Collaboration can be a wonderful thing. Collaboration can add new insights, different perspectives, throw up new questions and give answers that one person alone could never have found. Successful collaboration means being able to do something you alone would not be able to do.
Collaboration, if it works well, means less work and less re-inventing of the wheel for everyone involved. More efficiency. Plus the exhilaration that comes with the feeling of, for once, not being alone. Of having someone who pulls the weight with you, that you can carry the load together.
When it goes badly, however, having agreed on a collaboration means nothing but headaches, and heartaches, and the exact opposite of efficiency. There's the added bit of irony that the more a project could profit from collaboration, because each person in the team has expertise and knowledge and a specialty field that has little overlap with the others', the worse it will go and the more heartache it will cause if somebody drops out or does not deliver.
I have had both - the successful collaboration (thanks, colleagues!) and being left alone by drop-outs. It's unfortunate, and bad, and sad, when a collaboration dies. Bad enough when your colleagues tell you straight out that they have to stop working on the project, for a while or forever, because something came up that needs all their time and energy to handle.
It is much worse, though, if you do not get told this. If all of a sudden, communication just... stops, and you feel like you are talking to a wall. With no echo, even. And that is what I hate most about the drop-out thing - the silence. Silence regarding all your mails, all your attempts to get some communication back. You sit there and wonder whether something has happened - an email gone astray, an address going offline, something dire in the life of the other person - or if you really are just ignored, consistently and callously. Because obviously you don't even deserve a short mail saying "I got your mail, things are bad here, please go on without me, sorry."
I know, much too well, that sometimes one bites off more than one can chew. And I believe that either you manage, somehow, to deliver after all - maybe a bit later, maybe a little less elaborate and less brilliant work than your best - or you should own up to not being able to do it. Hell, there's nothing wrong with being honest and saying "sorry, I can't do this now after all". It is unfortunate, and sad, but it is at least some communication and a clear message, and either the project of the collaboration will then die a quiet little death or those remaining in the active team will know that they have to either leave that part of the field untilled or do the work themselves. Letting the others hang, not knowing what goes on? That's unfair.
Having been let hanging rather recently by more than one person, in more than one project, I am not sure when I will do another collaboration. It might be a good while - I am pretty sure, though, that I will not resist the lure forever. For the next time I get into it, though, I will try to remember the following before getting started:
- Make sure you have contact data to reach everyone in your team. Full contact data, as redundant as possible - not just a single email address. Get the full address, at least one alternative email addy if possible, and all phone numbers. You might never need them, and that's fine, but if someone goes MIA - you'll be glad you have them.
- Be clear on communication policies. Also make it clear that whenever in a project that there are problems it will be best for everyone to address these honestly and straightforward - up to and including dropping out or going dormant in the project due to issues of whatever kind.
- Get clear statements on who is in and who is not, and set clear deadlines within the project so everyone will (hopefully) deliver in time.
- Get sorted out, clearly, on who is to do which task, and in what time-frame. Get this communicated to everybody.
- Did I mention getting full contact data? Get full contact data of everybody while they still speak with you. Really.
Unfortunately and as I have learned, even being clear on deadlines and on communication and handing out specific tasks to others is no guarantee at all that things will, indeed, work out. So sadly, but most importantly: Have a Plan B ready for when all this fails, and you are left alone with no communication, no help, and a half-written paper that you don't have the skills, knowledge, or even literature to finish up on your own.
In German, the English term "team" has become pretty much a standard part of our language, and we use it a lot (it's shorter than "Arbeitsgruppe" or something with a similar meaning in German, you see?).
In German, there is also an only half-joking explanation of TEAM as an acronym, standing for "Toll, ein andrer macht's" (Great, someone else will do it). Yes. Well. I think I don't need to say more.