The person or persons who write the Schumpeter column over at The Economist really seem to have it in for collaboration. Last week, in a piece ominously titled The Collaboration Curse, they took a pretty clumsy, thousand-word swipe at what they call “the fashion for making employees collaborate.”
Now, I acknowledge that over the last decade or two the idea of collaboration has received a lot of attention, and been touted by many as a better way to get things done. Eventually, the concept was raised up and danced around in the business world not unlike a Jewish couple being hoisted in their chairs on their wedding day. As such, it’s not entirely unexpected that there would be a backlash. What is a little surprising is the form this backlash is given by the Schumpeters.
From the sub-title through the first few paragraphs they whinge about the state of collaboration today. “Firms shove their staff into open-plan offices…” “Managers oblige their underlings to add new collaborative tools…” According to the Schumpeters, we are all beset by a “cult of collaboration” where people are forced to work in large, shared, noisy spaces and bombarded with electronic messages from the variety of digital collaboration tools.
Man, they make collaboration sound horrible. Who would want to work that way? Nobody, that’s who.
The thing is, in this piece the Schumpeters aren’t really describing collaboration, per se. What they are describing is a litany of mundane nuisances that almost everybody who’s ever had a job has suffered: common distractions, inefficiency, poor planning, and poor time management.
They imply that nearly every interaction that is not individual “deep work,” (more on that in a moment) falls into the category of collaboration. To their way of thinking, you are “collaborating” whenever you are working with or responding to others. This includes many of the natural, often necessary and unavoidable acts of working in a professional organization, e.g., going to meetings, both in person and virtually; writing and responding to emails; answering the phone; responding to requests for information; as well as interactions via more modern digital collaboration tools. The Schumpeter logic then goes something like this: since these things are sometimes inefficient, and sometimes distracting, and sometimes make it difficult to do higher value work, they are bad, and since they are not individual deep work then they are acts of collaboration, therefore collaboration is bad. They are conflating the kludgier aspects of being a modern human who works with other humans with the concept of collaboration.
They also decry open-plan office spaces and digital platforms such as Slack, Chatter, and Basecamp as desperate attempts to force collaboration on people. And they suggest that the only real outcome of these efforts is to painfully multiply the distractions and annoyances in the average knowledge worker’s day. Here they are confusing the presence of the trappings and tools of collaboration with actually engaging in successful, real-world collaborations.
Perhaps the biggest problem with their thesis is that they never actually define precisely what they mean by collaboration, or describe what it takes to collaborate effectively. Further, they don’t really allow the possibility that those of us who believe in the power and value of good, effective collaboration also recognize that just because you can collaborate doesn’t mean you should collaborate. On everything. All the time.
Let’s define “collaboration.”
There are, of course, many good definitions of collaboration. But this one resonates with my colleagues and me. It comes from Michael Schrage’s book, Shared Minds:
“…Collaboration is the process of shared creation: two or more individuals with complementary skills interacting to create a shared understanding that none had previously possessed or could have come to on their own. Collaboration creates a shared meaning about a process, a product, or an event…Something is there that wasn’t there before.”
I mentioned earlier that I would say more about “deep work,” and now seems as good a time as any. The concept of “deep work,” as invoked by the Schumpeters, is derived from a new book by Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. And the Schumpeters suggest that deep work is incompatible with collaboration: “The biggest problem with collaboration is that it makes what Mr. Newport calls ‘deep work’ difficult, if not impossible.”
The problem is that this is a false dichotomy. In the introduction to his book, Newport defines deep work as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” He contrasts them not with collaboration, but with what he calls “Shallow Work: Noncognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend to not create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate.”
In my experience, deep work and collaboration are not in fact in opposition to one another, but are important complements in a vital and creative organization.
So, if collaboration is not the curse the Schumpeters claim, then what is the modern organization to do? What does it take to make collaboration work? In our experience, it takes at least three things: Intention, Attention, and Time.
Truly effective collaboration isn’t easy, and it’s rarely accidental. And, quite frankly, very few people are taught how to do it well. (Individual achievement is still usually what’s sought and measured, both in and out of school.) To some, collaboration may conjure an idea of organic, fluid give and take. But good collaboration is like good improvisation. Even though it looks freewheeling and spontaneous, to do it well, you need structure and form, and process. The good news here is that a rigorous collaboration process, administered by objective facilitators, enables most any group, regardless of experience, to collaborate effectively.
Most people are not natural collaborators. In her book, The Collaboration Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp says:
“Collaborators aren’t born, they’re made. Or, to be more precise, built, a day at a time, through practice, through attention, through discipline, through passion and commitment—and, most of all, through habit.”
Discipline and habit. This may seem counterintuitive, but in truth, effective collaboration is a skill just like writing, or bird calling, or mindfulness. For most of us, becoming good at any skill requires practice.
In order to reap the benefits of effective collaboration, you must set aside appropriate blocks of time for collaborative work sessions. This is more than simply scheduling another meeting or an off-site, but doing so with the intent to collaborate, and then using that time intentionally, and paying attention to what happens.
An effective process for collaboration means that individuals don’t necessarily need to shun collaboration and close a door to do “deep work.” Rather, an individual is able to do deep work independently and in collaboration with others. And rather than being a curse, collaboration is just one of the tools of the 21st century knowledge worker in a 21st century organization.