Experimental Civics


3 Things to Forget if You Want to Level Up Your Team: The Magic of Collaboration

When it comes to teamwork, there are so many variables and elements at the table that it can be extremely overwhelming to figure out exactly how the magic happens. While some teams crash and burn spectacularly before they even get off the ground, some are effortless and invigorating — where inspiration turns into collaboration and becomes action. I hope that you have all have had the experience of the latter, where everything worked amazingly, the ideas flowed, and everyone walked away energized with passion. When that happens, it truly is a special kind of magic.

One of my favorite times this happened for me was during the Sierra Club Apprenticeship program in 2013. I didn’t know any of the other organizers and we were all located in different cities across the country, but there was something about our dynamic that was truly phenomenal. We even asked the hiring team how they were able to do such a great job bringing us together and they didn’t have a good answer themselves. Our synergy and the way we fed off each other’s energy felt like magic. While we all loved the work, we loved doing it together even more.

Sierra Club Apprentices, Class of 2014: New Orleans Coal Export Project

There is something uniquely special and fulfilling in the collaborative process, and when you can do that with a team that is in synch with you and on board with your passions, it creates a perfect storm of creativity and action. And isn’t that something we could all use a little more of? That’s why I have some tips for you that will help level up your team — whether at a hackathon, for a school project, or in an office — and bring on the magic.

Forget what you’re thinking when other team members are talking

Active listening is something else, isn’t it? We can all usually tell the difference between when we’re being listened to and when someone is starting at us from across the table with a blank look. Beyond that, it’s so important to have someone’s full attention and not be interrupted in your train of thought. This can be hard for many folks — I’ve had to mindfully train myself on this again and again — but the benefits of undivided attention totally outweigh your (or my) need to interrupt or “plan” what we’re going to say while someone else is talking. Undivided attention builds relationships, it helps create stronger ideas (because it’s a lot better when you’re adding to a complete thought than adding to a partial one), and it gives each person on the team a chance to give input and feel valued. Even if you don’t end up using most of the ideas generated by the team, allowing everyone to have input creates buy-in, and builds rapport. A more cohesive team is going to work harder and with more enthusiasm, and they’re more likely to be ambassadors of the work in the end. The benefits are truly outstanding.

You are listening to learn

Unless I’m at the DMV or placing my order at a restaurant (and even then sometimes), I’m having conversations because I’m engaged with trying to learn something. Whether it’s the next step(s) on a project, more about a team member, building new skills, or understanding the world around me — we are always listening so that we can learn something. And if you’re not learning…then folks, you’re not listening. Time is of the upmost importance and efficiency is so critical in our fast-paced lives, but this makes it more vital than ever to make each conversation and moment count in the midst of all the chaos.

The good news is it’s easy to figure out whether or not you’re a good listener. You can ask your peers for feedback, of course, but I also encourage testing yourself by writing notes and challenging yourself to see what you’ve retained from a meeting or conversation — it can be truly revealing.

Your teammates are human…SURPISE!

Sometimes it can be all neurons go when someone new and unfamiliar has stepped into your space and you’re confronted with both your biological and intellectual “stranger” response. But it is fairly easy to overcome those barriers with some basic human commonalities, like humor, small talk, or unobtrusive questions, which can help you reach common ground that much faster.

I find that the MOST human examples help folks in the room relax and start meaningful dialogue. You don’t have to be a master of small talk to lighten the load and move the room in a fun, playful direction. Just smile and breathe — you’ve got this. When the work does start, you need to be mindful that everyone is having fun and that everyone brings different skills and experiences to the table. I love the challenge of working with different folks. Ultimately, it can come down to your reactions and how you control yourself. I’ve worked on some projects with really intense, passionate people, some of whom lacked a filter (nope, not naming any names), but the best teams I’ve ever been on have always included members with a wide range of personalities and mindsets.

One word of advice for when things get too intense in a team: if you feel your buttons being pushed, go take a walk. Listen to some music (maybe some Spice Girls). I guarantee that a few minutes to calm down will clear your head and keep you from exploding at the rest of the team.


1. Practice Active Listening.

2. Be Ready to Learn With Every Sound Bite.

3. Focus on Human to Human Interaction.

Because I am always learning, I’d love to learn from you how it goes. If you’re trying to develop a deeper level of commitment to stepping up your team game, reach out to me via experimentalcivics.io and let’s talk! I’m always here to help, especially for those organizers out there who are hosting hackathons.

More by Experimental Civics

Topics of interest

More Related Stories