Are You Really Collaborating?

Christine Benson

Definitions of “content strategist” vary widely, but one thing everyone seems to agree on is the need for us to work with a diverse group of teams and individuals—a content strategist needs to be a great collaborator.

"Look, if we work together we'll get done a lot quicker." (photo by kennymatic. cc licensed)

I’ve always thought I was good at collaboration, but after reading a recentHarvard Business Review article, “Teams That Only Think They Collaborate,” I began to question my own collaboration practices. In the article, the author divides up the way teams work into three categories, only one of which is actually collaboration.


This happens when each team member works independently and takes action in his or her own area of expertise. For example, a project starts with everyone agreeing that their company website is confusing to visitors. Hopefully, everyone works together to define or identify business goals and objectives. They then go off to develop their individual components. One person creates site messages and provides them to the writers. Another person develops site navigation and overall structure, and then gives it to the designers and developers. But, because no one made sure everything was tied together, the improvements are likely to be inconsistent and marginal.


When each person still works independently, but also shares what he or she is doing with the group, this is called cooperation. Each individual creates and implements their individual solutions without an overall collective strategy. Then, before things are considered final, there is a gathering and sharing of feedback. That feedback usually falls into one of three categories:

  • Minor word changes and clarifications
  • Identifying any major gaps
  • Things to consider for next time

Even when people take additional time to look at the deliverables, they’re more likely to simply validate that high-level thinking has been done, rather than considering and questioning why it’s been done. Cooperation will improve the work, but it doesn’t really support exploring alternate ideas and directions.

And finally, collaboration

With true collaboration, individual goals are set aside to create collective achievement. It involves everyone working together to define and address the problem using the combined resources, ideas, and talents of the team. When you collaborate, you get others involved in the decision making process. You all work together to figure out the best way to solve an issue. It’s not just about content strategy issues; it’s about how to make things better overall.

What collaboration really means

Any of this sound familiar? I realized that I had been complying and cooperating as often as I was collaborating. I wasn’t doing it on purpose. But after reading the article, I discovered there were a few habits I could change right away that would help me work more collaboratively.

  • Leave room for others to collaborate. Before, I would take my thinking almost to the final solution before I shared it. This makes it difficult for someone to go back and understand every decision—which in turn makes it difficult to give meaningful feedback about other options. Just because it’s a workable solution, doesn’t mean it’s the best solution. It’s just the one that I came up with. By inviting others in at the key decision points, I’ve been able to include additional ideas and directions that I wouldn’t have considered on my own.
  • Get things down on paper early. I tend to think through stuff in my head before I start writing. But it’s difficult to share complex ideas that only exist in your head. While you can talk people through things to a point, you still need to provide some documented direction that outlines what you’re thinking, along with where you have questions or holes. Once you have that, you can share it more easily with others. By creating documentation in iterations, I am giving others a framework to understand where I’m coming from and build upon.
  • Understand it’s still ok to work alone. Collaboration doesn’t mean you’re joined at the hip. Everyone still needs time alone to do research and analysis, and develop shared ideas. It’s when and where you come back together that makes it collaborative. If you feel you’re at the point of setting or changing the approach or overall direction, that’s a great time for a collaborative working session.

It’s not easy

Of course, collaboration is not without challenges. Working in a new way is uncomfortable. I’ve had to set my ego and insecurities aside to share work that isn’t perfect. I’ve had to talk about ideas and strategies before I’ve felt ready. But the work is better and “getting there” faster. I feel more confident about the solutions we’re proposing, and I get to bask even more in the brilliance of my coworkers.

In the past, I’ve focused on having the answers to questions and solving problems. Now, I realize that involving others in the development of a solution adds to the true value.