Gioel Gio

‘Don’t collaborate unless you have to’ (!!??$%*@#&!!!)

Dear Barbara,
How are you? I hope the Canadian summer smells lovely. Here in Medellin we have lots of sun and lots of rain. Beautiful tropical nature and an endless number of plant species. There’s enough color to break the greyness of the city! Even so, the pollution is a slap in the face of the lively earth beneath.
These days I’m fully immersed into my research – I love it. I am coordinating a cooperative inquiry: every month I meet for a whole day with the leaders and representatives of nine youth organizations around the city. We meet in a different location each time, which gives us all the opportunity to explore different corners of the city – and different organizational cultures! I thought of you because this month I’ve been diving head first into the topic of collaboration. Since I know you have done a lot of thinking about it, I wanted to share a few reflections.
During our last research meeting, we met in the office of an organization called Techo. It was a hot, sunny day, and we all sat on the floor of a small balcony, with a fan to circulate the air. I asked everybody to close their eyes and think back to a relationship that was very special and transformative for them. How does it feel? What does it look like? How does it smell?
When participants opened their eyes I asked them to free write for ten minutes – what made the relationship so special?
After the ten minutes were over, we each shared our reflections. Each story felt like a blanket, making the space between us cozier, more intimate. Here are a few snapshots of the conversation.
Liliana, a hilarious storyteller who you would not be able to imagine serious, talked about how she had to ‘enchant her mother’, who died four months ago. She spoke about how she would take her on walks while she was in her last days. She talked about holding space for her. Carla, a hyperactive activist, talked about a fling she had. She met a guy dancing at a club and they ended up having a powerful connection. He was in Colombia temporarily, and neither of them had an interest in being in a relationship. To her the interaction had been healthy and liberating: she was able to share a special moment without ‘the need to posses someone else’. Leidy talked about the relationship with her daughter. She reflected on the skills she had to develop to make the best of it. She read a list: ‘loyalty, trust, affection, comprehension, effort, questioning, laughter, partnership, respect of different tastes, time, materialization of care in action, common and shared interests.’ What matters to Ximena is the sense of adventure and exploration. She values shared vision and the exchange with her partner.
Jorge reflected on his relationship mentioning that he had to work hard on it because ‘my girlfriend and I had a period with lots of personal changes. The relationship was never static, so we had to learn how to navigate it by becoming aware of ourselves.’ When we were all done sharing we stayed in silence for a moment, taking in all the stories.
What followed was a discussion about how personal relationships relate to organizational collaboration. How do we create good collaboration? Why do we have them at all?
There was a general consensus that the qualities that make a good personal relationship also make a good collaboration. We did a forum theatre exercise that brought up so much emotion to the surface (I need a whole other space to tell you about it because it was so amazing!).

A scene from the forum theatre on collaboration. 

While good collaboration brings forward a win-win scenario – often collaboration starts with affinity, with a ‘crush’. It grows with trust, love and care, which come with honesty and vulnerability. Like in a personal relationship, the give and take is constant, nonlinear, and unconditional. Positive relationships builds on compromises, and hopefully, allow for mutual expansion. They concluded that collaboration is an art – such an important part of their work and of their growth as people and organizations.
I thought back to this conversation when, few days later, I came across this podcast:
It started by sharing ‘the number one rule of collaboration’ which supposedly is:
‘Don’t collaborate unless you have to.’
Apparently the two questions to ask are: ‘What is the goal?’ and ‘Do I need to collaborate to achieve my goal?’ If the answer is no, don’t collaborate.
When I heard this, I made a scream so loud my roommate came out of the kitchen asking me what was going on. The podcast discussed collaboration with such a different ethos, with such a different tone compared to my colleagues in Medellin! They see collaboration as a process as natural as building a friendship. Even if the podcast made several metaphors comparing collaboration to friendship and dating, it portrayed collaboration as a strategic tool rather than a process of living in society that grows wider, diverse visions.
For my colleagues, the ‘goal’ of collaborations is to learn from each other, to build bridges between ideologies, approaches, ways of living… In the process, we build more inspired, resilient communities.
The podcast bothered me, but I can’t put my finger on exactly why. It was the way it felt – what they shared made sense if we look at the world from within a paradigm of efficiency and effectiveness and all the other mantras of a neoliberal narrative.
But is there more to it? My colleagues talk about creating warmth, synergy, and empathy and I feel they are on to something!
Could nonprofit management theories take on other logics?
Many of my colleagues in Medellin work within the paradigm of the ‘buen vivir’ (living well, or living well together) an indigenous approach which promotes the ethics of ‘enough’ for the whole community, in harmony with the ecosystem. I am writing a paper exploring how the ‘buen vivir’ can inform the construction of organizational culture.
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Stir-frying the green onions

In the culture of our meetings, to me ‘buen vivir’ comes across in the way we prepare lunch together.
At Techo there was some rice and lentils. As a group we had pooled together two large avocados, 5 tomatoes, 2 lemons and some green onion. We made a salad with lemons, avocados, tomatoes salt and pepper. We all waited around the kitchen while the lentils cooked in a pressure cooker. We stir-fried the green onions. As we prepared lunch most of us were in the kitchen, chatting about what we like to cook, our habits and what we like to do. Finally we added everything together in this sequence: lentils, rice, the avocado-tomato salad, and stir-fried onion. We took our time, and we ate in the balcony.
In our group we don’t really collaborate because we have to, but lots of interesting informal partnerships are sparking from our discussions. I think my colleagues in Medellin will teach me a lot.
What have you learned in your experience watching different organizations? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
Sending you much love,