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On Choosing Good Collaborators (1 of N)

It was the year 2000, and the Y2K bug had failed to live up to its hype, which meant it had failed to provide clearance for me to hold late library books and Blockbuster rental videos indefinitely. Indeed, I would have to return to my routine of weekday manual labor during summer and winter breaks, as if nothing had ever happened.

On one such weekday, a friend inquired about coming to work with me, from 7am to 4pm, when we would dig trenches a few feet into the ground to lay electrical and utilities infrastructure.

He arrived late.

By noon, he was attempting to take a nap in my dad’s car.

The excess work fell on my blistering hands, and my dad chuckled while questioning my judgment and the work ethic of my friend.

By the end of the following summer, only two of my friends proved to be reliable collaborators.

When I reflect on my prior beliefs about whom would be the most diligent, cooperative, hard-working amongst my friends, Chase and Mike would have been at the top of the list.

What surprised me was how few of my friends could not fulfill the baseline duties of the job, for a single day.

Thus, I learned that my prior beliefs and implicit measures of a person’s likelihood to make a good collaborator were poorly tuned, undefined, and unreliable.

Compared to knowledge work, assessing the fitness of a prospective collaborator for manual labor is quite straightforward.

Imagine that the long-term success criteria for digging ditches are stamina, strength, mental fortitude, a lack of less labor-intensive career alternatives, and a good sense of humor. After establishing the criteria, it would be worth weighting them by impact. Then, testing for them.

You could proxy for stamina and strength using test of general physical preparedness (GPP) that are already in existence, like the Army’s Basic Training Physical Test consisting of push-ups for two minutes, sit ups for two minutes, and a 2-mile run. Or, maybe you look to the activities used in the CrossFit, though you’re not looking to hire athletes; you’re looking to find people who can shovel productively for about eight hours. Better still, you could do a paid, half-day trial run and observe how they perform.

There are probably creative ways to test for mental fortitude empirically, but less time-intensive checks include 1) looking for experience in similarly physically demanding and discomforting roles; 2) inquiring about their willingness to conduct physically demanding work routinely in uncomfortable conditions, like beneath pouring rain or scathing heat; 3) asking for examples of laborious passions.

Now, effective, long-term collaboration in knowledge work requires at least two well-matched partners.

It’s an exacting process.

First, it’s worth defining a success state, or what a productive working relationship would look like to you, an insider, and to outsiders.

Then, it’s worth enumerating the necessary traits for your success state.

For example, the Big Five personality traits – OCEAN – have been used to effectively summarize personality using five axes: openness to experience; conscientiousness; extraversion; agreeableness; and neuroticism. What, for you, are the traits that inform a success state?

For Google, psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and impact make up the bedrock of effective teams.

Last, how will you test for these traits?

How do you know who can and is likely to ‘pull their weight’ and more with limited data?

In sex and relationship theory, courtship denotes the period when people signal their virtues – some which are rather easy to fake, others which are costly to fake – to attract short- and long-term mates.

In decision-making, systemic biases such as the halo effect, Dunning-Kruger effect, and the Wobegon effect, among many others, may lead us to false positives.

In a future post, I will explore how to detect quickly and accurately the signals for the virtues we want, and avoid some of the common errors that lead us to confidently select the wrong collaborator.

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