Thursday, January 14, 2010

On collaboration

A friend told me that she was thinking about getting a power couple to mentor her and her boyfriend as a couple. She said that people call her and her boyfriend a power couple because both of them are graduate students with ambitious career plans, and that the fact that both of them are so ambitious worries her because it's difficult to negotiate compromise and determine which fights to pick. This got me thinking about how there is little guidance to have the impressive, synergistic net horizontal* collaborations like these couples have.

I have been thinking about the issue of horizontal collaboration quite a bit in an academic context. While I have gotten advice about how to succeed as an individual and how to navigate the vertical advisor-student relationship, I've gotten significantly less guidance about how to handle situations where there are non-binding commitments between equals. I have been given little guidance about 1) finding someone I can work well with, 2) negotiating a set of goals, 3) negotiating interfaces for working, and 4) actually working with the person (communicating with the appropriate frequency/via the appropriate media, negotiating power and respect, compromising rather than withdrawing--and getting the other person to do the same, etc.)**. I am not even sure if this is the appropriate set of questions to be asking.

There are various reasons why I think people don't tend to give advice about how to enter into successful collaborations. First of all, the degree to which people are good at/enjoy working with others is often accepted as a personality trait that isn't likely to change. Secondly, many people have this ideal of the "lone genius" and believe that smart people do not need to work together. (When I told a professor that I wanted to work on my horizontal collaboration skills, he said I didn't need them because the best people work alone or with their students.) People also have a belief that people who don't work well with others don't desire to work with others. Yet another thing is that in many aspects of life, people don't get to choose who they work with, so understanding how to choose people you work well with and how to work with them isn't the most useful skill to have.

When I told a professor from undergrad about my desire to improve at peer collaboration, she suggested that I approach a peer and do a project in the intersection of our interests. Following her advice, I propositioned my officemate to enter not only into a collaboration (on a programming languages topic in the intersection of our interests, specifics to be decided) but also a meta-collaboration about how our collaboration is going. So far we have collaborated on better understanding the components of collaboration (the spectrum from horizontal to vertical, the size of the interface). Collaborate, collaborating, collaboration, collate***. I will let you know how this goes--I think these lessons will apply to life in general.


* I refer to vertical relationships as ones with clearly unequal power balance and horizontal ones where the power is equal and neither person's interests or goals subsumes the others.
** I think these things apply to romantic relationships as well.
*** One of these is not like the others.

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