The Final Product: Collaboration as Process

Collaborative work holds the promise of bringing forth ideas and solutions that would not emerge from isolated work. What is the key to working as a team that yields this productivity? When the collaborative process of charette is examined critically, the subject of observation and critique shifts from the creative outcome of the charette to the practice of collaboration and productive cooperation. This shift from the end product to the internal dynamic of the process also shifted the emphasis of observation from creative production to interpersonal practice: in the moment that it occurs, collaboration exists as communication and shared objectives.
Thus, the most interesting images of the collaborative charette process, from the standpoint of critical practice, are the images that allow me to observe individuals operating as team members, and the questions that those photographs introduce have less to do with graphic skill or creative originality, than they have to do with engagement. Introducing another mode of critical practice, the tools that reveal the dynamics of group interaction can be found in critical discourse analysis. Like the critical examination of the charette, critical discourse analysis recognizes the significance of who speaks, and how they speak, and who responds.
The critical collaboration is a practice, embodying the multiplicity of meanings embedded in the idea of practice: it is a physical act of working with others toward a goal, a rehearsal of a set of material skills in order to improve; the sense of practice found in yoga, or meditation is also present in collaborative practice. In these two cases, the emphasis of the practice is not the end product, but the cultivation of an inner capacity or awareness. There is an important difference between inner practice and collaborative practice, however: the collaborative process requires and effort that faces out, toward the world, toward cultivating the potential for an entire group.
During the quarter there was some discussion about team roles; as practice, critical collaboration should call forth all of the different roles within each person. While observing the charettes in progress, the most critical position seemed to be striking a balance between careful listening to ideas and suggestions, while also considering how to further those goals. This is a facilitating role, that the individual simultaneously gathers group sentiment and considers how to move group goals forward. This role of facilitator and egalitarian progress can run directly counter to two significant forces in group dynamics: first, the reality that a team will sort into hierarchy, and that turns are often decided by strength of personality; and second, that collective opinion will rarely coalesce around a single goal, especially if there is an attempt to move toward an egalitarian model.
These two present the most fundamental challenges to real collaboration, the difficult questions that remain unchanged by practice, critique and self-reflection.
As one extreme of the teamwork image, the weekend team-building retreat makes it easy to fall off a table backwards: everyone knows the whole activity is covered by a liability insurance policy somewhere. Workplace hierarchies make clear the extent to which input and engagement is welcomed, but they also develop over a much longer time, potentially allowing for negotiations, exchanges, and critical engagement. In pragmatic terms, the charettes in this course presented the challenge of teamwork with an interesting real-time twist.
Meeting professionals, receiving a design prompt, and attempting to bring together all of the different moving parts into a completed whole, within the span of 3 hours does not permit time for abstract discussions of teamwork, nor does it allow time for informal or indirect conversations that might be used to defuse tensions or test ideas. Within the constraints of the time allowed, the process ran most smoothly when there was a concrete prompt or a clear category of design: charette teams faced with abstract goals or difficult-to-define categories spent a great deal of time in conversation building consensus around how to limit either the prompt or the category in so that it would be possible to produce some action upon the site that could be traced back to the original challenge.
Arriving at the end of the quarter, the meaning of ‘critical’ in the context of working among individuals, across disciplines, and within the challenges of social dynamics, does not seem to resolve into a simple set of phrases or easy formulae, and the outcome is that the challenge—and vital importance—of collaboration is that much more pointed.


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