Learning to Play with Others

I’ve always liked playing with other people, perhaps it comes from growing up in a ragtag family of five siblings and neighbourhood play gangs in Singapore during the 1970s-80s. Yet until recently, collaborations have been an uphill struggle that bore little fruit for me. 2016, however, seems to be the year when they are finally coming together. There’s no secret formula to the kinds of partnerships that work as there are many factors outside of personal control but what I’ve learnt is it is best if you:

  1. choose to work with people who are as motivated as you are to succeed with and share your vision of the project. You don’t have to be best mates forever but you do have to see the project as a common cause to work towards. By all means ‘sell‘ your idea to others. This is what we do when we discuss our theories and essentially why we write–we have a certain story, way of framing and understanding that we want to share with others–but if you have to repeatedly reassure your partners it’s all good, it’s going to sap energy better used elsewhere. Don’t start in earnest until you are quite sure on this point.
  2. recognise your own and each others’ strengths and limits. Make sure each person on the team understands what is required of them and decide on the effort they are willing to put in. Divide a task into separate components, agree on clear timelines about expected delivery of each while maintaining some flexibility. Set up and set time aside for each stage so you have a shared goal, whether that’s a deadline, a research publication or a successful community event. I was going to add that a common way of seeing the world helps as it means you don’t have to compromise or bend over backwards to accommodate differing theoretical approaches. However, there are times when having different approaches can be productive, especially if it’s one of those projects where using multiple perspectives to examine a topic or issue is the point of the exercise. What I will say is that those teams that share a similar kind of attitude generally tend to work more smoothly whereas clashing outlooks or uneasy alliances have people second-guessing each other unproductively.
  3. take intellectual and operational responsibility for the progress and outcome of the collaboration, whether it is a journal article, a funding proposal or an event. If you’re leading, lead and take the major responsibility; if you’re supporting, support and don’t undermine the others. Clarity around the intended argument/vision/outcome of the research project and each others’ roles is essential because they set up expectations. Generally, I find it best for me to be honest about what my objectives are when working with others as I hate guessing when I should know. It undermines confidence and erodes that team spirit vital to getting the project to completion.
  4. take turns leading at different stages. There are some partnerships where it occurs organically, because individuals have (a) different fortes and (b) dips and troughs in the levels of energy they have to expend on tasks. You can’t plan for these occasions and it’s great when that happens, so just enjoy them when they do. It’s a sign the team is gelling. It also means that you should step up when another member of the team is flagging and take up the slack.
  5. invest in and trust each others’ successes. Collaborations are about adding your strengths to the team so that it can, in turn, give its strengths back to you. Teams can take time to build but they can also click together in very short time-frames. Working with others can also be surprisingly destabilising not least because you have to cede partial control to others. Trust is essential but so is a spirit of generosity. You cannot be an expert on everything, trust that your collaborators know what you don’t and on your part, make sure you do sterling work. Don’t let pettiness, insecurities and academic egos get in the way of a good partnership.
  6. know when to call it quits. Signs that a team isn’t working include repeated delays and procrastinations, inability to buy into each others’ arguments and/or theories and a lack of confidence in each others’ work (see point 1 mentioned above differing levels of motivation and conflicting or worse, lack of vision about a project). I’ve also had partnerships that succeed on one project that do not, for some reason, work out on the next as well as projects started that cannot find the momentum to move beyond the initial, usually enthusiastic, stage. I’ve learnt that often bits of such experiences are salvageable. For example, you might find one person out of the three you worked with who would make a good research partner. Or you might find a colleague who is a great sounding board even if they don’t have time or inclination to bring ideas to fruition.
  7. celebrate each success and continue feeding back, being supportive and sharing ideas even when you are not working on a project together. Ultimately, all collaborations are a gamble but immensely worthwhile because they enrich and strengthen our research and make our working environments more enjoyable.

It used to be said that humanities academics don’t play well with others. We like working in splendid solitude creating bodies of theories and philosophizing to ourselves. Research can be intensely isolating because you carry much of what you’re playing around with in your head, often inadvertently shutting out others around you. Hence the cliche of the absent-minded professor. Such ways are changing as less funding, worsening employment security and increasingly precious  time for research means every moment and opportunity needs to be maximised, quantified and acquitted to the powers-that-be. Still, as I hope you now know there are other reasons to no longer be all alone in the sandbox…