Collaboration Overload?

Collaboration is the buzzword today with open-plan workspaces and numerous collaboration tools, but should we reflexively agree that encouraging endless amounts of it is a good thing?

As I was searching the recent news for a topic to write about this week, I saw reporting about the launch of a new tool from Dellthat provides a high-tech, interactive screen that would replace old-fashioned white boards. Multiple people can use it at the same time, and there’s even a function that allows the screen to be adjusted for people of varying heights. 

To advertise the product, there are photos of eight people in a meeting using the new tool. My first thought is: Why do you need, or want, all those people there? There’s an old expression warning of too many cooks in the kitchen spoiling the broth. Has anyone other than me considered that too many employees working on a project could spoil the project, subjecting it to watered-down group think? Projects that must be contributed to by many people also usually must be vetted by many people. The vetting part, in which “stakeholders” all get to ask for changes, can be an innovation killer. Innovation requires bold steps; groups of people, in which everyone is a critic (though not necessarily a contributor), tend to move projects away from bold steps. 

The person with the original idea and inspiration for the project may find, at the end of a month of work with “the team” that her exciting idea that would have provided a first-in-its-category innovation has been watered down to resemble nothing much different from what’s already been done. 

When you have a group of people, you have more ideas, but you also have more fears and more self-interest. Each person in the group has particular objectives, ranging from avoiding creating additional work for themselves to brown-nosing their boss, which can sink boldness. Each has a reason not to like a particular part of the project and to put forward a different, often less interesting idea. 

To make the most of many ideas and steer clear of innovation-killing group think, the project manager/originator could let a group of co-workers know what he or she is doing, ask for ideas to be e-mailed to him or her by a particular date, and then leave it at that. No meetings to discuss the pros and cons of the ideas, and no chance for “the group” to shoot down what could be a game-changing plan. There’s risk involved to this approach, but also a chance for tremendous gain. It’s a chance to take the most ideas, including the original innovative germ of the idea, and then have one, highly competent, creative person make the final decision on his or her own on how it’s going to go. To make it safer, that project manager could show one higher-level executive the final project plan for approval before implementation. But the process of trying to make a dozen people happy would be avoided. 

We live in an era that’s cramming collaboration down our throats. Social media abounds, and I enjoy it myself. But with Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat, not to mention the social networks created inside of businesses, isn’t it time for quiet, solitary reflection and daring, individual decision-making?

Collaboration has its place at times, but it needs to be counterbalanced with independent thought and idea generation. Each person has unique experiences and outlooks. Giving space and empowerment for employees to act as individuals can give rise to greater innovation and differentiating products and services. 

Are you ready to embolden independent approaches and the undiluted fulfillment of innovative ideas?


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