Collaborative Literacy

Take a moment, and think about the best collaborative experience you’ve ever had. It could be something that happened at work or a personal experience — organizing a family gathering, doing a shared activity with friends.

What would your life be like if all of your collaborative experiences were as good as that one?

Imagine a world in which everybody’s collaborative experiences were just one percent better, however you’d like to define that. What would that world look like?

My driving passion for the past 10 years has been to create that world. My contention has been that our overall collaborative literacy is depressingly low, and if we could boost that literacy even a little bit, it would result in drastic improvements in the world around us.

By “collaborative literacy,” I mean our fundamental abilities to collaborate with others. But what exactly does that mean? And how can we boost it?

As is often the case, I think sports offers a wonderful analogy. In honor of today’s NCAA Finals game, I’d like to draw some lessons on collaborative literacy from basketball. (If you’re not a sports fan, please bear with me. I’ll try to keep the jargon to a minimum, and I hope the analogy will still be useful.)

Basketball is one of those sports that’s hard to play casually unless you have some basic skills: dribbling and shooting. Both are hard to acquire, and dribbling is harder to learn than shooting. I spent hours as a kid practicing my dribbling, and I’m still below average at it. Lots of people can’t dribble without looking at the ball, including some pros.

When you play pick-up basketball, you meet people of all skill levels, but you rarely meet anyone who doesn’t have those baseline skills. And if they have those skills, that means they’ve put in some amount of time playing the game.

However, those are individual skills — necessary, but not sufficient. You also need to understand how to play the game at a team level. In other words, you need to have some baseline level of collaborative literacy. Casual followers of the game might think that collaborative literacy consists simply of passing the ball, but there’s a whole lot more. On offense, collaborative literacy consists of:

  • Passing
  • Moving without the ball
  • Setting screens (i.e. creating a wall with your body so that your teammate can get away from his or her defender)
  • Boxing out (i.e. again, using your body as a wall so that the opposing player can’t get a rebound)

On defense, collaborative literacy consists of:

  • Calling out screens (i.e. letting your teammate know that the opposing player is setting a screen, so that your teammate can move around it)
  • Double-teaming (i.e. helping a teammate defend an opposing player)
  • Rotating (i.e. covering for your teammate when an opposing player gets by him or her)

None of these skills are easily apparent, in the same way that the individual skills of shooting and dribbling are. However, they are all physically easier to acquire than the individual skills. Anyone can pick up a ball for the first time and pass the ball reasonably well. The same can’t be said for dribbling or shooting. Calling out screens requires the ability to yell. Most people are naturally very good at that. All the other group skills simply require moving your body, running to a spot. You don’t have to teach your body anything new.

What makes these skills hard is knowing what to do in the right moment. You can discuss the mechanics of these, and you can learn a lot by watching others, but in order to embody these skills, you have to practice them. And unlike the individual skills, you can’t  practice these collaborative skills by yourself.

To some extent, you can learn these skills by osmosis, but what I’ve discovered from years of playing pick-up is that people rarely do. You need to be conscious of these skills in order to practice them. I’ve played pick-up basketball with people who have played their whole lives and yet who never move without the ball or box out.

This holds true with collaborative literacy in all contexts. How many people do you know at work who have a basic literacy around giving and receiving effective feedback, for example? How long have they been doing business?

In order to learn how to collaborate more effectively, we need to be conscious of what collaborative literacy entails. But, even more critically, we need to have opportunities to practice those. I actually think there’s a ton of good information on the basic skills of collaborative literacy, but there are very few supporting structures for practicing these intentionally. Leadership development programs, for example, focus almost entirely on individual skill development, but they only marginally cover collaborative skill development, and they generally offer very few opportunities to actually practice them.

If we’re to achieve this vision of a world where all of our collaborative experiences are merely one percent better, we need to create more structures for developing collaborative literacy.

Photo by Wade Menard. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. As a relevant aside, I searched through hundreds of CC-licensed Flickr pictures seeking something that embodied team play. I didn’t find any. All of the pictures highlighted an individual skill.

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