Team or Collaborative Player?

apples-oranges.jpgby Ingrid Dragotta:
To many, the words “teamwork” and “collaboration” seem to be synonyms but, in my experience, these formations play out differently in several meaningful ways.
Let’s start with how a team functions or dysfunctions. The Webster definition of “teamwork” is “work done by several associates with each doing a part but all subordinating personal prominence to the efficiency of the whole.” That may be what teamwork is supposed to be, but it rarely works out that way.

Here’s my story regarding teamwork: I am a product designer with five years experience designing kids’ shoes and toys at two major corporations. I have worked on various sized teams, some good and some not. One of the first things I noticed at CCA is that teamwork is also integral to MBA programs. 26 students were quickly separated into six teams of four or five. I found a group of five and joined a team, and that’s when I realized how childhood playground insecurities still haunt me today. As a twin, I like to think that I am a natural teammate: whether I like it or not, I came out as part of a pair! In corporate or academic teamwork, however, there is a competitive rush to get in, mark your territory, become a leader or a worker or a slacker, have endless meetings and arguments about petty things, pontificate or withdraw, and force or overrule consensus. This is rule by committee, which can often lead to mediocrity and dysfunction. If this really means teamwork, I would be the first to admit my team skills need a little work.
Webster’s definition of “collaboration,” not counting the ones about collaborating with the enemy, is “to labor together” or, more astutely, “to work jointly with others together, especially in an intellectual endeavor.” Collaboration, to me, is the best level of teamwork. Those I have found rewarding have been formed for a specific purpose. They bring together different disciplines to share and integrate their strengths, and to learn from others in the process. In this way, collaboration is different from teamwork. I love projects that enable me to work with individuals with whom I would not have normally interacted. Communication has fewer rules and boundaries because personalities are set aside in favor of skill sets.
Collaboration makes me think of people wanting to come together to unite and work on a project, not for the sake of building (or faking) a team, but for the sake of the project or cause. Collaboration is instinctively multi-functional. Each person serves a purpose and adds something different and unique to the project. As a collaborator, I bring my knowledge and my expertise into a group setting, and am there eager to share and to learn from others. What I like best about collaboration is that it is more often one-on-one and more intimate. Back-and-forth is constructive, not petty or postured. Casual conversations or even meetings mean learning quickly about the different elements of the business. Marketing knows marketing, engineering knows engineering, design knows design and materials, and quality control knows quality control. It is about the project, not about building a team or holding each other accountable in order to CYA or look good.
As a female industrial designer in a somewhat male-dominated professional field, I have been taught to be strong and not show emotion. I think this is why I gravitate more happily towards groups that focus more on the project side versus team maintenance. This class, LiveE and dMBA Program have taken a new stance on business. At first I struggled with some of the methods. Starting with this class, I have talked more about feelings than actual topics. When did business get so mushy? Why is my team always talking about how they feel? Is this a West Coast thing? Arghhh, grumble, grumble…
So how to come to grips with the “teamwork” versus “collaboration” divide? The first thing that I have learned throughout this semester is that it really is about taking myself out of the equation. This does not mean to lose all the attributes that make me, me. What I have struggled with is the mix of personalities that seem to get in the way. What I have realized is that it is my own judgments and personality traits that have led me to be uncooperative. It is my ego that nags at me telling me that this is happening only to me and that this is my project and therefore my experience.
I now get that adding emotion back into the curriculum is not suggesting that we all turn into a bunch of crying idiots; instead it merely recognizes that there are emotions and feelings involved with decision making. The trick is how to move beyond the team dynamic into a more collaborative model where the focus is not based on people but on the project. This starts with developing a deep understanding of who I am, how I think, and how I communicate with others. Then it takes practice and control by developing listening skills that allow me to hear information without absorbing every word personally. Most of all, it is about acceptance of others and myself. I am looking forward to my next collaborative project.

These articles were created as part of the course work for “Live Exchange” the foundational course on communication for The MBA Design Strategy Program at California College of the Arts. Read more about the project here.

Leave a Reply