Culture & Competency

Risks in Early-Stage Collaboration: Conformity Happens When Divergence is Needed


Social scientists report that if group members are told or exposed to what the other people in the group think about an issue, there is a greater likelihood that subsequent people in the group will conform their thinking. This is decision making in light of full prior disclosure. The opposite finding is true too: that conformity decreases when people do not have full insight into what others are thinking.

This makes me think of a potential danger in collaborative situations. Let’s take document co-authoring as an example. In the first review cycle, what does the author want? I’d argue for high-quality feedback from reviewers, so the document can be improved. In an “attach document to email and distribute it for feedback” approach, because none of the reviewers can see what the others have already said, they have to make an independent decision, and give independent feedback. In a more open approach — document review via SharePoint workflow, wiki page for open review, PleaseReview, or any other open document co-authoring approach — because the feedback of others is accessible in parallel with the original document, we run the risk that subsequent reviewers will reduce the quality of their review.

Potential problems would be:
– Free riding. “Jim’s already said kind of what I wanted to say. I won’t say anything.”
– Decreased feedback. “Sally, Lily and Dave have already agreed with the ethos of the document. I’m not going to say what I really think.”

Thus we have a risk in early-stage open collaboration: that because subsequent people can see what others have said, they will be less likely to share a diverging opinion. Actually, come to think of it, this is exactly the same dynamic that TimeBridge discovered in their meeting scheduling research: that in a multi-person group, the latter people were very unlikely to reject a particular meeting time if everyone else said they could make it.

In terms of later-stage document co-authoring, where you want convergence on a final edition, the “attachment and email it around” approach will be sub-optimal in comparison to “share it via SharePoint, a wiki or PleaseReview”.

So, my question for you:
– Have you seen this dynamic at play in the documents you are co-authoring?
– Does early-stage “open” collaboration lead to lower quality documents, plans, ideas, etc.?

What do you think?