The Bad Collaborator

A good colleague of mine asked: Has anyone ever told you that you were a difficult colleague to collaborate with? I said “no”, as he was the first to explicitly suggest that. But the more I thought about this question, it is probably true that I am difficult as a colleague. But does that make me a bad colleague or bad collaborator? (I should add that in academia, it is ‘good’ to collaborate. You are not a traitor or defector – a collaborator in a bad way – but a colleague.)

I immediately recalled one of the earliest and most valuable collaborative projects I was involved in – an evaluation of Urban Information Systems (URBIS), which was conducted by a team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine’s former Public Policy Research Organization (PPRO). I was one of five principal investigators, led by Ken Kraemer, but including James Danziger, the late Rob Kling, the late Alex Mood, and myself. We worked together from 1974 through 1979, leading to a couple of books in the early 1980s.* Ken was a management scientist trained in public administration and architecture. Rob was a computer scientist focused on artificial intelligence. Alex Mood was a major statistician and co-author of the famous Coleman Report.** Jim and I were political scientists.

Most of us were difficult to collaborate with. We debated every substantive and methodological decision and every idea developing out of the project. While we would let each other have time to explain their position on an issue, most of us would give real time reactions through making faces, changing our posture, yawning, grimacing, rolling eyes, and subvocalizing if not muttering sounds of disapproval. We would write memos to each other to make our case or critique another’s. We had to fight for each forward step in the project.

Courtesy of Elsevier.com

I should say that not all of us were difficult. Alex mainly gave advice when asked. Ken was always the best listener and translator across disciplinary boundaries. He would explain that Rob was saying this, and Jim was saying that, and enable us to better understand each other’s points. Moreover, while we disagreed and debated nearly every point, we liked and respected each other. We took each other seriously.

That said, the difficulties in collaborating contributed to the best aspects of our work. For example, we would never be able to settle on the first good idea that emerged unless it survived repeated challenges. Most often, we ended up with better ideas downstream that combined features of several contributors. Also, when we met with research teams evaluating our project and the final outputs, we found that we had already addressed every argument and counter argument that could be raised about our work. We had already raised and settled them ourselves. As a consequence, we had no surprising critique of our project and found only a surprising degree of support for our work.

Ever since that experience, most of my collaborations have been difficult but successful. In short, it is possible that a difficult collaborator is not necessarily a bad colleague. Harmony sounds good in all walks of life, but harmony often emerges at the end of a lot of discord and struggle. Certainly in academia, it is not always the case, but quite often, a difficult colleague can be valuable to your work.

References

*Kraemer, Kenneth L., William H. Dutton, and Alana Northrop (1981), The Management of Information Systems,New York: Columbia University Press; and Danziger, James N., William H. Dutton, Rob Kling, and Kenneth L. Kraemer (1982; 1983 paperback), Computers and Politics: High Technology in American Local Governments, New York: Columbia University Press.

** Coleman, James S., Ernest Q. Campbell, Carol J. Hobson, James McPartland, Alexander M. Mood, Frederick D. Weinfeld, and Robert L. York. 1966. Equality of Educational Opportunity. Washington: U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, Office of Education.