The Value of Collaboration

by Michael Van Houten

Share everything.

That’s the first maxim in Robert Folgum’s best-selling book, All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten. And while it might sound a bit simplistic, “playing well with others” is an important reminder in our selfie-dominated, personal brand-obsessed, be-your-own-boss world where the message is clear: YOU CAN DO EVERYTHING BY YOURSELF.

Of course we all know that’s not true. My children are constantly reminded by their teachers (and their parents) that the best path to success involves asking lots of questions, getting feedback, and asking for help. In other words, it involves collaboration. And even “self-made” millionaires know how important collaboration is. At some point they’ve had to work with a financial advisor or a building contractor or a marketing team to help make their idea successful.

Because I’m a web developer, you’d think I would be the last person to talk about the benefits of collaboration. After all, many developers I know pride themselves on working alone for days on end in a dark room and coming up with solutions on their own. But, personally, I’m more energized and work more effectively when I’m around other people. In large part, that’s because over many years and jobs I’ve come to better understand the value of collaboration. Specifically, I’ve seen how ideas, teams and even personal lives have been transformed through the collaborative process.

Collaboration Makes You Stronger

So if collaborating is such a great idea, why do we shy away from it? Probably because it requires a willingness to say three words that are second only to “I’m Sorry” on the scale of difficult things to say: I DON’T KNOW. That’s right… collaboration means admitting you don’t know everything. So how is that supposed to make you stronger? Especially when most of us are hard-wired to bring our “A” game and be “the experts” in our professions?

As it turns out, identifying and sharing our weaknesses is actually empowering. By becoming vulnerable, we open ourselves up to getting help and even learning something new in the process. For example, since I’m a “web guy” it’s often assumed that I know everything there is to know about technology. Surprise surprise…I don’t. You might need to get someone else to fix your printer for you. In fact, if I told you I COULD fix your printer, I might end up doing more harm than good. On the other hand, admitting that I don’t have that skill empowers me to work with you so that we can figure out a solution together. Now we’re both stronger because we can help each other out. Now, we’re a team.

Collaboration Makes Teams Stronger

Speaking of teams, one of my favorite moments in sports was watching the Detroit Pistons defeat the VERY heavily-favored Los Angeles Lakers to win the 2004 NBA Championship. Fans and commentators alike were astounded to watch this rag-tag bunch of misfit basketball players completely dismantle a “dream team” of superstars in 5 games.

Why were the Pistons better? Because individual team members looked beyond themselves and worked together to make the whole team better. As part of that process, each player had to identify and expose both his strengths and weaknesses so that the team could play better as one unit. Team members knew that Center (Big) Ben Wallace wasn’t going to score lots of points, but boy, could he dominate on rebounds. Forward Richard Hamilton wasn’t the greatest on defense, but his teammates could always count on him to get open for passes and make quick shots. In a normally ego-heavy environment, Coach Larry Brown was able to harness this selfless approach and promote a more collaborative effort among his team. As a result, the team reaped the ultimate benefit: an NBA title.

The Lakers, on the other hand, were full of selfish superstar players who were focused more on themselves than on the team. Were Kobe and Shaq great players? Absolutely. But they cared more about their own success than the success of the team. And the way they hogged the ball and scored most of the team’s points probably didn’t sit well with other team members. In an environment like that, trust falters, camaraderie suffers, and the team weakens.

Collaboration Makes Ideas Stronger

Not surprisingly, a group of people (like the Pistons) who trust one other and have good chemistry will be able to collaborate more effectively. And that leads to better ideas that get generated more quickly. Don’t believe me? Just listen to all those great Beatles songs that were written by Lennon AND McCartney over a span of only 7 years or so (I mean, seriously, just listen to “A Day in the Life” and you’ll know what I’m talking about). Then, go listen to some of the Beatles’ solo albums. Hear the difference?

That’s not to say that collaboration is easy or is always the best process. Bringing your idea to others means that you give up some ownership of it. And there’s some risk involved, too. Your idea might get watered down, someone else will take the credit for it or, worse, someone will flat out steal it.

But I say the risk is worth it, because in the majority of cases, the ideas you end up with in a collaborative process will be much stronger than if you just tried to do it by yourself. And I’m not alone in thinking that. Even former Apple CEO Steve Jobs—not known as someone who “played well with others”—saw the value of collaboration. He knew that he couldn’t make Apple Computer truly great on his own: He needed the technical savvy of his trusted parter Steve Wozniak to make that happen. I’d say the result has been pretty successful, wouldn’t you?

I’m extremely lucky to work for an organization that values collaboration. If you stopped by the Navigate office on any given day (which we welcome, by the way), you’d probably see about 10 different conversations going on at the same time; some creative, some strategic, some financial, some just flat out funny. But they are ALL collaborative. Even when one of us has an extremely well-thought-out and developed idea, we share it with the team because we know that someone else at the table might have a different perspective to offer, which will enhance the idea, propel it further, and create a better end-result. That benefits us, but, more importantly, it benefits our clients. Are you doing the same for your customers?