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The world is getting more and more connected. Never before have there been opportunities for people to work together across different offices, different cities, different time zones. It’s now possible for people who have never met or even spoken to each other to collaborate on some of the most difficult challenges that currently exist, and this type of Open Innovation can find solutions to challenges which individual teams cannot. However, there is one issue which if not addressed will instantly kill your ability to deliver: attempting Anonymous Collaboration.

I use the term Anonymous Collaboration to mean any situation where you are directly working on something with someone who you have not established any sort of foundations for a working relationship. The human touch is completely absent. In most cases, all that is required is to start at the beginning with something that lets you get a better feeling of who the other person is, to develop rapport. The importance of this is that it begins to establish an ability for you to understand the subtext of what the other person is talking about. This is vital when collaborating, where both parties are actively contributing, often simultaneously.

There are many examples where you may have someone working with you but without the purpose of developing something new, such as your accountant handling your end-of-year taxes, your IT manager handling your computing systems, or the security guards at your building. In these situations it’s not as important to understand the thought processes of both parties. These sorts of processes and services can therefore also be effectively outsourced to people you will never meet or communicate directly with.

every breakthrough innovation in the history of humanity has been a collaborative effort

However, essentially every breakthrough innovation in the history of humanity has been a collaborative effort, either developed and refined by groups or by building on knowledge and ideas of other members of society. In fact, the only examples of innovations by a single individual I know of are “freak” discoveries, such as the accidental discovery of Penicillin. And when you’re learning from and working with other people to change things and develop new solutions, you need to build on each other’s progress, which requires that you understand each other’s direction and instructions. This is vital to make sure you’re moving towards the same target, but also so that on the way there you can understand the reasons why the other person may be having difficulty. In an office environment, this initial relationship building happens organically over time. This is because less than 10% of what we communicate is based on the words we use. The other 90% is based on body language, intonation, eye contact and other subtle cues. However, when working with someone you are unlikely to ever meet, either in another office or someone like a remote freelancer, then a lack of understanding can lead to you moving in very different directions.

Let me tell you a story which exemplifies this. Improvides is currently developing a web-based assessment of people’s ability to generate ideas. For this, we’ve employed some freelance coders in India via an outsourcing website. While finding people able to do the work was simple and cost effective, issues started once work began. First of all, communication was lacking, and after sending instructions I would have no idea where progress was until I chased them. When I got through updates, sometimes they had ignored aspects which I thought I had made clear were vital but they had not interpreted that way. And finally, it has never been made clear how my work fits into their total workload, meaning I have no idea whether they are actually focusing on my requirements or just doing the highest-level things required for numerous projects. If it had been possible to get the initial human interaction, such as by having an initial Skype session, it would have enabled me to understand their working practices and them to understand my actual requirements right from the beginning.

The scary thing for you is that you may not realise how often there is anonymous collaboration within your own organisation, perhaps even involving you. Think of any time you’ve received a request from someone you don’t know asking you to produce something for them, or even something as simple as you sending them something which is no work for you, but important to them. The majority of people, and you have likely done it too, will have ignored such requests from people they know nothing about. This can also be a distinct issue when dealing with hierarchies. People in management positions are more likely to expect immediate results when they make a request to someone who doesn’t know them, perhaps someone in a different department, leading to misunderstandings of importance and context, and issues down the line.

put in one extra minute right at the beginning of the relationship to find out more about each other

So what are the action steps which can prevent these issues? Simply put, put in one extra minute right at the beginning of the relationship to find out more about each other. Find out if the people you work with have kids, if they’re from the city or elsewhere, what events they enjoy watching. The content you get here is not important, whereas the act of finding out about these things changes the dynamic between the two of you away from a completely formal one. This will enable you to collaborate more effectively long term, and will also allow you to begin finding out what each other’s strengths and work-related superpowers are. But that’s a another story for an upcoming article. So look up from your desk. Who have you not spoken to yet? You and them might end up creating the next big thing.

What have been your experiences in working with people you haven’t met? Let us know in the comments section below.