The business world is obsessed with collaboration. You can see it everywhere, from career websites touting a "collaborative culture," to the open office floor plans preferred by about 70 percent of all offices.
Both corporate messaging and physical spaces are meant to spur teamwork and inspire collaboration. But is collaboration actually helping, or is it doing more harm than good?
In a New York Times interview with Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, the tech visionary didn't spend much time rhapsodizing about corporate collaboration. In fact, he gave the opposite counsel. "I'm going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone... Not on a committee. Not on a team."
So what's wrong with collaboration? Here are just a few issues you might run into when members of a team put their heads together.
Stop, Collaborate, and Conform
Innovative ideas rarely come from a culture of conformity. Unfortunately, too much collaboration can lead to a workforce not willing to rock the boat. Research has discovered conformity can sometimes facilitate creativity given the right circumstances, but most likely it will result in less innovative and outside-of-the-box ideas.
When your best people reach a decision as a group, they can easily become overconfident with the results based entirely on the approbation of the group. This can have a quelling effect on creativity, leading those with better ideas to pipe down in service of keeping the group happy.
Teamwork Can Make You Lazy
Have you ever been at a meeting where half the participants seem mentally checked out? Everyone attending thinks, "I don't have to prepare, someone else will pick up the slack." This phenomenon is called "social loafing," and it occurs when group members hope to skate by without much effort when put in a group.
Teamwork Can Hold You Back?
As we've seen, herding employees into groups can often lead to a kind of groupthink where nothing much is accomplished. According to research from psychologist Anders Ericsson, the best way to master a field is to work on a project that is challenging to you personally. If you're always in a group troubleshooting problems, however, you'll never actually master tasks.
In a group, any individual is only contributing a small percentage of the work and innovation. Instead of working on an idea and developing it, then looking to a group for improvement and guidance, the group ensures individuals never truly become masters at anything. This can hamper both learning and overall professional growth.
How To Fix Collaboration
Of course, you shouldn't just throw out collaboration because it's not a magic bullet. Here are four ways to fix the collaborative atmosphere in your company, so workers flourish and grow while still working together:
1. Switch roles
It's easy to become complacent when workers always take on the same role on every team and in every brainstorming session. To get your teams out of the box and spur innovation, encourage employees to take on new roles they find challenging.
As noted, you can't become a master at anything unless you tackle a big challenge headfirst. Ask your workers never to become happy with "good enough," and to fight the status quo. This will stop your teams from sleepwalking through their collaborative projects, and will cut down on social loafing.
2. Play devil's advocate
Is the brilliant idea your team came up with actually brilliant? Elect one person on the team to play devil's advocate and question the decisions of the team. Just by electing one person to ask the tough questions, your team will be forced to consider new perspectives, defend their position, and make sure any brainstorm can actually stand up to scrutiny.
3. Put together a balanced team
Don't fill a team with employees who all perform the same role. These workers are likely to think in a similar fashion, reducing the odds of coming up with truly creative solutions to problems. Instead, put together a team with a variety of skills, and ensure each team member has a dedicated and clear-cut role. This way, your team will take ownership of their specific tasks, further reducing social loafing.
4. Allow for alone time
Alone time in necessary for creativity. This is why many classrooms are adopting a flipped classroom model, where students come into the classroom having already familiarized themselves with the material. If workers have already done part of the work solo, they'll have better ideas of the challenges on the horizon, and will have more specific questions and advice to seek from the group.
Collaboration isn't a magical cure-all. But this doesn't mean that your business should do away with collaboration altogether. By clarifying roles, allowing for alone time, and avoiding groupthink, your collaboration can be more effective and help employees do their best work.
What do you think? How do you try to improve collaboration? Share in the comments!