Collaboration: Pathways to Success

Every voice has something to add, but you must speak to be heard.


How do we practice something we think we already do well? Most of us assume we are communicating clearly all the time. The problem with our communication is that we are fulfilling only half of the bargain; we have so much to say that we forget to listen (or we’re listening to ourselves). Yet, listening may be the most important element of collaboration. We credit ourselves with being attentive, but we recognize the real thing when we note: “She’s a good listener,” we inadvertently make an implicit confession; to listen well is rare.

The first step in listening well is simply to hear what someone is saying. The next step is to acknowledge what you “think” you’ve heard, and not simply by nodding in agreement – that is diplomacy. Echoing back to the speaker what you have understood reinforces the authenticity of the interaction and may clarify the message for others in the room. To listen effectively is to reflect just enough comprehension back to the speaker while devoting your attention to what is being said.

From the other side, to be listened to, fully and earnestly, is to be accepted. Real listening encourages and supports a deeper, mutual exchange. Of course, being heard is so unusual and so unexpected that it can also be uncomfortable. As mild panic settles in, we admonish ourselves: ‘Best say something useful!’

Opening the Door

Collaboration opens the door for more to enter. Inviting collaboration starts with the basics–hearing everyone introduce him- or herself. Further devices can be used to open things up. For example each participant might pin a thought, concern, or revelation anonymously to the wall. Barriers break down and people get more comfortable with one another. Later, each participant might put forward an alternative to the plan being discussed, or suggest three good reasons why a popular idea is mistaken.

Finding strengths and weaknesses becomes the shared work. Issuing an invitation to participate fully makes it possible to explore, weigh, and compare without injuring anyone’s self-esteem. The discussion becomes livelier, the results richer.

Useful Conflict

Now that the doors are open, we need to be prepared for whatever walks through – the good, the bad, the ugly … and it can get ugly. But that’s okay, because conflict is both unavoidable and essential in the context of collaboration. Until we push up against one another, until an earnest proposal meets an equally earnest rebuttal, we may be getting along, but we don’t know quite where we stand. Conflict can open a conversation about a fuller spectrum of possibilities. The acceptance of conflict demands openness.

Openness brings candor, candor brings conflict, and conflict signals that the collaboration is real. The problem is that conflict can remain under the radar, hidden in hallway conversations or whispered asides. Best to have it out in the open where it can be useful.

The Utility of Failure

Wrestling matches like this mean that ideas get pushed, tested, and strained. Failure results. The gurus of collaboration – like IDEO designer Tim Brown and education guru Ken Robinson – urge us to “fail early, and fail often.” Those most statistically successful collaborators – kindergartners – do not focus on failure at all. Their trials and errors are instead a seamless part of discovery (otherwise known as play). This works superbly for a short while until our parents, our educational system, and society at large indoctrinate us with definitions of right and wrong. Since acknowledgement of failure is a catalyst for any collaborative effort, pushing back against these powerful frameworks, while difficult, is essential to successful collaboration. We must accept inevitability of failure in order to transcend it. For those working alone, failure can be paralyzing. Members of a healthy collaborative group can insulate each other from fears that accompany failure. Nobody gets fired. All boats fall and rise with the tide.

Shared Aims

Collaboration requires a common aim – a direction – distinct from the tactical goals that support it. This defines a ‘page’ that everyone can turn to at the outset, the choirmaster’s C note that precedes the singing of the choir. Rather than restricting the conversation, a clearly articulated, shared aim, in fact, allows for more creative digression, offering wider insight and re-framing participation that may have appeared irrelevant.

The adoption of a shared aim carries with it a requirement: giving each participant a specific assignment. In sport, knowing your position and playing it promotes teamwork. The larger goal is to defeat the other team, but each player has different functions to perform to achieve it.


In the collaborative setting, people feel most comfortable when they know what their roles are and then use them as points of departure for lively, innovative play. The shared aim also allows for creative transcendence of “position” to generate unexpected combinations and creative results. Without a starting position, new alignments and combinations are not possible. We do not know where collaborative forces will lead. The unexpected strengths and interactions of the participants create endless possible outcomes that can’t be foreseen. Likewise, in jazz, an accepted tune or musical structure opens to tremendous freedom of expression in and around the implied form. The tune may never even be played … yet it remains present, the parent of delightful, improvisational offspring.

Tethered Digression

With improvisation comes digression. Not all digressions are created equal, since not every side trip is tethered to a common aim or “tune.” So often in a meeting, a wave of frustration rolls over us as someone wanders off the path of conversation. “Stick to the point!” we silently shout. It is true. Staying with the topic is essential to pushing things to a conclusion. Yet tethered digression may allow collaborators to discover useful territory that would have otherwise been overlooked. Creative collaboration must harness the forces of inevitable wandering and targeted “inefficiency.”

While the straight path marches towards the obvious horizon, divergence can broaden the field of vision. Meanwhile, it is not easy to pay attention when our fellow collaborators veer away from what we have been thinking. This again requires us to listen actively. As trust and familiarity and shared experiences accumulate, collaborators begin to trust ‘divergent’ detours and learn when and where to look for the ‘convergent’ pathways that allows a group to move forward.


Collaboration demands extra time, money, patience, and energy. Is it worth it? Is it a luxury or a necessity? Are we wasting time or (ultimately) saving it? Is a collaborative effort the best response or a shallow compromise?

As long as participants view collaboration as an indulgence, they will gravitate toward the straightest path to completion. This will certainly yield a solution, but not necessarily the best one. For any collective effort that will require widespread support in the future, shortchanging the collaborative process could prove detrimental. The group may find itself reworking and backtracking in pursuit of consensus. This costs time and money. It is better to embrace the collaborative process from the beginning and get it right the first time. When collaboration works, the results tend to be quietly durable; the conclusions balanced and robust.

When collaboration is absent, the results can be disastrous. Like it or not, we are increasingly, inextricably connected to these disasters.

A Flood of Confusion

On Sunday, August 25, 2005, Hurricane Katrina reached Category 4 intensity, with winds gusting to over 215 mph. In so many ways, the federal, state, and city governments were unprepared for the disaster that followed. Worse, the official response was slow, uncoordinated, inefficient, and ineffective. The heroes who emerged were the first responders. Their stories of creative collaboration contrasted sharply with those in positions of governmental authority, whose lack of coordinated efforts seriously delayed rescue initiatives. A striking example was the initial refusal and late acceptance of international assistance by the U.S. government.

There are, of course, complex institutional and bureaucratic impediments to what might have been a more collaborative response. At the same time, we see the need for both individual and organizational collaboration as we prepare for and deal with the environmental shifts that are occurring more often.

Deep Trouble

The Gulf Coast disaster provides a persuasive example of the enormous costs of weak collaboration.

We do not have to look far to see the complexity and depth of our self-generated local and global problems: they monopolize the news. The British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that flowed for three months in 2010 was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. For weeks, we collectively fell into the growing gap between our actual and imagined capabilities. We saw how we are inextricably connected to these failures of collaboration, how our fates are intertwined, and how we must meet these challenges together. If we believe the illusion that BP must solve its own problems alone, then we multiply the collective costs and undershoot collective potentials, and by wide margins. The BP spill left 4.9 million barrels of crude oil in a 580-square-mile section of the Gulf. Its effects will be felt for decades. Would the costs have been different in an environment that valued openness and collaboration?

Mining the Possibilities

There are, near at hand, instructive examples of our own potential to collaborate. The 2010 Chilean mining accident began when a collapse trapped 33 men 2,300 feet underground, where they survived for a record 69 days. Once they found the miners alive, the government took over the rescue from Compañía Minera San Esteban, a company notorious for its unsafe mines. Chilean authorities deployed three large drilling rig teams, nearly every government ministry, and sought the expertise of NASA along with that of more than a dozen international corporations.

Foreman Luis Urzúa’s levelheadedness and humor was instrumental in keeping the miners focused on survival. He credited the majority decision-making techniques employed in the collapsed tunnel for the positive esprit de corps and the group’s dedication to a common goal. “Everything was voted on. … We were 33 men, so 16 plus one was a majority.” Did the collaborative actions of these desperate men waste time, or buy it?

False Security

Are the rest of us really so different? Look at Fukashima’s Tepco nuclear reactor meltdown. Many concerns had been raised about plant safety in Japan, and many inspection reports had been falsified. The conversation about nuclear power was highly constrained and hierarchical…and it resulted in a massive gamble. A Japanese calamity becomes a global calamity. We are all starting to look a bit like a miner; we are stuck, the familiar tools and remedies no longer available. Someone said that there are no natural disasters, just natural events with dire human consequences. If every disaster is man-made, perhaps by working together, some of them might be un-made.


While creating Collaboration we often felt like we were stating the obvious – and we are. It feels obvious because we think we know how to collaborate, though we may have forgotten a few details. We think we collaborate all the time – and tell ourselves (and everyone else) that we do it so well. But the way we actually work tells a different tale. You might recall the parable of the blind men and the elephant. A group of blind men encounter an elephant and describe it very differently. Each experiences something completely unique – a tree trunk, a snake, a gurgling ocean, a rope – and a few were wildly poetic, beyond what anyone might see. In sum, their limited observations yielded a more complete picture of what was there, but without a collaborative lens to focus these impressions into a coherent whole, we are lost in the dark. If we do not make a concerted effort to share our perspectives, our world will be (like that of the blind men) small, subjective and incomplete.

We each have much to give. True collaboration creates the territory in which our individual talents, ideas, and energy harmonize with those of the wider community. Every voice has something to add, but you must speak to be heard. Collaboration is extraordinary when we participate knowingly and whole-heartedly, calling upon every resource. By sounding such a simple note, we hope to resonate with others who suspect that it is more fun, and often more beautiful to play together. Thank you for playing!

Barry Svigals, FAIA, writes about the origins of the book, Collaboration: “The idea of the book emerged from a wonderful collaboration with Trina Learned, who lured me into a presentation at the national convention of the Society of College and University Planners. Trina spearheaded the initial effort, however the book clearly required another level of involvement. Enter Maria Verrier and Jon Calame. What transpired was a gradual evolution of the most blissful working relationship I have ever experienced. Along the way and most assuredly at the finale, we had the creativity and editing talents of Randall Hoyt, graphic designer and long-time conspirator on other projects. Although as far as we know he has never written explicitly about collaboration, we must mention the name of Sir Ken Robinson. His ideas, spirit, and delightful humor came into our conversations so often; we could not fail to include him. Last, I want to acknowledge the patient forbearance of my partners at our architectural practice of Svigals + Partners, Jay Brotman and Bob Skolozdra, who took up the slack as I engaged in what was not immediately contributing to our bottom line. They believe as I do in the profound necessity to work and play together. In the spirit of collaboration, we are all thankful.”

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