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Collaboration - Two Heads Are Better Than One

I’ll start by sharing that I’m boldly borrowing an essay theme that my son used in his college applications three years ago. It was simple, to the point, and he was incredibly On The Ball in how he framed his response to prompts from universities.

He realized then, and definitely appreciates now as a junior in college, that real problem solving is a collaborative effort. All too often we are able to recognize a problem, but it takes additional insight and perspective at times to find options, and ultimately the solution.

We are all familiar with the expression that “two heads are better than one” when trying to solve a problem. Yet, that is really only true when the two heads think differently, and collectively approach the problem from other perspectives. He went on to position himself as a unique thinker, viewing life through a slightly different lens, and happy to be that second head, so that when paired up with a fellow student, the two heads could truly be better than just one.

Quite often, we’re faced with two challenges with group problem solving:

  • We’re very quick to use “collaboration” and “teamwork” interchangeably, and we should be careful to do so

  • We’re too proud to recognize that we need help in solving problems at all

Let’s deal with the second item first.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” How often have you tried to fix something, or run a broken process, with nothing more than your fingers crossed, hoping that it would work this time? And tried it again. And again. And again. All ending with less than the desired result. Ultimately, only once you engage someone directly, who has experience in fixing what’s broken, or indirectly, by reading or watching a video by someone with expertise in that field, do you then get that second perspective, and manage to resolve the issue and influence the outcome. But there’s a tipping point where we set our pride aside that realize we can’t do it ourselves, and need to take that next step.

A critical trait to being On The Ball is understanding and appreciating that we don’t know everything (how can we) and it is crucial to success to be ready, willing, and able to take a collaborative approach to solving complex problems.

Collaboration vs. Teamwork

When we do take that next step, it is important to be open to the dynamic exchange of ideas. As a group, we’ll explore options, the pros and cons of those choices, and rely on the collective knowledge, wisdom, and input from each other to help formulate solutions. We may not even get it right the first time, or a number of times, but everyone involved learns and grows from those experiences together.

Teamwork, by comparison, has a likely assumption of a solution is known by the time the team is pulled together to take action. Using multiple resources, who likely have different roles and skill sets, they approach the task in a structured manner, to complete a common goal. Perhaps the best visual example is a football team. While on offense, different players take on different roles – linemen, running backs, receivers, and the quarterback. But each play is designed with a goal in mind, and orchestrated for each to perform their respective task in a structured manner to achieve that goal. Obviously, there are times after the play starts when players make adjustments, but if they don’t start out following the same play, as a team, the goal of that play cannot be achieved.

Teamwork clearly has it’s time and place, and is essential to executing a plan. However, collaboration is the sum of teamwork, problem solving, and curiosity, as the group seeks to collectively learn to identify a solution together.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of a collaborative approach to fulfilling a goal was the culmination of the Apollo 11 moon landing in July, 1969. For years leading up to that point, countless individual problems needed to be addressed by a wide range of skill sets. Thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians, medical professionals, mathematicians, and others, put their minds together to solve challenge after challenge. Once the Mercury program completed, and NASA knew they could safety launch astronauts into space and orbit the Earth, they then proceeded to Project Gemini, where a series of launches helped address the questions of multiple astronauts in the same capsule, navigating and docking with other vehicles in space, longevity in orbit and spacewalks, among many others. By the time the two men crews of Project Gemini completed, those collaborative teams turned their focus on the moon, and those specific challenges – getting to the moon itself, communications from that distance, the equipment necessary to land, and later takeoff from, the surface, as well as walking on the moon. In all of these cases, none of these things had been done before, and all of them took a collective mindset to think through the models, the data, and the requirements necessary to make the respective missions successful. No one person, and perhaps not even one group (e.g., just scientists, just engineers, etc.) could have fulfilled this goal. Collaboration at its finest.

Apollo 11 might have been the heyday of the collaborative spirit. You can certainly still find evidence of it today, especially in fields such as medical research, but in general, it seems like it has started to become a bit of a lost art. All too often we hear stories where a lack of collaboration resulted in setbacks that impacted countless people. We have to embrace collaboration as a critical trait in our workplace, our organizations, and our communities.

I think we can all agree that two heads are better than one. And, depending on the problem at hand, three heads might be better than two, and four heads might even be better than three. For the most complex of missions, such as Apollo 11, there is an optimal number of “x heads are better than y” and it is important to engage them in that collective discovery process to learn, exchange ideas, and ultimately find solutions.

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