A recent call from a old collaborator reminded me of the importance of “psychic sharing.” Often, when we think of sharing, it’s around something material and measurable, like saving money. There's nothing wrong with that, but there are also undeniable benefits to shouldering a burden, a problem, or, in the case of my phone call, a creative endeavor. The end product, be it a fresh solution or groundbreaking idea, is never what you thought it would be. It turns out to be something neither of you could have imagined, or executed, alone–something better, because two minds trump one.
In the past, I’d written three books with this man. Our respective roles were typical of 20th century collaborations: he the expert, and I the writer. I was his “with.” Now he wanted something different: to write a book together, as equals.
His personal reasons aside, psychic sharing is in the zeitgeist. And why not? The Internet has made it easier to share ideas and, equally important, economic pressures are causing many professionals to reexamine old assumptions about career, income, and credit. Given a good partnership (more on that below), it’s easier and certainly more fun to share the process from idea to execution. In short, psychic sharing lightens the burden.
Of course, not all collaborations go smoothly. I’ve been there, too. But I’ve also picked up some tips and warnings signs along the way:
Collaborate with a consequential stranger, not a loved one. Your loved ones might lay down their lives for you, but they often lack the connections, objectivity, and know-how that will inspire your mind to soar beyond the confines of the familiar. In fact, researchers have found that people who reach out for information and advice from people in other divisions, other companies, even other industries are more successful than those who stay in their own “silos.” You might become good friends one day (or not)–arguably, psychic sharing may be the best way to launch a more intimate relationship. But it’s better not to start out that way.
Chose someone who is different from you. You may have a shared interest or a common cause with your collaborator but have completely different orientations and backgrounds. In The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools and Societies, Scott Page, a professor of complex systems, writes about InnoCentive.com–a website where a “seeker” poses a complex scientific problem and members of the Global Solvers Network offer solutions. When “solvers” from multiple scientific disciplines tackle a problem, they are more likely to come up with an answer than if, say, only chemists put forth their ideas.
Redefine “equal” in terms of respect. Equality is not about degrees, titles, or previous successes. A good partnership is as much dependent on experience, observations, and street smarts as it is on expertise. You may be younger and less credentialed, and lack the traditional trappings of “success,” but it’s a question of what resources you bring to the table, not how you got there. If you think, or feel, that you’re superior or inferior, it’s harder to be a true partner. And if you don’t respect the other person or vice versa, the partnership is probably doomed.
Let go of control, ownership, and credit. Craig Wynett, the man who conceived of Corporate New Ventures, an idea factory within Procter and Gamble, believes that innovation happens when “you don’t care who gets credit.” The Swiffer mop, known in-house as a “diaper (or maxi-pad) on a stick,” was the result of sharing–in and outside the company. Divisions that normally didn't collaborate–scientists who worked with hard-surface solutions and those who developed non-woven materials–combined forces with marketing and advertising people, as well as consumers. The good news, Wynett maintains, is that no one quite remembers who did what.
Find ways to share that suit both of you. Logistics, familiarity with technology, personal style: all these and more can affect partners’ comfort level in a work collaboration (or a marriage for that matter). Some people prefer speaking their ideas, while others like to ponder and write. I once had a collaborator with whom I had to tone down my New York fast talk in our “discussions,” which felt like arguments to her. Finding common ground can be hard, but try to split your differences–have some work sessions in a mode that makes your partner comfortable. Most important, remember that “your” way isn’t necessarily better; it’s just familiar.
Relish the experience, not just the product. We’re hard-wired to collaborate and share. When we’re with someone who stimulates our mental juices or helps us see an old picture through new eyes, it’s exhilarating and productive. It’s what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi refers to as a “flow” experience. You’re engaged and absorbed, and the rest of the world disappears for that moment. Flow can happen alone, but when it happens with someone, it’s magical.