What is collaboration?

My latest column for the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety:

Me and Chapman have been working together and writing for 15 years.

collaboration.powellWe ain’t the Beatles but we’ve had our moments. Lots of research, coaching girls’ hockey together, and he once bailed me out of jail.

He would be the calm and steady Paul (although he’d rather be George) to my erratic John.

Me and Amy have been writing and working together for nine years.

She also is the steady Paul. And there’s a couple of others that I repeatedly work with, who balance the yin-and-yang.

But what is it that makes a collaboration?

doug.ben.13As Joshua Wolf Shenk wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year, “Paul was the diplomat; John was the agitator. Paul was soft-spoken and almost unfailingly polite; John could be a right loudmouth and quite rude. …

“The ancient Greeks gave form to these two sides of human nature in Apollo, who stood for the rational and the self-disciplined, and Dionysus, who represented the spontaneous and the emotional.”

I keep reading how food safety is a collaborative effort, but, as Margaret Mead wrote, “Never depend upon institutions or government to solve any problem. All societal movements are founded by, guided by, motivated and seen through by the passion of individuals.”

Food safety collaboration is over-rated, especially if it’s driven by a top-down organization.

Individuals create and innovate, and bring others to the table.

My first university job was at an Ontario Center of Excellence (that’s in Canada) in 1990, involving four universities big in the information technology biz.

After a couple of years of handing out money – and ridiculous amounts of process – a leading artificial intelligence researcher told me, why don’t you just give us researchers an extra $10,000 a year, and get rid of the BS.

He had a point.

So much so that I quit my cushy job shortly after that to go get a PhD and throw my own ideas into the world – not some government-mandated spin.

But what I observed in those couple of years was that individuals made connections, and produced great stuff. And that committees generally produced crap.

That continued on into 15 years of academia, where I observed good people trying to contort themselves for funding agencies.

amy.the.look.2007Several department chairs have said I didn’t play well with others, yet my collaborative publication record is strong; I just have a low tolerance for BS.

And when people throw around phrases like global teamwork for a safer food supply, or international regulatory harmonization, I roll my eyes and wonder, what is this money being spent on? What is the real goal?

I love working with the people I work with, and we share ideas, but there’s a lot more people I won’t work with.

Maybe it’s an age thing.

The steady and focused need someone to take them out of their comfort zone, as much as the erratic need a steadying support.

That is the challenge of any collaboration, bringing those elements together, and being better than the individual.

Dr. Douglas Powell is a former professor of food safety who shops, cooks and ferments from his home in Brisbane, Australia.

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the original creator and do not necessarily represent that of the Texas A&M Center for Food Safety or Texas A&M University.