Collaboration: how labouring together gets you further

Collaboration is an odd word, meaning both traitorous co-operation with an enemy and working together to create something better. It comes from the Latin collaborare (col means together and laborare means to labour).

Over the ages we’ve been encouraged to labour together for the benefit of society:

“It is the long history of humankind…that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.” — Charles Darwin

“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller

This pandemic seems to be giving us an opportunity to work with our “enemies” to create something better. Matt Apuzzo and David D. Kirkpatrick wrote about just this in The New York Times: “While political leaders have locked their borders, scientists have been shattering theirs, creating a global collaboration unlike any in history.

It is taking a global effort to solve this problem. Vaccine researchers at the University of Pittsburgh (USA) are working with The Pasteur Institute (Paris) and Themis Bioscience (Austria). The consortium was funded by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovation (Norway), financed by The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (USA) and The Serum Institute (India).

Apuzzo and Kirkpatrick note that, “Never before… have so many experts in so many countries focused simultaneously on a single topic and with such urgency.

The Francis Crick Institute is a medical research alliance that was set up to create breakthroughs. It opened in 2016 as a partnership between Cancer Research UK, Imperial College London, King’s College London, the Medical Research Council, University College London and the Wellcome Trust.

It’s the largest research facility in Europe with 1500 scientists from numerous backgrounds, all working in small groups, sharing ideas in open plan areas so that they can solve complex medical problems.

Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, is also working with her “enemy”. Her government gained additional powers by closing parliament and bringing in a state of emergency. To counterbalance this she asked the opposition leader to head up a select committee, including a majority from opposition members, ensuring they could scrutinise the government’s work. As the well-known African proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

But collaboration isn’t easy because we need to be vulnerable for it to work. We need to let go of control. We have to trust we’ll be supported when we fail. We may not even know where we’re heading or where we’ll end up.

In my Spoon by Spoon project I encourage interviewees to be vulnerable. I pose personal questions about relationships, mental and physical health. I invite them to share stories about when they failed. They need to trust that I won’t make them feel stupid.

Sometimes collaborations don’t work. Sometimes I fail in these interviews. I try my best but it’s not enough. There have been a few times when the call hasn’t brought any insight at all. The interviewees say, “It was good to talk, but I’m not sure I really learned anything new.”

But mostly our collaborations are worth the effort. When I ask the interviewees how they felt the conversation went, often they find them useful.

Sarah: “It was really helpful just getting things out. To be asked questions that you have to think about, which you wouldn’t normally ask yourself. It’s a different way of thinking, sort of directed thinking.”

Katerina: “It’s very nice to say those things out loud… It does make them feel more real. Thank you for listening to what I had to say. It was very therapeutic.”

Andy: “Really enjoyable. A big thing I’m going to take away from this is talking about the therapy I went for. I hadn’t really thought about what it did for me from a career point of view. This is the first time I’ve realised that.”

Folake: “Very good. I always enjoy having the opportunity to introspect. Your questions were very helpful. They made me think.”

Spoon by Spoon is a collaboration of strangers. We have never met. We don’t even know what we look like. We don’t know if it will work, but we hope that it may. We have to trust that something will emerge. And by working together we have the potential to get further.

This is part of a series called Spoon by Spoon — a project I’ve run interviewing 100 people going through career, relationship and wider life changes. If you’re looking for support with your own career or life change find out more here.

Photos copyright of Charlotte Sheridan

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