My Personal Path Towards Open Collaboration
Collaboration has existed in many forms since the dawn of time. We come together as teams to learn, to improve and to contribute. Collaboration is one of my favourite things, as I find it to be a brilliant example of humanity’s potential. We overcome many obstacles in order to create something that wasn’t there before, whether it be physical, relational, or conceptual. Open Collaboration is changing the way we work and is gaining more and more recognition. In brief, open collaboration is typically an online environment that supports the collective production of an artifact through a technologically mediated collaboration platform that presents a low barrier to entry and exit, and supports the emergence of persistent but malleable social structures. When I choose to write about my transition towards open collaboration, I was at first excited. And then terrified. Mostly because a part of me was ashamed. I loved the idea of open collaboration, but I couldn’t practice it very well and I didn’t know why.
Clinging to power
In retrospect, there were three main obstacles that I needed to overcome in order to embrace and practice the open collaboration idea. Firstly, I had to overcome notions of power. Have you ever been part of a team where you felt that you are working with some very talented people, and wondered if you would be able to keep up? Or alternatively, perhaps you’ve worked with others who hang on your every word, and some small part of you liked the edge you seemed to have? I have experienced both. When I was asked about my ideas from those seemingly more talented, I would tell them I was ‘still thinking’, when in actual fact, I already had four ideas that could have used some helpful input. And when I was asked how I came up with an idea, a method, or a solution by one who was keen to learn the process, I am ashamed to admit that I would sometimes simply shrug it off with an ‘it just came to me’, when I could have shared a little more insight into my thought process.
The question is, why? Why did I hold back? What was stopping me from sharing? Reading about leading across differences in Aigner and Skelton’s book, ‘The Australian Leadership Paradox’, I came across a passage that talked about collaboration and power. In summary, we react to power in groups, negotiating our own through our knowledge.
“When we feel we have less power and we are undervalued or unacknowledged, we hang on to what we have in the power and resources stakes… The tighter we hold on to what we have or know, the harder it is for us to innovate, take risks, and be open to difference and diversity.” (ibid)
That was my light bulb moment. It became clear why I clung so tightly to ideas. Relinquishing ideas for me had meant loosing my perceived value, and therefore power. How then did I move forward? The antidote for this mental power play was trust. By widening my circle of trust, I didn’t need to prove my value or power. By extending my trust to the team, and openly contributing, I could fully engage without the fear of loosing something.
Closely related to power, my second obstacle was recognition. Or more directly, the need for it. In a world where I like to think I’m contributing to the ‘greater good’, it was quite humbling to come to terms with the fact that a part of me craved constant recognition. I don’t believe that recognition is inherently bad, in fact I think that recognition is an empowering and necessary part of life. However, when the need for individual recognition becomes too dominant, then it’s not very useful. While I wasn’t asking for my name up in lights, I did crave the need to be praised for an individual identity. To be constantly validated as ‘someone’ in the mass; to be the creative one, the reliable one, or the visionary one. This led to disengagement, and an unwillingness to fully commit. Definitely a stumbling block when it came to open collaboration, where the power of the concept lies in the masses.
In order to move towards open collaboration, I had to stop focusing solely on my identity and also focus on that of the team. It wasn’t about sacrificing my individual identity and importance, but letting go of the idea that it needed to be constantly recognised and validated. Occasionally, yes, but not constantly. I used to play hockey, and it wasn’t useful to the outcome if I constantly needed to affirm that I was the wing, and wasn’t the wing really important, and just in case you forgot, I was the wing! Yes, I was the wing player, and that was recognised and important, but so was the midfielder and the goalie. We were all equally important and diverse, and recognised for such. We were also a team, and both identities went hand in hand. I couldn’t be one without the other. Such is the case with collaboration. Recognition is healthy, but it shouldn’t dominate the focus. Individuality is valued, and comes together to constitute the team.
The Art of Vulnerability
The last obstacle was perhaps my biggest one: vulnerability. Generally, I cower from its prospect, with the tendency to avoid it at all costs. I have a sneaking suspicion many people do! For me, this may materialise as the fear of saying what I really think, volunteering for something I’m not good at, or avoiding voicing anything that I suspect may be considered too stupid or crazy. The idea of open collaboration means that the feedback is constant, the environment ever changing, and the social structures emerging. Avoiding vulnerability is probably possible, but in return you forgo your ability to really be a part of it.
This was my hardest obstacle, because the solution lay with vulnerability. Overcoming this obstacle meant being vulnerable. By recognising, feeling and then accepting it. That was the hardest part: acceptance. Accepting that saying what I really think is intimidating but necessary, and there was nothing else for it. I found that when I was faced with this obstacle, I had to embrace it with the knowledge that strength is found in vulnerability: in the willingness to be wrong, or to alter what you had grown attached to.
Conclusion: Shifting from Ego to Eco
In all this fear and withholding, I had missed the big picture. My stumbling blocks were all bound by a similar theme: the focus on the advancement of the individual, to the detriment of the collective. It wasn’t about individual power, contribution or strength that made something great, but the power, contribution and strength of collaboration. Cue Aristotle talking about the whole vs the sum of it’s parts. The collective is so much stronger than the individual, remembering that each individual is important and unique. Open collaboration has such positive power in its potential. It embodies so many valiant ideals, ones that can take us forward in leaps and bounds. What I’ve learnt is this: find a movement, concept or idea you think is worthy and embrace it. If you stumble, find out why and start again. Think about it; talk about it; write about it. Offer it to the world. Something good may come from it, something bigger than you dared dream. Each experience is different, but each experience is valuable. Share your journey. This is mine.