What makes collaborations work?

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I listened to a speech by Andrew Bovell, the well known Australian playwright and screenwriter, on ABC Online last week where he was delivering the 2012 Foxtel Screenwriters’ Address. You can find it here.

Amongst other things,  Bovell talked about what makes a good writing collaboration – and to paraphrase his words – he said there are two things you need to be able to do. You need to say yes to ideas. You need to not care about credit.

In my experience each of these things is very hard to do. Taking the first one- saying yes to ideas.  It sounds easy.  Some of us are naturally divergent thinkers – we like opening discussions up and get energy from playing around with ideas.  You’d think we’d be good at being receptive to the ideas of others – and we can be.  But sometimes the ideas of others takes us away from our own. Sometimes we don’t want to listen, or we just don’t listen. Or our critical thinking starts to kick in and we start to think that the ideas are ridiculous – it’s hard to withhold judgement.

Then again, some of us are convergent and want to get everything sorted and tied up as soon as possible.  An ideas session that continues to open things up and explore can feel almost physically painful until there is a solution.

Working in government I found that it was hard to keep new ideas alive in the face of critical yet confident colleagues. Often only one person was needed to kill an idea off, but many people were needed to keep an idea alive. Government departments are rarely places that say yes.

The issue of ‘taking credit’ is equally difficult.  It’s natural to want recognition and acknowledgement. ‘Success has many parents’ and so on.  When people collaborate it can be unspoken that one of them has more power. So if you want to have a successful collaboration you need to pick the right person to work with, and you need to be the right person to work with.

The trouble in the area of city collaboration is there is a real tension between collaborating well and succeeding or winning.  People that don’t get the credit can be invisible. People who are invisible can be dismissed – they can be written out of history when they may have been the only reason something worked.

It feels as though we’re on the cusp of a new era, heading into a new unknown in terms of our economy, our technology, our society – an era of big, complex problems. Intuitively it feels to me that the attributes of collaboration as succinctly described by Andrew Bovell – will be needed more and more. Saying yes to ideas and being prepared to share the credit.

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