speak/listen

How to collaborate - a map

By John-Paul Flintoff

Have you ever been given an opportunity, and not realised until some time later how fantastic it was?

I have. And sometimes, sadly, I’ve not seized the opportunity I was offered, so I never got the chance to find out.

Recently, I was asked to work with the communications company, O2, on the subject of collaboration. It was, itself, a piece of collaboration, if you see what I mean – and it was amusing to me, when thinking about what I “know” about collaboration, to consider how well I was collaborating at that moment with O2. Sometimes, I realised, I wasn’t following my own recommendations.

But hey – I wasn’t failing too badly, and I kept asking the lovely O2 people to let me know what they’d like me to do / do differently, and if they had any requests I tried to do as they asked.

As a result, I discovered that the process of collaborating with O2 became extremely enriching. I might have chosen to see this as “just a job”, or “just another piece of work for a corporate client”. But by inspecting it all the time as a specimen of collaboration, I became intensely aware of the individuals I was working with as collaborators.

It made it a lot more fun. And I learned a lot about collaboration.

It’s important to emphasise that the learning was interative. I learned over time. In the beginning, I wrote down a few notes about the kinds of things I might want to talk about in the live webinar we were planning. And gradually, my ideas got clearer. I became more and more excited about how to make it come alive.

Sometimes the learning felt awkward or even painful. For instance: as deadline day approached, I started to worry about the very idea of sounding off in the planned webinar – me, just one person working alone, talking about collaboration! It didn’t make sense. I raised my concern, and we created a new understanding: the presenter, O2’s Ant Morse, would become my collaborator instead. I gave him full permission to butt in at any point in the live webinar, and to ask me tricky questions. That made me feel much better.

There was more. I’d been asked to provide slides to illustrate my talk, and I dutifully agreed to do so. What a twit! I didn’t want to do slides! Slides, because they impose a rigid structure – a fixed sequence – and rule out any unexpected detours, of the sort that must necessarily occur in a collaboration.

So, after a couple of days of feeling generally a bit sick about the slides, I mustered the courage to call Ant and say, can I PLEASE not use slides? What would he say?!

He said, sure, that’s fine, let’s be freewheeling.

What a relief! Why didn’t I ask earlier? I think it was because O2 were paying me and, and I thought, “I must provide what they want.” That’s such a common mistake, and one that many people don’t get past. By asking, I discovered that O2 didn’t rigidly want what I thought they wanted. They wanted what I wanted.

What happened next, in my brain, was interesting: freed from the need to provide slides, I retreated from my freewheeling outlook to find myself some structure. Specifically, I did what I often do: I drew a mind map. It took a whole journey from London to Paris, on Eurostar, and I was delighted that it fitted perfectly on the page (above).

I realised, when I had finished, that as well as providing a framework for the live webinar, the mind map might even provide a structure for my next book. And that’s not something I ever expected to emerge from my invitation to collaborate.

So thank you, O2.

I’m writing this after the webinar, which went very well, but before the recording has been uploaded online. I will put a link to the recording on this page when it goes live. If you can’t find a link, and you suspect that I forgot, please tweet me and I’ll put it in. [See how I have made even this post collaborative.]

Posted: March 30, 2015