Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 715: COLLABORATION

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 715.

Today, let us trust one another -- and work together. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

I've just read an odd book by Michael Schrage -- Shared Minds. It's about collaboration. The book's too breezy and journalistic for my taste. But no matter! The guy's on to something. He draws the subtle line that divides communication and collaboration. That struck a nerve.

I try to communicate what I know and love about technology and invention in this series. I claim to write the series alone. And to the extent I do, that's communication, not collaboration.

Yet this series is pure and ongoing collaboration. For one thing, I treasure a few critical friends whom I trust absolutely. These people tell me, with unwashed candor, what they don't like about what I write. They don't waste time with politeness. They don't try to tell me how to fix things. They're effective because they share their subjective reactions with me.

I also have running encounters of another kind with several people. Each time we meet we continue a theme. These aren't so much conversations as they are probings. They spin out over months and years with an intimacy peculiar to shared ideas. I love these inquiries. So does Schrage. He says,

Two individuals create a set of shared experiences and understandings that a re unique to them. They build contexts.
That takes work, and it pays huge dividends. All the great creative people have done it -- Edison, Niels Bohr, Ben Franklin. They all had close, independent-minded colleagues. By words, drawings, equations, and carefully-shaped shared experience, they added the strength of other minds to their own.

Braque and Picasso -- Crick and Watson! Did you know that Monet and Renoir painted side by side to create the shared experience that formed their artistic style? Afterward, they were able to grow off in their own directions.

How do we make that happen in our workplaces? First we recognize that collaboration is much more than just talk. Too much talk is didactic, competitive, one person informing another.

So we redesign workplaces to draw people into each other's orbits. We create common contexts. We're inventing blackboard-like software so we can share the design experience. Maybe we're learning to bring the scribbled napkin back to the workplace.

Yet real collaboration needs one thing more. True collaborators have a rare ability to seek out their own ignorance in front of another person. The key is trust. Schrage says,

The thing that matters most is that the collaborators possess mutual trust, the belief that they are adding value, and a genuine desire to create something new.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
(Theme music)


Schrage, M., Shared Minds. New York: Random House, 1990.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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