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A Collaborative Spirit, Easier Said Than Done

Kate Schmidgall September 07, 2023 | 8 MIN 42 SEC READ

“Collaborative” is one of BitterSweet’s core values and some days I wish that it wasn’t.

It would be much easier and faster to not ask for — wait for, respond to — anyone else’s thoughts on my thinking before I let it lead to action. Like most founders, intuition and a scrap of experience was all I had in the early years — it’s what helped us break through those abysmal small business success rates — which is to say, dethroning what seemingly got us where we are takes not a little courage. Like most customers, BitterSweet’s clients require hard-driving progress and expect perfection. We need to be moving at a very swift (albeit, healthy and sustainable) pace — always. Practically speaking, I often don’t have time or energy to go ten rounds with a question faucet. Maybe two, but then we need to make decisions and move on.

Reflecting more broadly, entrepreneurs and small business owners are incentivized and ‘taught’ to make quick decisions (a lot of them), learn by doing, move fast and break things. I’ve yet to see ‘collaborative’ (nevermind ‘good listener’ or ‘empathic’) make the Top 10 list of attributes people admire in entrepreneurs or business leaders. Of course humility often makes the cut, thanks to Jim Collins’ paradigm shifting research, but humility doesn’t require workflow adjustments and complex calendaring the way collaboration does. In my experience, the archetypal successful entrepreneur is highly hubristic and directive, not prone to inviting input or devoting significant time to integrate said input meaningfully or consistently.

Of course I’ve crossed paths with sterling exceptions like Max DePree of Herman Miller, who wrote my favorite management book on this topic, but by and large I do not see ‘collaborative’ as a quality the for-profit sector celebrates much at all, particularly in founders. And yet, our team chose it as one of our six core values. Why and what does it mean? That’s what I’d like to explore.

A Few Words on What Collaboration Isn’t

A collaborative team culture does not require that every person weighs in on every thing. That’s nonsensical for all the obvious reasons. It does, however, require that each team member continually matures their understanding of each other team member’s unique perspective, gifts, talents, experience, and insights and as much as is practical, invites input incisively and at appropriate moments — preferably when ideas, approaches, concepts, solutions are still malleable and not when they’re not.

A collaborative team culture does not necessarily thrive with casual, constant back and forth. In my view that’s like endlessly pushing paint across a canvas instead of painting. The fewer “Hey, can you just take a look at this real quick?” Slack messages, the better. Most professionals structure their time, order their priorities, and discipline their focus. Personally, I’ll be happy to contribute to anyone else’s tasks or thinking so long as they don’t bump into me sideways with it or drop it in my lap on fire.

Collaboration is not an excuse to add anything distracting or unhelpful to the process. I once was hosting a few of our neighbor kids for a weekend and decided we could bake banana bread together — a favorite activity and treat for all of us. Elijah measures out the dry ingredients into a bowl, Kevin measures and mixes the wet ingredients in a different bowl, and little Zach was given the honor of mixing the two together. As he’s stirring vigorously, delighted by the responsibility, he pauses suddenly and sneezes right into the bowl. Then continues stirring. It all happened so fast — all I could do was laugh and hope 350* was hot enough to bake that unexpected contribution clean. Bottom line: Try not to sneeze in other people’s stuff — be mindful of what input is truly needed, and not just what you’d like to offer.

There is a kindness and an etiquette that needs to develop in order for collaboration to lead to team flourishing, not flustering.

Basic Etiquette of Collaboration

There are a few tenets of collaboration that BitterSweet has found useful, both in terms of how to invite collaboration from others (how to open ourselves and our ideas to broader input and perspective with confidence) and how to give and receive input magnanimously.

How to Invite

Collaboration is a reflection of respect. If I respect another’s experience and unique perspective, I will make time for it. In time I might even depend on it. A quick audit of those we solicit input from most regularly will reveal quite a bit about who we most respect. Perhaps that will also lead us to some reflection as to whose perspective is missing and provide an opportunity to expand our circle — considering others whom we respect but might have to go out of our way to include.

Collaboration requires forethought and intentionality. Anticipating and communicating our input needs proactively ensures that our team members’ priorities aren’t capsized by us randomly dropping into their day. This tenet has two parts: Giving ample heads up such that teammates can expect and plan for our request, and giving sufficient time for them to do their best and truly consider our questions or concepts instead of only ever asking for ‘gut reactions’. The time needed will obviously vary by person and topic, but fundamentally what we’re saying is that it’s not polite to bump into people — ever — or to hijack their attention at our whim. Be aware of what it’s costing in terms of their time and make sure your ask and your intention to use their input is worth it.

Healthy collaboration should feel like a flywheel, not the first time you drove stick-shift.

The value of our diversity is seen through the maturity of our collaboration. If listening to one another, incorporating feedback, and following through are not matters of routine, then diversity matters not at all and we, in all likelihood, value one another very little. As good as my ideas or concepts may be, I believe they will be better with the perspective, poking, and prodding of a team. It’s taken me a long time to truly believe that, but I’ve been turned around and upside down in the best possible ways by our team members so many times that now I feel less confident about ideas that DON’T have their input. With that, my workflows, schedule, and communication habits have changed in order to accommodate input from people with busy schedules managing many competing demands.

How to Receive

With input, it can be easier to give than to receive. We would do well to remember our goal is not to be right but always to be better. This means that responding to input defensively — trying to justify our original approach with long-winded explanations and jumbles of nuance — simply misses the point of collaboration entirely. Next time you feel yourself typing out a treatise on why you didn’t do it that way, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Is there ANYTHING in this perspective that I can appreciate and leverage? Focus on that and say thank you. By being generous in these moments, you will tame your fear of rejection/correction and routinely harness the good. Pivots and strong counters are the stress testing your ideas need in order to thrive in the world. Resistance is necessary for growth.
  • If not now, might this input be useful at a future point? Maybe commit to putting it on a future agenda to reconsider. Sometimes input is prescient but we disregard it because it doesn’t seem relevant to the current moment.
  • Are there any patterns in the feedback I’m receiving? This could reveal a blind spot or bias, hard as that might be to accept. Flex your humility muscles and focus on being better, not being right. Consider: Does this person have a vantage point or experience on the problem/solution that I don’t?

Openness is as generative for collaborative culture as defensiveness is toxic. It’s been 20 years since my earliest days of entrepreneurialism and now, after innumerable feedback cycles, brainstorming and challenge sessions, I can honestly say that I believe input makes intuition sharper. The combination allows for instinct to shine without creating shadows.

How to Give

The unfortunate reality is that lots of good feedback is delivered poorly, making it harder to appreciate. Following a simple convention can be the difference between irritating or inspiring your colleague when they ask for your input: Appreciate, Be curious, and Caution. Start with what you appreciate about what they’re sharing with you and what you discern their strategy/approach was. Be curious to hear more about the alternatives they considered prior to offering more. And finally, offer any caution that comes to mind that perhaps they might not have had context for or perspective on (like a client preference that wasn’t previously relevant but now might be problematic).

In terms of tone, I’ve found it’s helpful to convey input with a posture of generosity and contribution — not detraction. I will take extra time to understand the thinking that got us where we are, the factors my colleague is weighing, and what type of feedback they’re wanting PRIOR to offering my thoughts or suggestions. It’s helpful to me when a colleague clarifies, “I’m not looking for notes on overall structure (ie the client or available footage has perhaps already guided this extensively), but I’m curious if the pace feels good or too fast/slow…” Again, specificity on what’s in bounds/out of bounds, helpful vs not helpful, is really useful information so ask questions to get that clarity as you’re responding. I guarantee you’ll save yourself many carefully worded paragraphs and unnecessary conflict.

And last of all, remember it is very okay to simply like and affirm things from time to time. We should always think critically, of course, and offer the level of input we’re asked for, but that doesn’t need to be arduous or exhaustive every time. Sometimes it’s best to give encouragement and support imperfection in service of the greater aim and trusting the process might refine the bits you were otherwise likely to comment on. Make it your intention to share honestly and with humility 100% of the time.

The banana bread excepting, you might be surprised how collaboration makes everything better — even, if not especially, you.

By Kate Schmidgall ,Bittersweet Creative Founder, Director