Is Collaboration Overrated?

We live in the age of collaboration, in which the modest luxury of cubicles has been supplanted by open-plan offices and technology offers a multitude of options to constantly converse with peers.

But the thing is, I’m not into collaboration, at least not the way many people define it. If collaboration means a lack of privacy—so that a small cubicle is too much to ask for—and those you’re “collaborating” with don’t have to do any work—then count me out.

I started Googling “collaboration,” and particularly the downside of it, last week because I’m about to enter what I fear will be collaboration hell. I found an article published by Forbes in 2016 that explores the drawbacks to collaboration, and I found it comforting that I wasn’t entirely crazy in my feelings. My company was acquired by a big, well-funded, household-name company a couple months ago, and it was a dream come true. We would be owned by a well-funded, famous company, and we would move into that company’s luxurious office space in a nice neighborhood of New York City.

However, despite at least one, if not more, in-house baristas, a dispenser with chilled cucumber water, and all the free fruit you can eat, there will be no cubicles. Even executives, including our CEO, will not have a private office. Executives, who previously had a large office to themselves, soon will have to share a small office, with desks facing opposing walls, and the executive roommates working back-to-back. So, basically, their work environment will resemble my freshman dorm room.

Is all this discomfort for a good cause? Collaboration potentially could improve workplace performance, but there are downsides, which Forbes notes, such as “too many cooks.” I have a now-former boss, who likes to involve everyone and their uncle in even the smallest of business decisions. The result is delayed completion of projects, and work that can seem over-calibrated so that the passion is drained from it. Rather than having an article or marketing piece that transmits feeling to the reader, an over-worked-by-group project can feel like it was scrutinized and sanitized by a team of lawyers. The original inspiration and feeling gets lost trying to accommodate all the input from the “collaborators.”

“Groupthink” is another hazard of collaboration Forbes points out. I’ve found in my own work and life that what the group comes up with will be inferior to what the individual dreams up. The result of groupthink is often a more cautious, less ambitious idea or end result. Just as getting input from many people can dampen the spirit of a project, an idea generated by groupthink can be more the result of fear than inspiration. In groups, people tend to look for others to follow, rather than standing out and being bold. That’s why when audiences are asked a question and instructed to raise their hands, many will look around the room to make sure they’re not the only one raising their hands. If each of the people in the audience were asked the same question in a room by themselves, the responses might be very different. If you ask a group of employees to each come up with ideas on their own, rather than in a group, you might be shocked at how much the quality and originality of the ideas go up.

With the drawbacks of collaboration in mind, I long ago dreamed up an ideal collaboration model—one that would allow for collaboration in a more meaningful way.

Instead of calling a meeting to open the floor to ideas for a new product or project, try doing it this way: First, send an e-mail to everyone whose input you want, and assign each person the task of coming up with one well-thought-out idea, in written form, in which the possible pluses and minuses of the idea are explained, in addition to related logistics and cost. Be sure to set a non-negotiable deadline for completion of this task. Second, take all the ideas that were sent to you, and pick the three you like best. E-mail everyone in the work group your top three choices, and give them yet another written assignment: to pick the idea of the three they like best, and to explain why they like it best, including upsides, downsides, potential costs, and logistical requirements. Last, examine all the “votes” that come in for the three ideas you identified as the best, and choose the one, based on all that feedback, that you like best and then call a meeting to discuss. The meeting then takes the form of figuring out how the work is going to get done, with no one, including the manager/meeting head, leaving the meeting without an assignment and a due date.

Taking an organized, accountability-driven approach to collaboration ensures that ideas won’t be watered down to accommodate the fears and anxieties of the group—that tendency to look around the room to see if others are raising their hand—and ensures that no one who hasn’t contributed both concrete input and deliverables will get to be called a “collaborator.”

As I brainstorm survival techniques for an introvert in an open-plan office, I dream of a day when “collaboration” will be more than the peanut gallery offering comments and criticism while one or two people carry the load.

How do you harness the best capabilities of collaboration, while offsetting the downsides that can lead to an inferior outcome?