Sharing a Lane: Lessons in Collboration
I’ve discovered a love for lap swimming in the last year - some of you may have bumped into me in the lap pool at the Forum. It has become a great form of exercise and relaxation for me and I try to get my laps in at the campus pool before each workday. Swimming in the campus pool terrified me when I started because a) I was so much slower than everyone else, b) I could only do a lap or two freestyle before needing to flip onto my back, c) I might have to share a lane with someone, and d) colleagues in the pool!?
With time, I got faster and worked up to more consecutive laps of freestyle, but I continued to avoid lane sharing like the plague until a temporary pool closure made it impossible. Thankfully, there were kind and friendly experienced swimmers who helped me learn, and, as I now reflect on it, sharing a lane is a lot like learning to collaborate with colleagues outside of IR. Here are some key elements:
Look for a friendly face and ask. There are some people who clearly don’t want to share their (literal or figurative) space, and there are others who look more open. If you have a choice, go for the latter. Find colleagues who are looking to work across areas and to collaborate and be explicit in inviting them. Working with someone who is welcoming will make the transition easier and likely help both of you. When possible, avoid those who clearly aren’t ready for collaboration for whatever reason. Ultimately they may come around, but there is no reason to start there if you don’t have to.
Agree on the rules before you start. Swimmers typically share lanes by either splitting the lane (each takes half) or “circle swimming” (going counterclockwise around the lane). Sometimes the rules are explicitly posted and other times the swimmers decide, but either way you have to know how to share before you start, or chaos ensues. Similarly, when collaborating outside IR it is useful to set the ground rules ahead of time. Who will be responsible for what? What kind of data access and security need to be arranged? How much effort is each party willing to put into the project? Over what amount of time? Being explicit at the outset avoids chaos.
Leave your ego (and your self-consciousness) at the door. When sharing a swim lane with someone for the first time, it’s tempting to try to “prove yourself” by swimming faster than normal or a using a stroke you think you “should.” That tends to lead to a less than pleasant early experience - wearing yourself out or splashing your partner are two I can think of. Similarly, when we start collaborating with a partner in our work, we might feel competing urges to show everything we can do or to hold back out of shyness. Neither of these is helpful for the project overall. If you focus on the project, and what will lead to the best outcomes, things seem to go more smoothly.
Be open to learning new ways of doing things. I learned a lot about swimming and how to simultaneously pace and push myself by listening to my lane partners. Similarly, I’ve learned more than I could possibly quantify from my collaborators, from project management and data connections to statistical methods and teaching pedagogy. Even after my projects have ended, those lessons have stayed with me and I’ve adapted them to my IR career.
Be aware of your partner and make adjustments to their style. Partners don’t always go at the same pace. Not everyone has the same priorities. And we all have different ways of approaching things. Pay attention to where your partner is and make adjustments if necessary. Just like you need to be sure you don’t run into (or over) someone in your swim lane, you need to be sensitive to your collaborators and where they are in the project.
Don’t assume it will go on forever. Projects end. Lanes open up. Just because a collaboration ends doesn’t mean it wasn’t useful or positive. Sometimes we take a break, go it alone, and then come back together when the next need arises. And sometimes we plan for more collaboration in the future - teams form, friendships are forged.
You may be wondering why this is in the Board Corner. The Board has been thinking about how our members collaborate with others outside of IR. In fact, collaboration with IT has been a recurrent theme we’ve heard from you regarding IR and the future. With that in mind, we’ve invited an EDUCAUSE Board member to attend our August meeting (likely happening as you read this) as a guest. We are testing the waters to see if an additional perspective will help us to understand how AIR can serve its members in this vital area. We hope that by doing some lane sharing ourselves, we can promote positive collaboration to help our members and our institutions.