius of your culture, require various types of canvas to express themselves.  Time is one of those.

This art is paid for and used under Non-Exclusive license agreement with Condé Nast.
Cartoonist: P.C. Vey, The New Yorker Collection
Issue Publication Date May 18, 2009; The Cartoon Bank TCB-129555

© Michael C. Simonelli,, 2013

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