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

Can The Pandemic Usher In An Era of Creative Disruption?

If we’d followed a conventional big transformation/ big consultancy approach to vaccine development and deployment we’d be getting our jabs sometime around the middle of 2033.

The question is, can your organisation draw on the lessons of the pandemic to forge a more effective partnership with your customers and stakeholders?

In the long dark days of another lockdown it’s easy to become pessimistic. There’s a danger that we fall victim to recency bias, giving all our attention to the mounting death toll, economic damage, and mental health impact rather than the historical evidence that people have managed to survive far greater crises than Covid-19 and gone on, not just to survive, but to thrive.

A trip out with my 77 year old mother isn’t normally the best way to stimulate any positivity, but this week I took her to get her vaccine. During the journey through the snow, and suffering constant moans about my driving skills, it got me thinking about how the pandemic could unleash a new wave of creative disruption. If we let it.

Bear with me whilst I connect some dots.

The publication of the genetic sequence of COVID-19 in early January 2020 triggered the mobilisation of an international response to find a vaccine. The fast tracking of clinical trials and regulatory processes have achieved in less than 12 months what conventionally takes more than ten years.

Anne White highlights some lessons we should take from this:

More collaboration. In nearly every case, meaningful progress against Covid-19 has been the result of multiple organisations working together with a unified mission.

Rethinking user research. Social distancing measures and the lockdowns could have been a barrier to clinical trials (participants couldn’t travel nor could you go to their home) , but the use of new technology and thinking differently about user engagement meant a wider, more geographically diverse, set of participants could be reached.

Better integration of digital technologies. Existing and readily available technology – video conferencing and chat apps for instance – were used to engage participants and share results. Data analytics were used to speed up vaccine development by enabling more efficient design of experiments and by creating rapid-scale production rollout processes.

Three things: collaboration, user research, digital tech as an accelerant of learning. This should be used as Innovation 101 for all our organisations going forward.


Great Wyrley, a village in South Staffordshire, England is where the tireless work of AstraZeneca, arguably the most innovative pharma company in the world, meets my mother.

It doesn’t start well. For some reason mum wants her vaccination done in Stafford “just like my friends have done”. I explain that she doesn’t have that option, it’s the same vaccine, and there’s an appointment closer to her anyway. We have to abort the journey to the first appointment because of the weather – or rather my mums hysterical reaction to my driving in the snow.

Not a problem, we’ll just phone up and rearrange.

Except – there’s no phone number listed online or any option to let anyone know you can’t attend.

However, rebooking is easy, and we get a slot the next day. Arriving on time we find that the Chemist shop where the the vaccination appointment is booked isn’t actually where it takes place. It’s just over the road at the community centre. Not a big deal you might think, but you’re not my mum, who huffs and puffs as she makes her way through the snow, nearly falling over in the process.

“Best injection I’ve ever had!” she says as she gets back in the car. I’ve had quite a few injections over the past couple of years, I think to myself, but I’d never imagined ranking them.

On the way back home, mum repeatedly goes over why the appointment notification said it was at the chemist rather than the community centre. This seemingly innocuous detail seems to have riled her. “It’s stupid…just a complete waste of the chemists time to keep having to tell people that they are in the wrong place and to go over the road”. I’d never thought of my mother as a budding service designer.

Later that day, she gets a call from her GP asking her whether she’s had her vaccine as they have some available. “Don’t they know I’ve already had it, surely they’d know that.” she says.

“It’s just that they are trying to do this quickly, it’s not perfect. You’ve had your vaccine, that’s all that matters” – I tell her.

At the time of writing 7.5 million people in the UK have had their first jab. That’s in just over a month from a standing start – a magnificent feat achieved through a network of pharma, health workers, local businesses, community centres and volunteers all working together.

When I had my jab a couple of days later at a local church the number of people involved was astonishing, but I was in and out in under 6 minutes.

What’s my point here?

If we’d followed a conventional big transformation/change/consultancy approach to vaccine development and deployment we’d be getting our jabs sometime around the middle of 2033.

The burning platform of COVID has brought multiple actors together with a range of diverse skills to solve problems that didn’t exist just over a year ago.

Surely you need to review the timescales of your latest change programme based upon that?

Yes, it isn’t perfect. The technology isn’t joined up, the tracing system doesn’t work brilliantly, the communication is abysmal at times.

And yes, my mum was told to go to the bloody chemist instead of the community centre.

But people will be forgiving of a bit of poor design – if they get the outcome they need.

A new era of creative disruption?

Yes – if we change our behaviour.

The question is, can your organisation draw on the lessons of the pandemic to forge a more effective partnership with your customers and stakeholders?

Can you deploy new thinking and research methods that develop in weeks rather than years?

Can you use this new found intelligence to improve business as usual and help your company mobilise quickly when faced with the next , inevitable, crisis?

Or will you go back to the comfortable world of five year business plans? Thinking we can somehow predict, or even control the future.

It’s our choice, for the moment.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

How Technology Can Increase Collaboration And Build Trust

This post is an shortened version of a plenary talk delivered in Cardiff for the Wales Audit Office 


Depending on your age it’s likely that the two things you were not taught in school were:

a) how to collaborate effectively

and

b) how to use technology to connect and share with others

And yet these – the essential skills of the digital economy – are hardly ever talked about, much less taught and promoted, in our places of work.

Our 21st century economy demands workers excel at collaborating through technology, but as employers we struggle to work out how to equip our people with these vital skills.

There’s a reason for this of course, most of our organisations are still obsessed with organising ourselves into neat little directorates with clear accountabilities and reporting lines. This creates a very efficient looking functional silo system – encouraging employees to stay in their lane and get things done.

However in a digital economy we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency. The more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators. How to collaborate productively is a skill we all need to learn as it’s essential to our having greater impact in the digital world.

Problem-solving, creative thinking, digital skills and collaboration are in greater need every year yet are not the focus of our learning and development.

We still spend most of our time and resources on leaders. This incessant focus on ‘leading’ ‘and ‘leadership’ is actually a throwback to an industrial model and unwittingly acts against collaboration. When we continually promote the importance of leaders we imply that they are ones to take charge of situations.  They are the the ones to sort our problems out.

However, this concept of the heroic leader is fundamentally anti-collaborative as it compels those being ‘led’ to be submissive and unquestioning.

How can our organisations become more collaborative? 

Ultimately , we’ll only build collaborative organisations if we design them that way.

At its best, collaboration in the workplace can help people think more deeply and creatively about a subject and develop more empathy for others’ perspectives. It can boost productivity and innovation and create better workplace engagement.

But, it takes time and requires space and patience. And – it’s incompatible with cultures built on ego and fiefdoms.

As I’ve written previously, if we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

At Bromford we’ve begun the process of democratising innovation and design by training all our colleagues in collaborative problem solving and cross-team working. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s supported by an organisational DNA that has a design thinking – and hence a collaborative – mindset at its core.

How technology can increase collaboration and build trust

What are the challenges?

The technology is there to enable cross-team, cross-sector, and cross-country collaboration. Much of it is free to use.

Legacy thinking is more of a barrier to this than legacy IT.

We still have a tiny percentage of leaders who are really living a digital lifestyle. There are still relatively few having open debates , showing transparency in public discourse , answering questions online and sharing progress.

Too many of us are hiding behind unfounded concerns about data privacy and fear of working in the open.

We need to teach and support people how to make the best use of social technologies to connect and collaborate at scale.

What are the opportunities? 

For the first time in history, we now have the ability to ‘go beyond’ our organisational boundaries, connecting and sharing with the public and each other.

The basic unit of innovation is not a creative individual, nor even a team, but a creative community.

Millions of people connected without hierarchy and working together to solve some of our biggest challenges. This provides the opportunity for a 10x improvement in our communities. 

For organisations and systems that are used to ‘providing services’ rather than ‘connecting people’ that’s clearly a challenge  – but it is one we can and must step up to.

We can’t change the world on our own. We need to build movements.

The No.1 Problem With The Digital Workplace

“Collaboration is an essential skill of the digital economy. And yet how to collaborate productively is hardly ever taught either in universities or in the workplace.” – Gerry McGovern

It’s only a couple of months since I posted Why We Don’t Collaborate, but a few things I’ve been reading and observing make it a subject worthy of returning to.

The people selling us the digital dream (agile working, always on connectivity, work from anywhere) too often skip important questions. Are we really more productive? And do we really collaborate better that we used to? 

As Gerry points out in his post , collaboration isn’t taught. You’re just expected to know. “Productive collaboration is really hard. It requires a whole range of communication, organizational and social skills.”

I’m old enough to remember when my pre-digital inbox (a filing tray) was actually audited by my team leader. In my first real job my performance related pay actually depended on my ability to effectively organise my day, my work and how I communicated and collaborated with others.

Today, I could have thousands of emails in my inbox and nobody would know. I could be presenting an image of an organised and well functioning colleague when I’m actually drowning.

The abundance of technology and the myriad new ways to interrupt someone’s day isn’t necessarily evidence of progress.

A new report on the potential impacts of digital technologies on co-production and co-creation finds that there is a lack of hard evidence of actual impact. Indeed, “conceptual fuzziness and tech-optimism stand in the way of collecting such evidence”.

This tech optimism is worth dwelling on. The report notes we tend to stress the enormous benefits digital technologies could have, but tend to ignore the profound uncertainties and risks that come with technological innovation. Digital transformation in a nutshell!

The report ends with an important question – who controls the shape of digital technologies in public service delivery and, by implication, the opportunities for co-production and co-creation?

In a more optimistic piece for Harvard Business Review, Raj Choudhury , Barbara Z. Larson and Cirrus Foroughi write that an increasingly mobile workforce can present problems for traditional team leaders.  Their research indicates that the real productivity boost doesn’t come from digital tools per se, but rather from the increased flexible working options that digital can facilitate.

Their study compared how productive, loyal, and cost-effective employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were when they were allowed to work flexibly. They chose that employer because it had recently implemented a wide-scale pilot program allowing people to work from where and when they wanted, while still requiring others to remain in the office.

The results were 4.4% higher productivity among those in the pilot program, from people doing the exact same work as those who were required to come into the office.

However, they note that work-from-anywhere policies could increase costs in work environments that require brainstorming and project-based interaction, adding that more research is needed to fully understand the implications of remote work in more collaborative settings.

So again, the jury is out on whether the digital workplace helps or hinders collaboration.

I’m an eternal optimist so my gut feeling is that mobile working done well, leads to a better connected, more productive workplace.

On Tuesday this week my team hosted a hackathon in the Cotswolds. We came together physically with a range of partners and then retreated to synthesise the outputs remotely. The draft report and basic prototypes were distributed less that 36 hours later. There’s no way we could do that without digital tools AND having work from anywhere flexibility.

However, we are an innovation and design team who have the luxury to experiment with digital collaboration tools and we can invest a lot of time in our personal learning. We frequently go ‘off grid’ and use non work sanctioned tools if we can find a better way of doing it.

That probably doesn’t apply to 99% of workers – and it’s these people we need to focus on if we really are to get the benefits of our investment in technology.

Leveraging technology to connect and collaborate with people at scale is the No.1 requirement of the 21st-century leader.

It won’t happen on its own. So if you have a digital workplace strategy, you need a collaboration strategy too. Because if we don’t teach, measure, encourage and reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

Without that support the magical collaborative workplace of the future may be further off than you think.

 


Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash

Why We Don’t Collaborate

Everyone says they love collaboration.

Our open offices are designed to encourage collaboration.

We recruit for people who are collaborative in nature.

The digital tools we use are aimed at fostering greater collaboration.

We promote the benefits of collaboration , or even co-creation, with our customers and service users.

Collaboration has replaced innovation as the buzzword of the moment.

In truth though, our actual behaviors show we don’t like collaborating.

We often don’t have the time that is required to work through differing perspectives. We have difficulty in working with others who hold alternative opinions. And – let’s face it – many of us have a need to be right and get our own way.

Despite the collaboration rhetoric – most of us prefer existing and working in silos.

So why is that?

In 1988 Phil. S. Ensor coined the term the functional silo system.  His contention was that narrow, specialised teams and jobs were easy to manage but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

  • We become focused on addressing organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms.
  • Social chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context. Indeed – cross organisational problem solving can break down.
  • And as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs – the organisation slowly becomes reactive.

Despite all that though – the silo actually has a great deal going for it. Within a silo it is much easier to define and implement an initiative or outcome.

Basically, silo working means you can ‘Get Shit Done Quickly’. Without interference.

And almost all our organisational KPIs reward GSDQ activity rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

Additionally the exponential growth in the number of managers (There are five million managers in the UK today, 10 times as many as there were 100 years ago)  has boosted opportunities for silo thinking at the expense of collaboration.

And of course silos don’t just exist at organisational level.  Our sectors organise themselves into siloed echo chambers – each with their own system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.

Truth is – most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills.

It’s highly unlikely you were taught about collaborative problem solving at school. Many of us were educated to find answers through solitary work.

It wasn’t until just two years ago that it was even measured, with a report outlining the difference in the collaborative ability of pupils across 52 countries.

As the report notes, students typically learn individually, and at the end of the school year, their individual achievements are certified. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators.

Infographic CPS-Full-Ranking 70

Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving.

Arguably more managers means less collaboration. And more male managers could make it worse still.

Rewiring Organisations For Collaboration

So we’ve established: collaboration isn’t easy, it takes a long time to do right and it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

At Bromford we’ve been redesigning the organisation to move away from silos and towards collaboration. Our previous desire for operational efficiency at all costs had adversely affected interoperability between teams.

The answer was to build a ‘shared consciousness’ through the creation of a network of 33 linked service area’s and teams.

A multidisciplinary ‘design team’ acts as a conduit for all change across these areas. This recognises that today innovation is rarely the product of individuals working in isolation, rather – it is an outcome of how we mobilise, share and integrate knowledge.

L+Q Bromford Lab (2)

I’ll be the first to say that working in this way is hugely challenging. I have a lot less autonomy than I did five years ago. If you’re into ego and power I’d suggest you’d find this an uncomfortable place to be.

Saying you’re a collaborative organisation isn’t true and helps no-one. True collaboration won’t happen unless you make it happen.

Creating an atmosphere where people can respectfully disagree, where all voices are heard and leaders bring out the best in everyone takes discipline and skill. 

We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.

If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

We need less talk of it, and a lot more doing.

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