How to collaborate?

It’s hard, working alone, to achieve your greatest impact. But when you collaborate, all kinds of great things become possible.

  1. Working alongside others in a similar field, you can build entirely new markets.
  2. With neighbouring businesses, you can drive up local trade, and help your community to flourish.
  3. With people you normally see as competitors, you can tackle something about your industry that troubles you all.
  4. With customers-as-collaborators, you can find ways to improve the products or services you offer, and even crowd-fund new ones.

With a huge variety of technical solutions available, these kinds of collaboration are becoming easier than ever. But technical solutions can never be enough, on their own, because collaboration is fundamentally about relationships. And, for some people, the potential for difficulty in our dealings with others can be enough to stop a collaboration even before it’s started.

But, happily, it’s easier to manage collaborative relationships than many people realise. The following points provide a framework to bear in mind, from start to finish. (I’d like to thank O2 for inspiring me to think this through, for a Power Hour masterclass on collaboration with Antony Morse.)

What do you want to achieve, that you can’t do alone?
Be really clear about this before approaching anybody. Make your plan very specific. It may change, over time, but if you aren’t clear about it to start with, nobody will know what you want from them.

Who to work with?
Some collaborators will be known to you already. Others won’t. With strangers, build some kind of relationship before asking for help. If you don’t know how to meet them, use Twitter or LinkedIn to tell them, honestly, about why you like what they do. When you’ve developed a relationship, you can say that you have an idea to share – but give them full permission to say “No, thanks.”

List your assumptions about the partnership, and what you promise to bring to it.
If you aren’t honest and open about your agenda at the start of a collaboration, you will find it hard to be open and honest later. It can be painful all round if you allow false expectations to arise, and then break them.

Give everybody permission to ask “stupid” questions, and to give feedback.
When people bring you problems and objections, it’s all too easy to feel resentful. But the best collaborators don’t resent – they offer thanks, and look for what’s useful in the points raised. Somebody might have saved you from bigger problems later – so positively encourage feedback, at any time.

If something’s nagging at you – name it!
If you feel like you’ve lost momentum – or you worry about any other aspect of the relationship – there’s a strong chance that others feel the same. Say what you feel – honestly, but without reproach – so that you can start to work out together what went wrong, and find a new way forward.

When you reach the end, celebrate
It’s imperative to set an end point in advance, or else you’ll all feel awkward about it. It can be a date, or a milestone related to your product or service. If you want to extend your work, do – but a clean end is often better. Either way, mark the end of the work with a proper celebration of all you’ve achieved.

If you put these simple tips into effect, and keep your working relationships in good health, you can collaborate more quickly and efficiently than ever, these days, thanks to the tech solutions currently available. As a tech enthusiast, I welcome anything that makes collaboration easier – and as an O2 customer myself I was delighted to learn about some of the new ones coming online – because it’s only through collaboration that I can hope to achieve the really great things I have in mind.

But what about you? What do YOU want to pull off – that you can’t do alone?