The Case Against Collaboration

The challenge is not to cultivate more collaboration. Rather, it’s to cultivate the right collaboration

Morten T. Hansen

One of the most popular arguments for getting employees back to the office is about collaboration. We need to be on site, we’re told, because collaborating with one another has been harder to do when everyone is working from separate locations.

Even if that were true – and there is some evidence for it – we risk placing collaboration on some kind of pedestal. 

The time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% in recent years.

In truth most of the people you work with have nothing or very little to do with your work, yet collaboration with them – for more and more of the time – has become conventional business wisdom.

It’s partly this that has led to us all being meetinged and emailed to death. The mantra of sharing your work and involving everyone in decisions naturally leads to inviting and copying people into things that add no value to them, or you.

The involvement of more people doesn’t automatically mean more diversity of thought, or guarantee any productivity gains.

Work at MIT found that brainstorming —where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

Businesses love the idea of this kind of ‘collaboration’ as it involves a lot of people, is visible, and is seen as a quick route to solving a problem. There’s precious little evidence though that it produces meaningful results.

meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.

As Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic writes ‘brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy.’ Despite overwhelming evidence it’s a waste of time it continues to be used because it feels intuitively right to do so.

Solitude: The Benefits of Being Alone

Few businesses place any value on purposeful thinking – as ‘thinking about stuff’ looks too much like loafing about. We are in a world that places a higher value on being busy than on thinking – but genuinely great companies only obsess over productivity – never busyness.

Many people are at their most creative during solitary activities like walking, relaxing or bathing, not when stuck in a room with people shouting at them from a whiteboard.

Indeed a study found that “solitude can facilitate creativity–first, by stimulating imaginative involvement in multiple realities and, second, by ‘trying on’ alternative identities, leading, perhaps, to self-transformation.”

Essentially just being around other people can keep creative people from thinking new thoughts.

Solitude is out of fashion – possibly because of its association with the physical and emotional effects of loneliness – but any business that values creativity should be considering how it can get better at facilitating solitude.

The Value of Introverts

People who like to spend time alone, or who are less comfortable in group situations, are decidedly at odds with today’s team-based organisational culture.

The danger is that with a focus on all-out collaboration you miss out on the creativity of introverts.

When I started group facilitation I learned two things very quickly:

  1. Introverts have some of the best ideas but often don’t feel very comfortable talking openly about them in a group setting.
  2. Extroverts are only too willing to share their ideas (in fact they rarely shut up about them) but are sometimes reluctant to listen to good ideas proposed by others.

Avoiding Mediocrity by Committee

Knowing when, and when not to, involve customers and colleagues is key.

Once you’ve unearthed radical ideas from people, they need nurturing. They need protecting from group-think meetings and committees who largely express speculated unevidenced opinions based on current preferences from past experiences.

As this post on HBR points out collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges but not everyone is good at it. Indeed, up to a third of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

So, collaboration is useful when you are:

  1. Dealing with complex problems that require multiple ‘expert’ opinions.
  2. Getting buy-in. People are more invested in an idea when they were involved in defining the problem.
  3. Dealing with strategic issues. The more fundamental the issue is to the organisations purpose the more essential collaboration becomes.

Collaboration isn’t useful when:

  1. You need to really think about things. This benefits from solitude and purposeful exploration.
  2. You need to be really radical. Truly disruptive thinking happens in very small deviant groups.
  3. You don’t have time. When you have a burning platform or require an immediate decision you’re better off being autocratic than wasting peoples time through ‘involvement theatre’.

The myth is, you have to collaborate all the time.

Inclusivity has its limits.


Image from Pexels

10 responses to “The Case Against Collaboration”

  1. excellent post, going into more depth regarding real collaboration in the workplace.

    1. Thanks John, hope things good with you

  2. This is one of the best posts I have seen about this matter. I am so happy to see someone laying out facts. Your points are valid. The world has been made primarily for extroverts, and the idea of collaboration puts introverts in a low performing category most of the time. Introverts will come out with ideas, extroverts will run wild with the ideas and eventually claim them as their own.

    “Involvment theatre” I love this 🤣🤣🤣🤣.

    We all need some time apart though, in this modern world we need more time to take care of our homes and families. We stay in the office 9 hours and work 4 hours a less a day.

    1. Thank you. And yes, the danger is we increasingly shift to a world made for extroverts. More meetings online, video always on, expected to speak up and fill any silence. We need to balance that

      1. It really needs to be balanced because a lot of people think they are not good enough because the system does not consider them at all.

  3. Reblogged this on SIx design hats and commented:
    I really enjoyed this piece by Paul Taylor…. some very quotable insights on how, and when, collaboration should be considered. Worth a read, or even a few reads!

  4. Hello, great post. Could you link to the MIT study you mentionned, please ?

  5. Thank you Oliver and also for tipping me off that the link was missing! Amended in post and here it is http://static1.squarespace.com/static/5b68a4e4a2772c2a206180a1/t/5cbdd4ff24a6942b8cd86fbd/1555944704030/ceraj-02.pdf

  6. […] from “The Case Against Collaboration”, an interesting piece about how collaboration can be a very fine line to walk (especially in a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: