Four phases of collaboration

It's human nature to come together with strangers one step at a time. Often we get stuck halfway and never realize the full potential of a collaborative relationship. As I've suggested in a previous post, Web 3.0 may assist us in "going all the way" to phase four. As Tony Karrer and I have explored on his blog, it's unlikely that Web 3.0 will have much effect on phase two. Rather, Web 3.0 will likely facilitate getting through all the phases faster. Here are the four phases of collaboration.

1. Distanced by fear: When faced with potential new collaborators, we usually know too little to silence our fears. We distance ourselves from potential rejection with mild paranoia. We think thoughts like "I'm not good enough", "I'll fall short of their expectations" or "I'm not compatible with their personalities". We end up far apart on issues that could easily be worked out: like schedules, preliminary exchanges of information and interest in each other's previous experiences. This phase is easily bypassed if we are familiar with the potential collaborators or they come by positive referral from a colleague. We can get stuck in this phase if their negative reputation proceeds them or the initial contact is awkward.

2. Jockeying for position: Once we are aware of the collaborator's expertise and experience, it's natural to become competitive. The conversation may exaggerate past accomplishments in order to impress or intimidate the others. The tactics used against the new collaborators regard them as a potential rival, threat or enemy. The tensions bring out the aggressive and controlling sides of each personality. This phase is bypassed if there's "enough in common to appreciate each other's differences". We get stuck in this phase if there's too much in common and turf battles ensue.

3. Exploring common ground: Once it's established that each brings different resources to the table, there's an immediate need for overlap of interests. There's a balance to be found between the centripetal and centrifugal forces. Differences can be divisive and commonalty can be unifying. Collaborations fly apart if the differences run deep, violate moral standards or betray other relationships. Commonalty can be suffocating if it silences dissent, imposes collusion and overrides feelings. This phase occurs quickly if the compatibility is balanced from the start. We can get stuck in this phase if the balance is never found.

4. Playing off each other: Once it's clear that issues can be worked out, the synergy kicks in. Each collaborator gets inspirations from the other's reactions and responses. Using each other as sounding boards clears up vague notions and confusing explanations. The discovery of better questions speeds up the construction of shared mental models. Additional criteria applied to the work-in-progress accelerates the refinement of preliminary schemes into final output. Getting "stuck" in this phase is an energizing experience. This reciprocal way of making a difference feels more satisfying than any materialistic pursuit.


  1. Tom, is #1 just a matter of fear? I think it is bigger than fear.

    Now that I've found your blog, I'm off to follow links!

  2. Nancy - I agree #1 is much bigger than fear.
    I'm thinking several different fears play into this: 1. Fear of a repeat: "I'm not going there after the last time" 2. Fear of exposure: "I'm not opening myself to that kind of scrutiny" 3. Fear of betrayal: "I'm not making myself vulnerable to that manipulation" 4. Fear of domination: I'm not putting myself in that one-down position.

    Other ideas anybody?