Collaboration Rocks!

| By TMA World


At my 21st birthday party, my father decided to say a few words—a very few words. “What can I say about my son?” he said. “Well, he’s an individualist!” I knew what he meant, but ironically, my life at that time was defined by collaboration.

A long-time friend and I had started a “band.” Neither of us had or could play an instrument, although my friend did have a tambourine. Not to be put off, we sent for a mail-order guitar. We didn’t know when we took it out of the box that it wasn’t tuned properly, but that didn’t stop us. We kept it tuned the way it was and made up our own chords. Ignorance can be a powerful innovator.

When we started the band, neither of us had been involved in each other’s lives for some time, but we quickly discovered a shared passion: self-expression through song writing. Even when we had only made up three chords, we started crafting music and lyrics.

Nothing was formal about the collaboration; we didn’t divide up roles or set goals. Sometimes I would create the music and lyrics, and sometimes he would. Sometimes I would get a fragment of a tune, and he would build on it, or vice versa. Other times, I would put some lyrics together, and he would say, “They’re perfect for this tune I’m working on.” It was very fluid, very natural, and unforced.

In today’s language, we were practicing emergent collaboration (informal, unstructured, flexible, and often spontaneous).  Today, I am involved in more structured collaborations (formal, clearly defined, and planned), but I often return to questions formed in those early years.

Do we:
Have a shared passion?
Keep our promises?
Find a way through disagreements?
Contribute our fair share of the work?
Explore each other’s ideas?
Value our differences?
Keep learning?
Have fun in the process?

Shared Passion

I’ve mentioned our shared passion for self-expression. It was the age of the singer-songwriter, and despite being non-musicians, writing songs resonated with us.

With no shared passion, energy is lost, creating stagnation, resistance, and poor results. Collaboration becomes a grind. It’s hard to be excited about every project at work, but being aware of what makes you fully engaged enables you to contribute more productively. Is it the content, the challenge, the relationships, the learning, the rewards and recognition, or a mix?

Keeping Promises

Having grown up together, trust wasn’t an issue. We got irritable with each other, but not because of a lack of trust. It’s different in the virtual workplace where you often don’t know people well, if at all. You might never meet your colleagues face-to-face, but that doesn’t mean trust is impossible. In the virtual workplace, we have to rely on swift trust (trust that is assumed from the beginning). The next level of trust will be mostly outcome based (keeping our promises). A deeper level of trust develops over time when strong ties are built through demonstrating reliability and mutual support.

Managing Disagreements

Times get tough, stress and anxiety intensify, and people get tired and frustrated. The way forward was to never take things personally, never get defensive, remember the good times, give yourself some distance, and never leave it too long before communicating again (in our case, usually over a hot curry and a pint of beer). When you are collaborating virtually, it’s important to make sure disagreements come to the surface quickly. Virtual disagreements often lie beneath the surface where they are dormant until there’s a sudden explosion!


With a shared passion and trust, a fair workload was never an issue. We weren’t counting each other’s contributions; counting would have been counterproductive. What mattered was the quality of the outcome, not the process—which was different every time.

In the virtual workplace, the situation is more complex; relationships are often less well founded; measurement for some tasks can be helpful. It’s often easier to hide and freeload in a virtual collaboration, so fairness must not only done, but be “seen” to be done.


When you are involved in a collaboration, it’s easy to become protective of your input. Rather than say, “No,” to each other’s ideas, we would say, “Let’s play with that for a while and see where it takes us.” Many ideas were dead ends, but we gave each one a chance to prove itself. Saying, “No,” would have created resentment, and killed off some great ideas.

Valuing Differences

We were very different people. After high school, I had continued my education, whereas my band partner went to work in a factory. I was the melancholic introvert and shy around others. He was more of the extrovert and better socially. At first, I was better with lyrics and he was better with melody. That didn’t matter—we desired an outcome bigger than ourselves and knew that to achieve it, we had things to learn from one another.


Starting from a position of total ignorance, we had no choice but to learn. The learning was never formal and there were many gaps. We never did, for example, learn to play guitar with orthodox tuning, but we would listen and absorb all kinds of music and watch others perform.

Having Fun

It wasn’t all fun; in fact, at times it was grueling and unrewarding (in so many ways). We didn’t always please audiences; our folky-inspired songs—á la Simon & Garfunkel—didn’t captivate everyone. But we had enough belief in ourselves to keep going, and there were enough shows in which the audience was very receptive, and we could genuinely have fun on stage.

The workplace can be a difficult place to find fun. We can’t control what work comes our way, but we can always control our responses. If you set yourself the challenge of having fun, you’ll find ways to make it happen.

So what about the band?

Musicians found ways to play along with our out-of-tune guitars and homemade chords, and we recorded two albums for a major record company. Collaboration rocks!

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