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December 26, 2013 » 1:26 pm

Five Lessons on the Craft of Collaboration from Photography

As a collaboration practitioner exploring a new path, the best thing I did this past year was to take up photography. That’s right, photography. I did it because I wanted to do something creative that had nothing to do with my professional life. Not only did it bring me tremendous joy, it unexpectedly made me better at my professional craft. When I left Groupaya one year ago, I felt like I was at the top of my game. I didn’t do any work this past year that resembled any of my work the previous ten. Yet somehow, my skills are significantly better now than they were a year ago.

Rest, reflection, and new directions clearly had something to do with that, but photography took my game to the next level. It reminded me of the importance of craft and what it feels like to be at the earliest stages of one’s learning journey. It got my creative juices flowing, which had ramifications in everything that I did.

Earlier this year, I shared eight lessons I learned about facilitation from photography. Now, I want to share five things I learned about the craft of collaboration from photography.

1. Framing is everything.

In March, I went on a photo walk with my friend, Eugene Chan. I marveled at how he saw and captured things that I completely missed, even though we were in the same place. It was all there in front of me. I was just looking at different things.

At the end of the day, photography is about drawing a tiny rectangle around something you see. Good photographers understand what elements make up good pictures (e.g. light, lines, textures, colors). They gravitate toward those elements, but there are still infinite possible ways to look at the same darn thing.

So much of the craft of collaboration is about getting people to understand each other’s frame, then finding a collective frame that works. It starts with honest-to-goodness listening, something that we so often pay lip service to, but rarely actually do, much less do well.

It continues by exploring the “right” questions together. So often, the “right” first questions are, “What are you trying to accomplish, and why?” It’s amazing how catalytic these questions can be, and yet how often people forget to ask them to each other or even themselves.

(It’s no coincidence that the practices of listening and asking generative questions are at the heart of Changemaker Bootcamp.)

2. Craft takes work.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway this year was how much work goes into getting a good shot. In April, I took my very first photography course from Lauren Crew, who is an absolute superstar. One of our assignments was to photograph fear.

If I could have taken a self-portrait upon hearing this assignment, my work would have been done. I was intimidated and stumped. However, rather than succumb to paralysis, I decided to just do the work, with great guidance from Lauren and lots of inspiration from my classmates. I journaled, and I riffed. I came up with silly concepts, and I went with them to see where they would lead me.

Every step that I took led to new insights and ideas. Even when I finally had concepts that I liked, the final product often ended up being very different from the original concept. The above photograph was probably my simplest and best from the class, but it was the product of several hours of playing, reflecting, and refining.

Craft is a process. So much of collaborating effectively seems improvisational, but people forget that you get good at improvising through practice. Practice is an exercise in frustration, little victories, and lots of patience.

Toward the end of my tenure as a collaboration consultant, I started forgetting this. I was expecting outcomes — both from myself and others — without being realistic about the process. Ironically, my reputation was built on helping clients avoid this exact trap. The world is rife with magical thinking about collaboration. “Add just the right amount of pixie dust, and voila, you have a high-performance team!” That’s not how it works. Collaborating effectively takes work, and it’s not always pretty in process. You have to expect and design for this if you want to be successful.

How do you do that? First, set goals that are realistic. With my photography, I’ve stopped expecting that, with “just one more month of practice,” I’ll be shooting like Gary Winogrand. Instead, I’m setting targets that I can actually achieve in timespans that are realistic.

Similarly, with my collaboration practices, I’ve always placed a huge emphasis on getting clear on goals. This past year, I’ve shifted the way I set goals to defining a spectrum, and I gut check these by exploring failure scenarios. These are all things I’ve done in the past, but I’ve systematized these practices so that they’ve become habits.

3. Seek feedback.

This past August, Lauren had a showing, and I took a few friends to go see it. At the show, I asked my friends, “Which pictures do you like? Why?” Neither of my friends are photography enthusiasts, but both of them shared great insights. We didn’t always agree, but it all helped me get clearer about what worked and why. Most of all, it was just fun. As we were leaving, one of my friends exclaimed, “I’ve never really talked about photography this way before. I like it!”

That conversation was like a mini-version of Lauren’s class, where we would spend three hours (often longer) giving each other feedback. Lauren’s class was simply a manifestation of what photographers all around the world do. Seeking feedback is the cultural norm, not the exception, and there are structures in place to support and reinforce that culture.

This is almost universally true with mature crafts. Writers have writers’ workshops. Musicians have master classes. Collaboration practitioners have… what?

It’s incredible to me how rare real, honest-to-goodness feedback is in business. It’s not part of our broader culture, and the only thing that resembles a structure that supports this is the annual review, which is primitive structure at best. If we truly value improvement, we need those structures so that we may start shifting our field’s culture. This was a huge part of my motivation in starting Changemaker Bootcamp.

4. Track your progress.

In team settings, I’ve always been good at establishing a culture of feedback. I’ve been less good at tracking progress. If you’re not doing both, then the cycle of feedback can feel like a hamster wheel or, worse, a wheel of negativity.

The beauty of being a beginner at something is that progress feels more tangible. I can point to a long list of things I do with my camera now that I wasn’t doing a year or even three months ago. The beauty of photography in particular is that your pictures serve as a way of tracking your progress. By simply reviewing my pictures over the past year, I can see the progress I’ve made in a very visceral way.

In order to capture the picture above, I used a telephoto lens rather than a wide angle in order to compress the background and get that beautiful layered effect. I increased my shutter speed in order to get more contrast and highlight the sun’s rays. Perhaps the most skillful decision I made was to focus on this particular tiny rectangle of a much larger, equally breathtaking view. I made all of these decisions in a matter of seconds. I would not have been able to do that a year ago.

There are two components to tracking your progress successfully. The first is simply taking the time for reflection. Most people skip this step to their detriment. The second is to come up with good indicators. This is really hard, especially when it comes to something as broad and as soft as collaboration, but it’s necessary if you truly want to improve.

I find that many high achievers are incredibly hard on themselves. I don’t mind this. High standards make for better work. The flip side of that is that you also have to be honest with yourself about acknowledging progress and success as well. I’m not talking about self-compassion here, although I believe in that also. I’m talking about self-honesty. Without tracking, it can feel like you’re never making any progress, when the truth might be the exact opposite.

5. Enjoy the ride!

I’ve been practicing all of these things in both my photography and my work. I recognize the importance of framing. I’ve acknowledged the work that’s required for my respective crafts, and I’ve established realistic expectations and goals. I constantly seek feedback, and I’m tracking my progress. I’m doing all of these things, and yet I still sometimes feel impatient or frustrated. If I’m not careful, I risk falling into a cycle of negativity.

Photography provides this wonderful safety net. The very act of capturing a moment is truly magical and delightful. Looking at my pictures from this past year always brings a smile to my face. I’m so fortunate to have experienced so much beauty and so many wonderful moments with people I care about, and the fact that I’m able to capture any aspect of that is truly a gift. Moreover, it’s a gift that I can share, which makes it even more gratifying.

In my own professional life, I’m seeking ways to have a bigger impact. Part of that is about getting better at my craft. Part of that is about being more strategic in when, where, and how I apply it. I’m happy to be doing this. It’s what I need to be doing.

But at the end of the day, when I’m in the moment of creation, when I’m watching my craft bring groups alive, regardless of who’s in the groups or what they’re doing, I feel a lot of joy. I love doing this work, and the fact that it is inherently social means that I get to share my experiences with others. Regardless of my larger goals, photography has reminded me that it’s a gift to get to do this kind of work. I’m grateful for that reminder.

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