The most common outcome of meetings without outcomes?--"Let's start a Slack channel." Don't get me wrong: Slack should be proud of having brought a more human voice and conversational tone to formerly stiff enterprise collaboration. It is a fantastic, easy-to-use alternative to email and project management software, and it's a perfect tool for small, cross-functional project teams.
But recently, I heard that sentence just one too many times, and it made me wonder whether Slack, Asana, and other collaboration platforms have inadvertently become the same distracting nuisance that inspired their rise in the first place. I, for one, am inundated with a dozen semi-active Slack channels (and a cemetery of dead ones), and I could spend my whole day...well, collaborating.
Are we collaborating ourselves to death?
Markus Albers, author of the new book Digital Fatigue, argues that the conversational nature of collaboration tools has exposed digital overload essentially as conversation overload. It's one thing to feel FOMO (Fear-Of-Missing-Out) on Instagram and surrender to the pressure-cooker of Twitter that forces us, seemingly, to chime in on every trending conversation. But with consumer social media shaping the gestalt of enterprise collaboration, the conversation overload is now with us, 24/7, at the workplace as well. Albers warns, "We are collaborating ourselves to death."
I can relate: When I ran marketing at a global IT company, the launch of Yammer, a social media platform for internal communications, first led to welcome radical transparency, then to radical communication congestion. Eventually, the management team had to get involved in heated debates about the selection of cafeteria food. For silence would not have been golden. In the hyper-communicative environment of company social media, restraint is often seen as neglect, or worse, incompetence.
The collaboration imperative has become the knowledge worker's professional deformation. I recently worked with a group of executives who returned from a learning journey to Silicon Valley and were asked to share their key insights with their board. Almost all of them were unanimously singing the praises of network-based collaboration. Similarly, hackathons, once the darling of techies, are now the new golf, the default innovation activity of corporate managers. Have a problem to solve? Run a hackathon!
The question to ponder is whether the convenience and expediency of collaboration tools, especially conversational ones, has led us to overemphasize the virtue of collaboration. While effective collaboration is without doubt a key tenet of any successful human enterprise, some warn that we may have reached a point at which it is over-hyped and simply an alibi for those unwilling to lead from and with a singular position.
"If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts."
It is known that many managers can suffer from "action bias," which means they want to seem decisive when in fact passivity and patience may be the more promising paths of (in)action. Most managers (believe that they) are hired to make decisions and drive change, even though staying the course and simply maintaining things would often generate better results.
There is indeed some evidence that we are suffering from collaboration bias, too, and it comes at a high price. What we are losing amidst all this craze for collaboration is the ability to think--deeply and alone.
As William Deresiewicz has brilliantly explained, solitude is the hallmark of a great leader: "If you want others to follow, learn to be alone with your thoughts." Being alone allows a leader to form his or her vision, the ability to think differently instead of just following the established consensus. Duncan Simester, in a recent article for the Sloan Management Review, bemoans "The Lost Art of Thinking in Large Organizations," given evermore pervasive efficiency regimes. He identifies "How do leaders find time to think?" as a critical strategic issue for every company.
For one, leaders can find this time by delegating more effectively and refraining from micro-managing. They must discern between the conversations that matter and those that don't. Standing still gives them the perspective to make that assessment properly, and the mindfulness initiatives many companies have begun to implement are designed to create valuable space for meditation and reflection. Software provider SAP, for example, has rolled out a popular and constantly oversubscribed mindfulness program that promises employees to "keep a clear head." The company even has a Head of Mindfulness.
Thinking alone together
Whether they call it mindfulness and launch formal programs or not, companies can indeed create forums where employees can be 'alone together.' MIT professor Sherry Turkle coined this term to describe the disconnect between digital technologies and our desire for intimacy, but to be 'alone together' can also mean to be in the comforting company of others when we think alone.
Other formats creating these kinds of experiences include silent dinners or the exact opposite--philosophical debates in the form of Socratic Dialogues that ask participants to actively listen to and reiterate the position of the previous speaker before critiquing it. Moreover, it is no surprise that philosophers are much in demand these days, even or especially in tech-myopic Silicon Valley, and that we bear witness to the rise of philosophy companies such as Strategy of Mind that promise better performance by training leaders to become better thinkers.
Real thinking means critical thinking. And critical thinking is critical--in fact, so much so that the World Economic Forum and others consider it one of the essential skills for future career success. Critical thinking keeps us from merely reacting to events like Pavlov's dogs, and it helps us do what we were supposed to do as leaders in the first place: to act proactively.
In order to think, though, we need distance from the hectic rush of events. We need time--time we could gain from abstaining from online conversations, time we could gain by simply slacking off.