Lessons Learned From the Softball Field on the Power of Collaboration

We all remember great collaborations of the past: Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Thelma and Louise, the Beatles, and the 2007 Boston Red Sox. Be it a pair, a trio or an entire team, the power of working together is undeniable. I first experienced the magical feeling of collaboration in first grade while playing on a softball team. On those fields in Hollis, Maine, I learned how incredible it was to work as a unit with my friends. Whether we were cheering from the sidelines, or consoling each other after a catastrophic loss, our team understood that resiliency was key to returning to the field the next day with fresh hopes.

The most effective partnerships are forged when people build on one another's strengths, resulting in more than they could accomplish on their own. At the ripe age of six years old, these were some of my first lessons in the discipline, determination, and dedication it takes to be an effective team member. This was the start of my life-long love of working collaboratively with others to reach goals. These lessons I learned as a child have transferred to the business world, for me and many others.

Growing up, my favorite value-driven brand was Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. In 1973, with a $5 correspondence course in ice cream-making from Penn State, Ben Cohen opened his first ice cream scoop shop in a renovated gas station in Burlington, Vermont, with Jerry Greenfield. Ben and Jerry spent the next several years building an amazing brand. I asked Ben about teamwork and he shared his thoughts: "Things I have learned about collaboration are as much as possible use good ideas from other people; understand your weaknesses; focus on others' strengths; if you find yourself giving credit to other people for ideas you thought up, you're doing something right." The right partnerships can have effective -- and tasty -- results.

Tom Kelley, General Manager of IDEO, a design and innovation consulting that has worked with Eileen Fisher, OXO, Acumen Fund and many more design and impact driven organizations, is one of the leaders in team idea building and design thinking. Tom shared with me that, "in deeply collaborative environments, teams live by a core principle that says, 'build on the ideas of others.'" When encountering a new -- and not yet perfected -- idea from a colleague, instead of invoking the Devil's Advocate and launching into critique, team members use their expertise to help strengthen worthwhile concepts and make them more viable. As the prevailing language of a project team switches from "yes, but..." to "yes, and..." groups suddenly generate more viable solutions to the challenge at hand." No idea is a bad idea, especially when you have some help developing it.

As the founder and CEO of Able Made, a fashion-inspired business that contributes to social change around the globe, we harness the power of design and creative collaborations to foster global social impact. On a daily basis, I strive to tap into the power of collaboration by channeling designers' creative energy with the desire for business growth and building sustainable, fair practices, while managing my team. My experiences working in teams remain true today as they did on those softball fields in Maine many years ago.

Here are my five rules for releasing the power of collaboration.

  1. Surround yourself with the best people. Build a team with people you admire and respect, and, most importantly, who are nice. After a win or a loss, they can inspire and fuel you in ways you never imagined.

  • Build with each other. Does someone have a great move or idea? Awesome! Identify it, amplify it, and cheer it on together.
  • Have no fear (or at least fake it). If you never ask, the answer is always no. Often, people are afraid of what someone might think of a question or invitation, but the real fear should be the loss of an opportunity. Leaps of faith in yourself can have amazing results. So step up to bat already.
  • Pool resources. Having lots of money is certainly effective, but there is also power in relationships. If you have limited resources and can offer a benefit, think about asking for help or offering a trade. Such people-focused problem solving can be more satisfying than any financial transaction could ever be. If everyone pitches in a dime, you can all share the bubblegum.
  • Share results. At the end of every great effort is a result -- something tangible worth putting out there. And if it's not a true ending, maybe it's an opportunity to get feedback and build on in order to get maximum results next time. And for the determined, there's always a next opportunity to bat.