Kim Austin

Cute Babies, Collaboration, and Competition

Blog Post created by Kim Austin on Jul 14, 2014

I’m working on one of those magical cross-functional projects where we’re trying to combine multiple efforts into one result. Today, we have several tools created and managed by different groups of smart people with good intentions. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll call these tools wrenches. Not surprisingly, the wrenches have slightly different designs, definitions, purposes, and priorities. And they meet the parameters of the groups that created them. All good, right?

A challenge: The people who use the wrenches don’t always know which wrench to pick. It’s often a challenge to know which one to use or even that there’s a whole toolbox of them.

Remscheid - Werkzeugmuseum in 13 ies

In fact, some of the people who created wrenches weren’t aware of other wrenches so similar to theirs. Granted, it’s a big toolbox with a lot of drawers. And it’s not always easy to find stuff. Or people find a wrench that works, but would be even better with a slightly different angle along the thing-a-ma-jig. Ta da, yet another wrench!

A bright idea popped up: Let’s simplify things for the people who use wrenches. Let’s align information, share resources, build connections, and work together. Let’s build a wrench – or coordinated set of wrenches — that’s easier to find, use, and understand. So, someone dug through the toolbox and brought brought together all the toolmakers to collaborate.

I’m all for it. In fact, nearly all the toolmakers agree: We need to simplify the way we provide our users with the information they want. As much as I’d like to look in the toolbox and point to “that one” as the answer to everyone’s challenges, there isn’t a “that one.” One size does not fit all.

Borrowing a Helen Keller quote from a recent post by Peder Ulander: “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”

The Cutest Baby Challenge
As a wise man down the hall would say, projects like this often become a “cute baby contest.” Everyone is in support of working together – as long as their wrench is still in the top drawer and no one changes it. Because, of course, their wrench is the cutest.

Funny thing, it’s hard to collaborate and compete at the same time.

Call it conditioning, call it culture, call it what you want. But competition definitely hinders collaboration. A lot of organizations like to talk about collaboration. Some specifically call out collaboration in their goals. That’s great… if you actually reward collaboration. We’re more often conditioned to compete than collaborate. People compete for the one top spot: first to the finish line, highest score, best results, employee of the month, cutest baby, World Cup.

Everyone wants the blue ribbon that proves that their idea, performance, time, product, etc. is the best. But in reality, “best” is often a combination of elements. A collaboration. Think s’mores. The sum of the s’more is far greater than the parts. Not a fan of graham crackers and chocolate? OK. Back to tools.

There’s a reason Swiss Army Knives and Leatherman multitools are so popular. They’re a heck of a lot easier to carry than a big toolbox of stuff. They might not be the perfect tool for every job, but the usually have what you need to get something done on the fly. No one expects the tool-using community to ditch their big red Craftsman toolboxes in favor of multitools. But we’re thankful for the collaboration that resulted in a single, pocket-sized wonder gadget.

All Together Now
We can accept the idea of working together as a team when, as in sports, there’s another team to beat. (Go Giants!) But off the field or the court, it becomes a different concept.

Can we acknowledge that everyone’s baby is cute and all our wrenches are functional? Can we compare notes, share resources, set aside ego, and collaborate? Too often, that competition mindset drives people to want to redefine the project goal to protect their particular wrench. Collaboration means acknowledging where your wrench matches up and where it might not.

So, how can we succeed? In his post “Collaboration is the New Competition” for the Harvard Business Review,Living Cities CEO Ben Hecht suggests ways to move from competition to collaboration. Although his focus is driving social change to benefit low-income populations, his lessons ring true. Working from his list as a structure, let’s move away from theoretical people and move closer. It’s not us and them. This is about you and me.

  • Set Definitions: Clear definitions and goals help us get beyond our own wrenches. Try to move away from focusing on how you everyone else can adapt their wrenches to better work with yours. (Fine, yes, it’s the cutest wrench I’ve ever seen. Let’s move on.) Instead, look at what the end customer needs and what expertise you can contribute.
  • Get Over Ego: The project only wins if we conquer the challenge, not each other. If the customer wins, the team wins. And if there’s most valuable player award, let’s agree that we’ll give that to the customer too.
  • Analyze Data: Assumptions based on my own definitions and wrench designs won’t work. I need data about and from the customers. And I need your data. I’ll look at at it through the lens of my own expertise and perspective. You do the same. Then let’s share, combine what we discover, go forth, and collaborate.
  • Share the Results: Once we come up with something, let’s not force others to reinvent. Keep sharing, iterating, and innovating. If other groups can use what we’ve learned and created, it extends the value of our collaboration. And we may find our efforts work for groups that we never considered. And if they build upon it – all the better. (Think graham crackers, marshmallows, chocolate, fire.)


Warning: Sometimes you’ll find that what you thought should be a wrench, turns out to be a hammer.

Let me know: Do you experience similar challenges when bringing groups together? How do you get past the collaborate vs. compete mindset in your projects?