Whether it’s a corporate initiative, a few freelancers working on a project, or a plan for your block party … we’re called on to collaborate often. How good are you at answering that call?

Professionals are hired and promoted for their willingness to collaborate. Offices are designed with open floor plans…so the people who sit in those wide-open spaces can collaborate. And there must be hundreds of software packages by now that allow colleagues to collaborate on everything from colossal client projects to planning the holiday party.

Here’s the thing: It takes more than Slack or Flock or Google Docs for a team to work together.

You may have had some experience trying to collaborate on a project and seeing the whole thing go up in smoke.

Do you know what went wrong?

Maybe a malevolent outside force blew up your project and sent everyone scattering for their own cubicle, phone line and email. It could happen.

More likely, your team imploded over an internal issue or collapsed under the weight of constant collaborative communication.

That’s the thing about collaboration—it takes a lot of communication. Emails, phone calls, and even now, actual face-to-face meetings. You know what management genius Peter Drucker said: “One either meets or one works. One cannot do both at the same time.”

This isn’t brand new. Collaboration’s been a business buzzword long enough that the backlash has a buzzword of its own. The “Collaboration Curse” is a cranky way to look at let’s-all-work-together, named in a widely-quoted Economist article.

 Collaboration critics have a point. Several, actually.

  • Workflow is interrupted when the workers stop to send a message, upload what they’ve done so far, or answer a colleague’s question. The fits and starts slow down the process and the distraction hurts the quality of the work.  Some would argue it makes deep, focused work impossible. So, organizations lose the benefits of the intense concentration needed to solve knotty problems and develop innovative solutions.
  • Collaboration costs time, which means it also costs money. More money than most companies realize. Cost becomes clearer when you look at what knowledge workers would be doing if they weren’t spending three quarters of their day in real and/or virtual meetings.
  • Companies begin to value people according to their participation in those meetings. That means the more social may be unfairly rewarded while introverts are penalized.

And everyone has an incentive to participate fully in meetings. That makes meetings longer, of course, and frequently much less productive. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve often wanted to tell someone, “Stop participating, already.”)

Clearly, there’s a case to be made against all this focus on collaboration. On the other hand, we’re probably not going to unring the bell.

How to increase the value of collaborating and reduce the cost?

Here are a few suggestions to try out with your team.

  • Ask “how many is too many?” Big companies commonly have dozens of employees collaborating on a project. And, the ability to collaborate well declines once you get past twenty people or so. Managers need to compensate for that as a team grows in size and in diversity.
  • On the subject of diversity, team members work together most naturally when they see similarities with one another. When there are differences in age, nationality, education level and position, those need to be managed for collaboration to flourish.
  • Collaboration doesn’t happen all by itself. It requires specific skills: communication, conflict-resolution, time management, to name a few. If the players don’t learn those skills, the team’s not likely to reach the outcome you want. Some coaching may be in order.
  • Make sure everyone’s clear on the concept. From Harvard Business Review: “Collaboration improves when the roles of individual team members are clearly defined and well understood—when individuals feel that they can do a significant portion of their work independently. 
  • Whether the team is a half dozen people or a hundred, choose the right leaders. HBR’s experts say they need to be both task-oriented and relationship-oriented; each skillset will be essential at some point in the process.
  • And listen some more. Collaboration is more likely to work well when everyone feels they can speak their mind without fear that they’ll be embarrassed or rejected. Hearing people doesn’t necessarily mean you have to agree with them. It does mean when you disagree, you do it with respect.

One more suggestion for fruitful collaboration comes from my friends at ImprovTalk.  “If you’re stuck on a challenge,” they offer, “ask for really bad ideas. You may discover something interesting. And, it’s actually fun.”

Makes sense, doesn’t it, that removing the pressure (and the competition) to come up with a great idea would let the conversation flow more freely and creatively.

My own insight about collaboration comes from my radio days, working on morning shows with some of the best in the business. Sometimes those bits you hear on the radio are mapped out in advance … many emerge spontaneously.

CJ’s strategy for collaboration:

  • Have a plan.
  • Don’t be married to the plan.
  • Dance with whatever comes up.

The title for this article came from the Japanese writer Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, whose strategy for collaboration was more poetic than mine. “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”

You may have a bit of wisdom to share yourself. Or a collaboration train wreck to tell us about.

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