We often hear about the benefits of collaboration and teamwork. But I recently came across an article about the collaboration paradox: why working together often yields weaker results.
Could this be true?
The article points to Paul McCartney and John Lennon, whose collaborative efforts led to The Beatles — and, whether or not you’re a fan of their music, you’ll probably agree that particular collaboration was quite successful.
“But what if we’ve misunderstood the lessons of McCartney and Lennon? What if The Beatles’ productivity teaches us something entirely different about how collaborations work?” says author Ron Friedman, founder of ignite80.
I’ve always taken it at face value that collaboration is a good thing. But, when I stop and think about it, I can recall several times over the years when I’ve brainstormed and exchanged ideas and felt a rush of inspiration through a collaborative exchange — only for it to lead nowhere, or to find myself doing all the work and only getting partial credit.
On one hand, it can be useful to bring several perspectives to the table. On the other hand, Friedman quotes research (albeit from 1956) that says group members tend to conform toward the majority view, even in cases where they know the majority is wrong. So, if your boss is leaning toward a certain viewpoint, you might be inclined to just go with it rather than rock the boat, even if you think you have a better idea.
And another study (a little more recent, from 1993) says collaboration leads to “social loafing,” where individuals expend less effort when working collectively than when working individually.
I tend to believe human nature hasn’t evolved dramatically since the time of these studies (or the last few centuries), and I’m sure you can think of at least one person you work with who you’d consider a social loafer. You might even go out of your way to avoid collaborating with that person, because you know you’ll be stuck with 90 per cent of the workload.
What’s changed since 1956 and 1993, however, is technology. I’m not saying technology is the be-all-end-all, but it can provide the necessary checks and balances to ensure more successful collaborations.
Effective collaboration requires a combination of leadership (the ability to put together the right team in the first place) and the right collaborative tools.
You don’t need 10 managers vying for control of the project; you need individuals who each contribute something different. Otherwise you end up with too many cooks stirring the pot, rather than a cook, a dishwasher and a taste-tester. Like Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
Collaborative tools can assist by assigning responsibilities to specific team members, tracking progress and sharing results.
Once people are given responsibilities, they are less likely to, well, loaf. If you’re assigned a task and a deadline, and everyone on your team can see what you did and when you did it, it’s a lot harder to slack off. And if you do slack off, everyone will know you didn’t pull your weight and you certainly won’t be given credit where none is due.
There are some really cool collaborative tools out there, ones that can bring together workers in remote offices across the country or even around the world. But I’d argue the real key to success is using that technology in a way that creates better teams through transparency and accountability. It’s not a panacea, but it could be a loafer-killer.