A Case of Time Well Spent: It Takes Time to Spend Time Well
Success achieved by slowing down
Among the many obstacles to productive collaboration, shortage of time is almost always cited. If individuals choose to engage in collaboration, they are prone to rush through the first phase of developing a “good collaboration.” They do not allow enough time at the outset to carry out “due diligence” on relevant organization and individuals. And if participants don’t spend enough time articulating the purpose and mission of the collaboration as well as specific short-term and long-term goals, the collaboration will suffer or even collapse. Though it may seem counterintuitive, “going slow,” especially at the early stages of a collaboration, helps to ensure a more efficient and productive collaboration over the long run.
“Time Well Spent” refers not only to the effective use of time during meetings and gatherings (e.g. adhering to a set schedule), but also to the quality of the experiences for individuals—how to make the time, be it an hour or a week, meaningful for participants. For example, opportunities to get to know each other and the chance to “bond” both personally and professionally enable individuals to feel more connected to each other and to the work at hand. To be sure, technology can help in establishing and maintaining these connections, especially if people are at a distance. Still, being together in the same physical space remains the optimal way to get to know one another and to achieve shared understanding of the goals, mission, and purpose of the collaboration.
Consider a collaboration between two prominent groups in public health, one in the United States, and the other in France. These organizations were asked by a funder to co-produce a book about how their respective lines of work fit together. Each of the groups was counting on future funding from this source, so the “request” seemed more like a mandate than a mere recommendation.
The two groups, a research organization in the United States, and a community health care center in France, had admired each other’s work for many years, and often referred interested individuals and parties to the other’s respective workplaces. Each thought that it knew the other potential partner reasonably well. The funders thought that a book about their relationship and “best practices” would inspire health care professionals far and wide. Neither the funder, nor key members of either either organization, anticipated that this venture might be a difficult task.
The beginning stage of the mandated collaboration was bumpy. Individuals on both sides wondered whether the work was “worth” their time. Despite the perceived familiarity and mutual admiration, the process of bringing together a diverse group of people from different fields and different languages, who had varying work styles, proved more difficult than anticipated.
To be specific: There was no clear communication about the goals for the first few meetings, and minimal attention was paid to the optimal use of time. The American researchers felt that the French practitioners “never stopped talking,” and wondered whether the project would progress. As a result of this frustration, all of the participants voted to use Skype for the next meeting, a ploy which they thought would save time (and money). This decision signaled that participants did not see the time spent together in person as worthy of their resources or time.
As it turned out, “meeting” over Skype was not a good decision. Due to the time difference, some of the participants were unclear of the actual start time of the meeting; others could not get Skype running on their computers; some people were reluctant to speak out of fear that they would be interrupting a colleague. Furthermore, when some of the participants did speak, the American participants had a hard time understanding exactly what the French practitioners were trying to articulate. Some of the French participants were not particularly fluent in English and few of the Americans spoke French, and this caused an even further rift between the two groups.
How did the participants handle this situation?
The French practitioners took a risk. They asked the American researchers to start anew. They suggested that the group get together (in person) for a three day meeting in the United States. The first day and night would be devoted to a social gathering—a chance to get to know each other on a personal level—where people come from, likes and dislikes, family situations, and personal interests. If people spent informal time together, they would not only have the chance to bond, but also be more focused on the work for the following days.
The plan worked. The first day, participants toured the city together, enjoyed a picnic lunch, and went to a restaurant for dinner. One of the Americans realized that he was finally getting to know some of the participants—as he put it, not just their names and responsibilities, but “who they are,” and “where they come from,” and “what they value and how they think.” These kinds of connections, felt by many of the participants at dinner that first night, led to progress over the next two days. Not only were participants more focused on the work; they looked forward to working together—even arguing about content—no longer feeling they might be offending one another by their remarks and responses.
This “trial” three-day meeting confirmed that at the beginning stage of collaboration, interpersonal elements are at least as important as the work itself. One of the participants claimed, “The thing that I learned from [our collaborators] is that quality really comes from taking time to delve deeply and really try to understand things, not to move too quickly, and to strive to embody these ideas ourselves.” Ultimately, the collaboration proved productive—a book was produced and it garnered attention from both researchers and practitioners all over the world. Though none of the participants would say that it was a completely smooth collaborative process, in the end, they agreed that the group found a way to accomplish its original goal.
The key was to slow down. Efficient processes helped, but finding ways for people to connect to each other and to the work was most important. Sometimes it takes time to use time well.