Collaboration is a muscle

October 8, 2009

I love this idea that Andrew Taylor discovered at a recent conference
We heard from Chris Mackie, a Mellon Foundation specialist on community-source software development (primarily outside the arts). And his point was this: Collaboration is a muscle.
In his extensive experience with communities of practice building software together, he said, that muscle took time to build bulk and dexterity. Early efforts were invariably designed to solve immediate problems, often narrowly defined. But the process of resolving those problems together made the group smarter, more sophisticated, and more prepared to grow into the challenge of a larger frame.
Along the way, early wins and direct returns on investment led to more elegant and innovative solutions. And those innovations led the group to think and work differently. And on and on. In some cases, it would take years of collective work until the group would find its way into the problem it was originally trying to solve. But they wouldn’t and couldn’t have recognized the problem or its solution back then. They needed collaborative muscle, which could only have been built together.

I really, really like that idea because it not only speaks to the value of shared wisdom but the fact that it’s in the sharing that the wisdom becomes useful. I really do believe in giving stuff away (ok not all of it, but you know what I mean) but I particularly like this concept because it suggests a ‘pay off’ of definition and tone as a result of working that muscle – ok, I am in danger of labouring a metaphor here but it’s such a vivid metaphor.
Chris Mackie (referred to above in Andrew’s quote) makes the following observation in the comments section of Andrew’s blog
The phrase “collaboration is a muscle” is attributable to our grantees, not directly to me. The true “extensive experience” with this kind of work is theirs. I’m an admiring observer and supporter of their efforts, but they do the heavy lifting.
One common reason for the pattern you describe is that collaborations are often too disjoint to reap full benefits. No sooner do organizations and people start to develop some muscle than the project’s over and they’re back sitting on the couch for a while until another comes along–by which time, the muscles have atrophied again. There’s a lot to be said for finding reasons to collaborate that don’t go away after 3, 6, or 12 months. I hope Project Audience will prove to be an example of just that sort of long-term, sustainable opportunity.

So, if collaboration is a muscle? what kind of work out do you need these days?

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