Five Essential Principles for Designing Successful Collaborations by Ryan Wooley

I revere my favorite musicians, and have followed some of them into that stage of life and career when they get grouped into “all-stars” lineups at award shows where the rock gods crowd onto the stage and wink and nod while trying not to bump into one another as they play rhythm guitar chords.

Let’s be real here. The music in these all-stars’ moments is typically not great. I realize that the quality of the music is really not the point, but I often cringe at how bad it is, nonetheless. How can the end product sound so bad when stacking some of the most talented musicians on the planet together in one place?

The answer to this question has everything to do with the ingredients of successful collaborations. If you want to build something great and know that you want or need to collaborate to do so, I recommend embracing the following principles, starting with the most essential.

  • Design from a “Less is More” Perspective

Always keep the team as lean as possible. “Extra” members can dilute and confuse shared purpose, invite well-meaning people to step on one another’s toes, and create a diffusion-of-responsibility effect. Most of the time, it is much better to be a little short on people than to be overstocked. Every time I think of this point, I’m reminded of how unimpressive it is to see six of my favorite musicians playing rhythm chords on top of one another on stage. By the way, I use little mental images like this from the music world to remind me of some of my guiding principles in education. Another image I conjure to remind myself of the less is more principle is of Dan Heath’s face from this video.

  • Establish Clarity of Purpose

This may seem perfunctory, but it is not. We have probably all seen talented groups of people come together and flounder, due to simply being misaligned. This is an easy one to take for granted when you are on a team that has it, but it’s easy to miss if you are on a team that lacks it. My school has seen record enrollment for the past eleven years and is frequently ranked as the best independent school in my state. It is no coincidence that we stringently vet every hire against our very clearly articulated “Purpose, Promise and Principles.”

  • Operationalize the Big Ideas

Get past the fluffy, high-level purpose stuff. You need to be aligned with not only what you are trying to accomplish, but how you are trying to accomplish it. I work at a small school and our mission pretty clearly requires us to provide personalized learning. Our founder was an actual student of John Dewey. I have no doubt that all the faculty who work here are “on board” with this principle, and we do an okay job of it. However, there are so many ways to think about and define personalized learning, and we have not spent enough time calibrating our thinking about what it means or how to accomplish it. We need to operationalize this concept by defining it more clearly before we will ever really start hitting it out of the park.

  • Design Dissonance

Often, you hear people say that addressing complementary talents and skill sets is important. That is completely true. However, what many miss is the importance of healthy dissonance. We often establish collaborations with friends and other people we like. People we like and have friendships with are disproportionately like ourselves. We need to get along with our collaborators, for sure, but at a certain level, we need to balance and challenge them, which sometimes means we need to express disparate perspectives. Look at the core of many of the world’s best collaborations and you will find tension. Consider the following music-related partnerships: Lennon and McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, or Don Henley and Glenn Frey.

  • Take Time to Define Roles and Stick to Them

Well-balanced or not, collaborations require clear role definition. Sometimes, it is a simple distribution of labor; other times, it really is about roles. Who is the spokesperson for the project? Who is the negotiator? Who is the details person? Start-ups, in particular, cannot waste precious energy on duplicating effort. Role definition is easier in larger established teams and partnerships, but when teams are small and new, with everyone wearing multiple hats, defining roles can be a lot trickier.

Role definition can also be tricky when people have multiple talents. In music collabs, some bands are best served by a solitary front person (The Police, Genesis, Nirvana), while others seem to work best with a rotation (Fleetwood Mac, The Eagles, Depeche Mode, Heart). The fact that many of the folks involved with these particular projects have played different roles in multiple successful projects shows that they are good at understanding what role they need to play for a particular collaboration to work. I’m thinking here of Stewart Copeland, Dave Grohl, Phil Collins (yes, I know they are all drummers). They are good examples of people with wide-ranging talents who stayed in their lanes for particular projects or phases of a band’s lifecycle. This collaboration concept for bands also transfers well to other types of collaboration.

In conclusion, all of the above principles require conversation, which could have been a principle in and of itself. In order to design an effective collaboration, we need to actively think and discuss these kinds of design choices with collaborators or potential collaborators. When we don’t, everyone ends up playing rhythm guitar on a crowded stage, and the music sucks.