"Did you do that by yourself?!!"

by | Jun 14, 2014

We say it to children all the time. First they’re riding in Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Then the training wheels of scaffolding are gone and they’re on their own.

“Did you do that all by yourself?!!”, we exclaim.

No doubt it was said to us all as children at some point.

But at varying stages of our development certain compliments reach their expiration date and cease to be relevant or helpful. (I suspect most adults would find praise for a successful bowel movement a tad patronising.)

“Did you do that all by yourself?!!” however, seems to have no used-by date. As adults, lone achievement still holds mystical status in our collective consciousness. But collaboration is human. Mundane.

However, according to everything I’ve read thus far on the matter (I’m no expert but I’ve read some), collaboration is better practice. If it’s results that you want, collaborate! Moreover, the solo act may not only represent inferior practice, it may also be a bit of a myth anyway. Michelangelo, Hitchcock – they all had teams of helpers.

As a culture, we associate isolation with genius. But collaboration may be smarter (if less glamorous).

I grew up idolising the work of many a Nashville singer/songwriter. Collaborative writing seems to be the done-thing in that town. And do not all the best songs come out of Nashville, yes??

As I write this blog post I sit listening to my album “Nightlight” being mixed. 4 of the 10 songs on this album were co-written. In fact, the entire album has been a collaboration between the producer/engineer, the musicians and myself.

I see 2 distinct kinds of collaboration. There’s the kind where I stick to my domain and you stick to yours. You write the lyrics and I’ll write the music. We may have suggestions for one another. But essentially, you stay out of my way and I stay out of yours. As far as the ego is concerned, this is the much safer option.

Then there’s the kind where 2 or more people attempt to do the same task together. This is a far riskier course for the ego. But the results speak.

There are 2 songs on this album where my husband Steve and I co-wrote the lyrics. The routine goes like this. I give an unfinished lyric to Steve. He rewrites it and gives it back, usually coupled with, “Sorry, I changed it a lot. I just didn’t find what you wrote inspiring”. I get mad. Outbursts of “I can’t use this!” and “This is not even the same song!” follow. Several days later I concede to incorporate some of Steve’s ideas into my original lyric. The process repeats until both parties are satisfied.

With my other writing collaborator, Peta van Drempt, the process is similar but with a great deal more diplomacy. (We co-wrote the music on a song called “Yurora”.) There are no outbursts of “You ruined my song!” or “What the hell am I supposed to do with that?” (Peta and I do not have 12 years of marriage behind us. We tread gently.) There were 5 versions of the melody before we were both happy.

This game of tug-of-war is by far the most difficult kind of collaboration. But in the end, it yields results.

Steve Jobs famously pulled the plug on launching the Apple Store right at the last minute, when one of his collaborators raised a concern. Jobs was pissed. But he listened and went with his colleague’s concerns because he trusted completely in the collaborative process. (And deep down he knew his colleague was right. Did I mention he was pissed, though?)

So if collaboration really is best practice, why not do it all the time?

Ah, the ego.

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, Patrick Lencioni articulates those dynamics that ruin collaboration:

  1. Absence of trust
  2. Fear of conflict  (Steve and I certainly don’t have that after so many years together!)
  3. Lack of commitment
  4. Avoidance of accountability
  5. Inattention to results

The number one factors in my successes with Steve and Peta so far have been; a safe emotional environment that comes from mutual admiration and respect (frequently expressed); and an ongoing conversation about the conversation (Are we happy with how things are going? Are we happy with the manner in which we critique each other’s work? Do we feel safe to give and receive critique?) We also share similar views about what makes a song truly great (a convergence of taste cannot be taken for granted!) and are committed to excellence.

I believe every factor on Lencioni’s list stems from a fragile ego from both or one of the involved parties. It’s Narcissus and Echo all over. One person acts superior and authoritative. The other discredits their own “worthless” ideas. One person blows-up at any whiff of critique. The other person becomes too scared to speak up. One person fears sharing the success and begins an act of sabotage, cancelling appointments and perpetually changing their mind. The other tries to drive the project forward nevertheless, but won’t be heard. We’ve all been there.

I’ve learned to read the signs and tread carefully before entering into a collaboration. My red flags are big-noting, grandiose promises (“I’ll make you a huge success!”), and relentless, mindless putting down of everybody else’s work.

Instead I look for quiet confidence coupled with manageable levels of self-deprecation, and genuine excitement and wonder at another’s work.

And I think, “Let’s play tug-of-war!”