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“Collaboration” is a great word for Buzzword Bingo. It’s often listed as a 21st Century Skill (as if somehow the people in past centuries didn’t have to work together). It’s included in project descriptions and even mission statements. What was once called “a meeting” is now called “collaboration” time.

And yet . . .

It almost never works. When I was in school, I often played the role of the “group leader” who would end up doing all the work while others quoted lines from Chris Farley movies. The same thing happened in college and even graduate school. For all the talk of collaboration, it often fails.

So, I’m finishing the final touches on Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard (due out on 11-12-13) and thinking about collaboration. Christy and I co-wrote the book (hence the author name J.C. Spencer). Though I’ve been more vocal about it online, the truth is that it has been a truly collaborative effort.

I’m trying to make sense out of why it’s working out so well and here is the best I can do:

1. Trust: I don’t think I’ve ever truly collaborated with someone who I didn’t trust. I can work in a group and take a small share of a project, but I’ll end up carving out a solo effort in the process.

2. Vulnerability: Creative work is intensely personal. It takes a certain level of vulnerability to work on something and say to someone else, “Be honest about this and change what needs to be changed.”

3. Purpose: We share the same purpose in this project. We want to write something that our kids will enjoy reading while at the same time pushing them to think hard about life.

4. Conflict: We’ve had to hash it out about characters and plot. Some of the conversations were tense. In this sense, it would have been easier to divide the work between us and have our own separate domains. However, the shared experience of exploring and resolving this conflict has led to a work that is better than either of us could have written on our own.

5. Time and Proximity: I’m not sure that I believe in “global collaboration” anymore. We spent hours hanging out together (pretty easy, because we live together). We had casual conversations at random times. We had long conversations deliberately devoted to writing the story.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • It is great to hear about the progress, process and purpose with the book, John!

    So true, I think, your point about trust.

    I have always wondered about "global collaboration" too. Global connection is not necessarily collaboration. I wonder what situations and conditions would actually bring about global collaboration… or maybe that is more a worry?

    I look forward to Wendell's story! Good luck, J and C!

  • T Arnold says:

    I'm in a fully online course and finished up a small group project. I think we all pulled our weight, but it was scheduling that was the primary difficulty we faced. One person in a different time zone, all of us working, one of us with a family…lots of effort, emails back and forth, several Skype chats…a lot of logistics had to be worked out for one product. For all groups, this was the main frustration expressed during debriefing. Still, as you point out, I could not have come up with the same product on my own because everyone brought their own interesting experiences to the table. Collaboration at work is one thing…collaboration across distances/times…quite another, I think. Thanks!

  • Hey John, it's Ronald Griffin again from The University of South Alabama EDM310. I thought you made some great points about collaboration. Coincidentally, in EDM310 we do a lot of collaboration work so I have seen some of your points first hand lately. I think trust and vulnerability definitely go hand in hand. I feel like the more one trusts their group members, the more they will be willing to be vulnerable and share personal ideas and thoughts. I have found trust to be such a huge factor in collaboration. One has to trust their group members will give one hundred percent effort on the project, and that is not the easiest thing to do. Conflict is another important part of the process you mentioned. Conflict will inevitably rise, and the manor in which a group handles it has the potential to shape the project. Having a true commitment to collaboration means that sometimes individuals will have to relinquish personally important ideas for the betterment of the group. Thanks for the great read.

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