4 Golden Rules for Building a Powerful Collaboration

This article first appeared in Alpha Efficiency Magazine: Issue 6: Completing the Puzzlesubscribe and buy here

One of the objectives of this issue is to celebrate the half-year anniversary of Alpha Efficiency magazine. Bojan and I are incredibly proud of what we’ve achieved so far and humbled by the interest and enthusiasm it has received.

Alpha Efficiency Magazine could not have been possible if we hadn’t built a powerful collaboration from scratch. Many people don’t realize that Bojan and I have only known each other for 18 months; to develop Alpha Efficiency as a whole -but in particular the magazine- we’ve had to learn how we can work together most effectively.  It hasn’t been without its speed-bumps, but undoubtedly the strength of our partnership is a key success factor of Alpha Efficiency magazine.

But what makes an effective collaboration? How do you make it work?

 

Cultivate Trust and Respect

When Bojan and I first came to know each other online, we had been writing independently for different lengths of time.  Bojan had been working on Alpha Efficiency for several years with a strong technology and a productivity focus; I had been writing for about six months, principally about my personal experiences trying to improve my own productivity.

Our relationship began when we started to exchange ideas by commenting on each other’s blog; Specifically, I wrote a long post disagreeing with something Bojan had written on GTD. Although we were disagreeing at the time, I think we both recognized something kindred in the way we articulated ourselves and our attitudes to productivity and also towards each other.  I certainly felt an immediate respect for Bojan and regarded as somebody whose ideas I was interested in exploring.  I wanted to hear more of what he had to say and to explore what his opinions were on my own writing.

I believe the best collaborations start out from a position of mutual respect. You may not be completely aligned in terms of opinion or worldview (in fact I’ll come on to why I think it’s better if you do hold different views) but it’s important that you feel personally invested and interested in the other person’s position.

Trust is another important component that underpins collaboration. It’s difficult – and perhaps unwise – to trust another person implicitly at the start of a relationship but it does require you to set out with a basic level of trust if you’re going to make any progress. Personally, I knew nothing about Bojan outside of his writing (nor he about me). I trusted my judgment that he seemed like a person with integrity but I had little concrete evidence to support my initial assessment.

You may not be completely aligned in terms of opinion or world view…but it’s important that you feel personally invested and interested in the other person’s position.

Trust becomes a critical issue when the collaboration requires a shared financial investment; fortunately for Bojan and myself we both had the existing infrastructure that enabled us to explore an initial partnership without significant financial risk; I started to write on Alpha Efficiency and our initial efforts were focused on exploring our shared ideas rather than immediately investing in new capability or attempting to create new revenue streams.

Two things made a clear difference in this “discovery period”. First, Bojan set out very clearly his vision for our partnership.  He explained to me that he wanted us to be equals – to have joint ownership of the brand he had cultivated. He was clear about his desire to grow the reach of Alpha Efficiency and to share the burden of constantly creating new and insightful content. In support of this goal, I was clear what was expected of me and what my role would be. I wasn’t interested in “contributing”, but the idea of making a bigger impact in partnership with a like-minded person was very compelling to me.

The other thing Bojan did in the early stages was to lay bare the inner workings of Alpha Efficiency, which was to be the brand we’d be developing. This included the existing revenue streams, ideas, relationships etc. He did so with no guarantees of how I would behave with access to this information. Whilst his actions didn’t represent a significant financial risk – he hadn’t shared his banking details or anything like that – it was a leap of faith to grant me access to the inner workings of something he had developed alone for several years. Bojan made an initial investment of trust in me and this set the benchmark for the basis of our collaboration.

Respect Each Other’s Differences

I’ve already mentioned that Bojan and I didn’t see eye to eye on all matters; We still don’t. But it’s important to recognize why you’re setting out on a collaboration in the first place. Two people with an identical world view can be a powerful team for certain enterprises but in far more cases the best results come from variety and balance. This is not to be confused with conflicting or opposing views, which could be very difficult to resolve (for example, could you collaborate on a political project with someone who holds opposing political views?). It’s important to gauge the extent and relevance of your differences. Bojan and I hold quite different opinions on a few political and social issues, but they’re not particularly relevant to the content of our collaboration. I can still have challenging conversations with him as a friend, but we’re rarely at loggerheads when working on an Alpha Efficiency project because we’re much more closely aligned in our thinking when it comes to productivity and associated themes. That said, Bojan has some very different ideas to me when it comes to how we should develop our business; he has ideas about marketing; the layout of the website; what we should write about and many of those ideas take us in different directions to where I would naturally want to go.

I don’t always share Bojan’s enthusiasm for a particular idea and sometimes I will tell him so. But in a significant number of cases, I’ll just go with it and see where it takes us.  Sometimes we’ll be happy with the results, sometimes we won’t.  But by being willing to explore those ideas that I’m not entirely comfortable with we get to develop Alpha Efficiency in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if I’d challenged constantly.  A good example of this is the magazine itself; I wasn’t sure that a digital publication was a great idea, but Bojan was enthused and I decided to run with it. Bojan was right; I was wrong. We benefited from my willingness to respect and explore Bojan’s different ideas, and he does the same for me.

I don’t always share Bojan’s enthusiasm for a particular idea and sometimes I will tell him so. But in a significant number of cases I’ll just go with it and see where it takes us.

Communicate Openly

In many ways, a working partnership is like a full-on relationship. You become attuned to each other, sensitive to the other’s disposition and emotionally invested in their response. You seek their approval and can be hurt or upset when they don’t behave the way you expect them to. For this reason, it’s important to learn how to communicate with your project partner.  Over time, Bojan and I have learned how to articulate ourselves through a variety of media – iMessages, emails, Evernote notes and even virtual voicemails.  There are two key attributes of these communications: Variety and Clarity. Firstly, it’s important that we’re using a number of different formats for our communications. iMessages is great when we’re just touching base or catching up on an action, but it’s not great for fleshing out ideas. Evernote notes are good for todo lists and outlines, but speaking directly (or leaving a voicemail) is best for those times when you want to convey something with feeling or passion. Secondly, it’s important to be clear and also to seek clarity. Misinterpretation is a real risk for virtual exchanges like iMessages, which increases the need to be clear and succinct. Thought about it. Let’s proceed might seem like a clear message to you, but does the recipient know exactly what it is to which you are referring? Equally, sarcasm and humor should be used with care.

In my exchanges with Bojan, I’ve found the best approach is, to be honest, and expressive almost to the point of caricature; that is, to amplify how I might normally express myself in person when I’m communicating by other means. I’m very clear and honest about how I’m feeling and if I’m frustrated or worried I will say so.  Bojan does the same. In this way, there is little room for misunderstanding or unexpressed discontent.

One positive side effect of this approach is that Bojan and I are now very comfortable giving each other a kick when it’s needed. I need you to step up and do X is a perfectly feasible conversation for us to have (and over the last six months we’ve both had occasion to say it to each other).  We’ve removed the usual communications boundaries because we needed to and have benefited as a result.

Build a Friendship

I said earlier that it’s difficult or impossible to build a collaboration around a specific theme with someone who holds opposing views on that theme; the flip side to this is that whilst it’s possible to work professionally with someone with whom you have little interest outside of your project, but I think the partnership becomes much more powerful when you invest the time and effort in cultivating a friendship. Perhaps as much as 50% of all the conversations Bojan and I have are completely unrelated to Alpha Efficiency. I know the inner workings of Bojan’s life and he knows mine.  We’ve made the effort to get to know each other, to be interested in the other’s life and have become good friends as a result.  This has a multiplier effect on the positivity of the trust, respect, and openness I talked about earlier.

These four golden rules may seem obvious, but they have formed the basis of a successful collaboration and without them, I don’t believe we would have succeeded.  We built our partnership on a foundation of trust and respect, we respected each other’s differences, we communicated openly and we forged a friendship. As a result, we strike out in new directions together, we bask in our shared success and we support each other in difficult times. This is how we define a powerful collaboration.