This Thanksgiving, while others are stuffing turkeys and dotting casserole dishes of sweet potatoes with mini-marshmallows, we at Collaboration Central are serving up something completely different: a survival strategy. Let’s face it: Many people dread this holiday, with its requisite bringing together of family members who vastly prefer being apart. In this way, Thanksgiving is like so many journalistic collaborations: a forced communion of grudging participants, full of heightened expectations, anxiety and people longing for a drink.
Well, gentle reader — never fear. We’ve been documenting best practices in collaboration for over a year, and now, we put them to work for Thanksgiving gatherings across the land:
1. Plan Early and Often
“If I’ve learned anything about managing collaborative investigative journalism, it’s that planning matters.” – Carrie Lozano (see full article)
Here, Lozano says “investigative journalism,” but she might as well have said, “Thanksgiving dinner.” My own mother uses an Excel spreadsheet to plan her Thanksgiving menu (this is not a joke), detailing everything from her grocery list to game-day scheduling concerns. That my mother does this explains many things about me. But I digress.
If your Thanksgiving dinner is a potluck affair, then you’ll do yourself a favor to make contributors’ roles and responsibilities crystal clear. When you ask Aunt Minnie to bring cranberry sauce, be specific: Should she bring a serving dish as well, or can she just roll on up with a couple cans of Ocean Spray? Are you expecting her to bring both smooth and lumpy varieties, or just choose one? If Little Timmy expects smooth sauce and Cousin Frank likes his lumps, well, you can avoid a ruckus by making sure Minnie has clear marching orders.
Planning can also help you be sure to accommodate every single family member’s weird food allergy, likes and dislikes. I once made the grave error of including nutmeg in the charoset I served my mother-in-law at Passover. If only I’d had an article like this one to guide me!
2. Set Up Some Communication Ground Rules
“Establish clear ground rules for discussion that steer the group toward active problem-solving, and away from simply advocating pre-existing positions” – yours truly, describing a favorite collaboration tactic of community builder Milenko Matanovic (see full article)
This one’s huge. If only family gatherings utilized third-party facilitators as freely as corporate meetings do! To ensure harmony at this year’s Thanksgiving, take a page from a facilitator’s book and develop some ground rules for discussion. (If you want to be really impressive, put these up on a white board or easel on display in your dining room — perhaps using orange marker, for a festive touch.) Ground rules may include: We’ll keep any comments about religion or politics brief, and will do our best to avoid these subjects entirely. No personal attacks. And we’ll stop drinking wine before we become drunk, belligerent, overly nostalgic, or any combination of the three.
3. Don’t Forget to Laugh
OK, this one isn’t actually reflected in our list of best practices, but as someone who’s managed a number of collaborative projects (journalistic and otherwise), let me assure you — humor helps. To that end, so does beer. I’m serious. Get your journalists out of the newsroom and into a bar, and suddenly, rivals become confidantes, and enemies become friends. It’s often that easy. (For teetotalers, a soda-induced sugar high is recommended.)
Similarly, this Thanksgiving, when Uncle Erwin is on his third political rant, and the kids are screaming, and the dog has his paws in the pumpkin pie … remember to take a deep breath and just laugh. This is one day of your life. It will pass. Instead of focusing on all the drama, shift your attention to the people for which you’re truly grateful, be they blood relatives or otherwise.
Incidentally, this attention-shifting works in journalistic collaborations, too. When the stress of conference calls with 12 million participants becomes too much, and you can’t take one more fight about whose logo will be bigger on the press release — stop, and focus instead on how the collaboration will either improve the story or get it in front of a bigger audience, or both.
And if that doesn’t work? Eat more pie.
Amanda Hirsch is the editor of Collaboration Central. She is a writer, performer and social media strategist who lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. The former editorial director of PBS.org, she blogs at amandahirsch.com spends way too much time on Twitter. Her latest project, Having a Ball Having it All, explores what it really means for women to have it all.