Yours, Mine, Ours: or how to live happily ever after

On Monday and Tuesday close to 200 people (online and in person) gathered together to consider the topic of collaboration at our forum, Yours, Mine, Ours: Leadership Through Collaboration.

  • Powered by 22 speakers
  • Planned by 15 people
  • Aided by 4 sponsoring organizations
  • Hosted by the Smithsonian Institution

Yours, Mine, Ours: Leadership Through CollaborationView from the podium

If you glanced at the agenda and the lineup of speakers and topics, I’m sure you thought, “Wow, that must have been quite an event.” You would be right. I was one of three people asked to summarize the event (and was given only four minutes to speak!). It was tough to take two days of content, especially such rich content, and boil it down to something succinct, but I think I did a reasonably good job, so I’m sharing it with you all.

One of our speakers, Chris Prom (UIUC), noticed that the forum had the a similar title as a 1968 movie, Yours, Mine and Ours. The film centers on the concept of a very large blended family. The IMDB synopsis for the film calls the question “can the 20 of them ever come together as one happy family?” On reflection, I thought that ideas about marriage and family can apply equally to forming collaborative partnerships. You want to pick the right partners, have lots of little projects together, and live happily ever after.

So how to choose the right partners? Some partners are already family – they are your institution and you collaborate with them because you have to. In the parlance of Collaboration Contexts, this would fall under “common administration.” But, as John Helmer (Orbis Cascade Alliance) pointed out, one of the benefits of cross-institutional collaboration is that you can pick your friends in a way you can’t pick your family. So how to pick wisely, so you can get to the happily ever after part?

Chris Prom presented us with rules for assessing open source software projects, and I think these could be applied to prospective collaboration partners or prospective projects. Is the vision clear and shared? Is there leadership? How open and collaborative is the project? Is there a method for giving critiques and other input in an open fashion? Are project decisions deliberate and clearly communicated? Does the project scale up from something simple?

Here are some additional collaboration keys, drawn from conference presenters, which would also be keys to a successful marriage.

Be a giving partner: Allan Cohen (Babson College) gave us the key to influence in six words: “everyone expects to be paid back.” Figure out what your partner cares about, and make an exchange. This can be coupled with wisdom from Rob Stein (Indianapolis Museum of Art), “Be prepared to give more than you receive.” (One of our astute Twitter correspondents correlated this to Tim O’Reilly’s “create more value than you capture.”)

Express patience: Stein: Benefits from collaboration are indirect, or delayed. Cohen: Planting seeds is important – it takes time for payoff.

Show respect: Stein: Respect personal limits. Ann Speyer (Smithsonian): When partnering with content owners, respect their needs and their knowledge of the data; David Remsen (Global Biodiversity Information Facility): Fit into what’s being done in the field. No scientist is going to structure data in XML because a geek says it’s good. Meg Bellinger (Yale): Respect domains of practice, privilege none.

All of this builds…trust: Remsen: Personal trust is important. This can make the difference between someone submitting data or not. Helmer: If possible, work on trust not on contract. Bellinger: An inspired team of committed people who trust one another and share a vision can accomplish much.

Of course, in a marriage you want to look for passion: Stein: Be ambitious, and don’t be afraid of what that word represents. In our small ways, we can make a difference and change the world. Shift culture. Be the secret sauce. Tom Garnett (Smithsonian): Aim high. Your project should build something “too useful not to support.”

No marriage is really happily ever after, so another important element is persistence: Stein: You should expect to fail. Cohen: Don’t give up, even after being rejected three times.

Timing can be everything in casting a relationship. Various speakers wove in the poetry of Robert Frost, African proverbs, or references to classical Japanese haiku. Not me. My reference is to Sex and the City. Miranda Hobbes quipped, “Men are like cabs. When they’re ready to get married, they turn their light on. The next woman they pick up, boom! they marry.” It’s all about the timing, for good or ill. John Helmer cast this as, “Sometimes collaboration is magic: the time was right, the people were right.” Also in the timing department Helmer stressed the importance of an emergency (a la Rahm Emanuel who famously said, “Never Waste a Good Crisis)

Sometimes marriage is uncomfortable. Mostly when it’s a shotgun wedding or a marriage of convenience. Eric Miller (Zepheira) and Nick Poole (UK Collections Trust) both stress that working with partners who don’t share similar values can be quite challenging. Key here is focusing on what may be a narrow band of common interest, and ignore what you do not have in common. I think here, the combination of passion on the part of cultural heritage institutions and practicality brought by commercial partners can be quite powerful. In a marriage of convenience, find your inner politician and practice the art of the possible.

A few final pearls of wisdom: Prom: no matter what, don’t be baited into comparing the Scots to the English. Miller: it’s worth eating a teaspoon of Vegemite if that’s what it takes to motivate a partner.

Yours, Mine, Ours: Leadership Through CollaborationRob Stein gets to the secret sauce recipe

For more details of the forum, you can refer to the two days of liveblogging by Chris Prom (here and here) and also this archive of the Twitter stream. More photos are here.

Yours, Mine, Ours was brought to you by the following village: Elizabeth Broun, Anne Van Camp, Nancy E. Gwinn, Ann Speyer, Marcia Adams, Jackie Bell, Emmanuelle Delmas-Glass, Wendy Duff, Christine Hennessey, Steven K. Galbraith, Cathryn Goodwin, Martin Kalfatovic, Dan Santamaria, Pam Smith, Sarah Stauderman, Merrilee Proffitt, Ricky Erway, Jackie Dooley, Günter Waibel, Jeanette McNichol, Melissa Renspie, Patrick Confer, Liz O’Brien, Marc Bretzfelder

Much credit is due to our sponsors who provided financial and other support: the Smithsonian Institution, the Institute of Library and Museum Services, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, OCLC Research.