For six decades, business pundits have hyped "collaboration" as a way of making your organizations more innovative. They were wrong then and they're still wrong now. Collaboration and innovation are mutually exclusive.
The core belief behind the "collaboration=innovation" idea is that "the whole is greater than the sum of the parts." However, the maxim that best matches real-world experience is "too many cooks spoil the broth."
Take brainstorming, for instance. As the Harvard Business Review recently pointed out:
"There is very little evidence for the idea that brainstorming produces more or better ideas than the same number of individuals would produce working independently. In fact, a great deal of evidence indicates that brainstorming actually harms creative performance, resulting in a collective performance loss that is the very opposite of synergy. A meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don't interact with others."
Indeed, anyone who's ever been in a "brainstorming session" knows that they're a huge waste of time because group dynamics and interlocking relationships get in the way of the creative process. The result is a drizzle of dull ideas.
Group writing is another example. Group writing is when everybody on a team gets together to write something that's supposed to represent the viewpoint of everyone on the team, like a press release or a corporate mission statement.
When group writing, everybody feels the need to contribute something just to prove they're important. The result is mental mush that fails to reflect a single viewpoint.
Group writing is like that parlor game when one person starts a story, which the next person continues and so forth around the room. The exercise may be amusing but it never creates a story that anybody would want to hear again.
The futility of collaboration to create innovation smacked me in the face earlier today when one of the readers of my free weekly newsletter asked me to critique their sales email. (I do this free for subscribers.)
The email was a weird combination of jargon and biz-blab. Here's an excerpt to give you the flavor:
"It's easy, fast and efficient for concentrating viral or bacterial contaminants in ingredients like cell culture media."
Here's how I responded:
The language seems a bit stilted even for a highly technical sale. The appearance of "business-y" language (like "effectively and economically") seems jarring. I'm not sure that anyone who would understand the technical issues would be thinking all that much about "profitability" (to cite another example).
Is there a way to simplify this without lapsing into generic "cost savings" talk? How would you explain it to a 12-year-old? That's a good model for writing sales emails because you're usually only getting about 25% of the reader's attention with an email. (48 years * 25%=12 years)
That's solid, actionable advice, if I do say so myself. However, I assumed I was communicating with a person who had authority to take that advice. His response, however, told me the opposite:
I'm going to show your critique to the group and see how we can make the adjustments you suggest.
When I read that sentence I knew that my advice would go unheeded and any further advice was pointless. The original email was the product of group writing, probably a mix of engineers and marketers, and as such reflected everyone's viewpoint. Hence the confused mash-up.
There's no way that group-writing can fix the product of a group-written document. More group writing will only make the document even more awkward and opaque. Collaboration (in this case group writing) is the enemy of innovation.
This is not to say that multiple people can't be involved in the creative process. However, what works in the real world isn't the collaboration of equals but separation of labor, where one creative individual comes up the ideas and others provide suggestions (and suggestions only) for editing/honing those ideas.
Every great invention emerged from the creativity of a single individual. While sometimes individuals had the same idea at about the same time, there's never been a great invention or real business innovation that emerged from a committee. Not one. Not ever.