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January 19, 2006 » 4:34 pm

Working With Others: Loose vs Tight Collaboration

Last November, I explained that I was going to embark on a series of open conversations with Katrin Verclas. Katrin initiated the conversation with a list of life and career desires. I wanted to quote my favorite items here, but I couldn’t pick just one. So instead, here’s a question for Katrin. Katrin, you say:    (K2P)

I want to work with a team of people who know how to be a team, who are flexible, give, take, are giving, competent, smart, have a sense of humour, are creative, passionate about what they do, and good at it, who know how to truly collaborate for a bigger and better whole.    (K2Q)

What’s been your best experience working with a team? Did that experience match this stated goal, and if not, what was missing?    (K2R)

I spent a ton of time in college doing stuff with the campus computer group. We weren’t just a group of nerds who got together to hack (although we did plenty of that). At the time, the Internet was on the verge of exploding, and our school had just finished installing Ethernet in all of the undergraduate dorms. We saw ourselves as playing an integral role in getting folks on campus to understand technology’s great potential. In this vein, we taught seminars and sponsored a lecture series. We provided support for the network and hosted Web sites for campus groups. We advised campus officials on policy and ways to put new ideas into practice, then we helped them actually do it. We kicked some serious butt, and we had a heckuva lot of fun along the way.    (K2S)

The raw talent in that group was remarkable, something that’s even more clear today as I look at what many of these people have accomplished post-college. More importantly, there were a lot of good people there, and I became life-long friends with many of them.    (K2T)

I’ve often said that I’d jump at the chance to work with any of those folks again, but experience has shown that this isn’t quite true. The opportunity has come up several times, and I’ve turned down all of them, although most very reluctantly. It has nothing to do with the people, and everything to do with timing, personal values, and the work itself.    (K2U)

I don’t want to have to choose between working with great people and working on something I’m passionate about — I want to have both. I don’t think I’m alone in this. There are several people with whom I would love to work more closely, but for a variety of reasons, it won’t happen soon, if ever. Sometimes, the alignment is only slight off, but having that alignment in values and goals is critical to success and happiness.    (K2V)

This has broader applicability when it comes to facilitating collaboration in large groups, and it has to do with the difference between what I call loose and tight collaboration. Tight collaboration occurs when you have a strongly shared, concrete goal, and it usually manifests itself in small, tight-knit groups. Loose collaboration occurs when you are working towards a larger, possibly unbounded goal. (In fact, according to the definition of collaboration I throw around all the time, “loose collaboration” would not always qualify as “collaboration,” since the goal could be, but is not necessarily unbounded.)    (K2W)

Some people desire tight collaboration to the point of unhappiness. I’ve seen people complain that their community is not working together, when in fact, the problem is not that collaboration is not happening, it’s that it’s not aligning itself around a particular person’s individual goals and desires. All too often, “We can’t agree,” actually means, “I can’t get the group to agree with me.” When you consider collaboration at a large-scale, this kind of thinking is not viable. It is possible to be loosely aligned and to collaborate loosely with others to the benefit of all.    (K2X)

Bringing it back to individual goals and desires, I’ve had wonderful experiences with loose collaboration with Blue Oxen Associates, but only fleeting experiences of great tight collaboration. I’m not too unhappy about the latter, though, because I think it’s largely a matter of timing. It’s certainly not due to the lack of candidates. As the business continues to grow, I think those experiences will occur more frequently.    (K2Y)

I’ll end this rambling with a flight of fancy. Towards the end of college, when I was trying to decide what to do with my life, I settled on the following fancy: Pick a neighborhood in the worst part of some urban city, start a K-12 school with ten of my smartest friends, and see it through at least long enough to watch the first kindergarten class graduate from high school. I still fantasize about this scenario, and in a lot of ways, it captures what I want to do with my life and many of the elements of what I’m trying to do with Blue Oxen Associates.    (K2Z)

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