Culture & Competency

Collaboration Has Significant Downsides

(This is an extract from the Theory chapter in Collaboration Roadmap. I need to refer to this in a future blog post, and it is better to have it here than locked away in the book).

Collaboration is not without its problems. Talk about collaboration focuses almost exclusively on the first definition of collaboration—“people working with other people to achieve a common outcome”—and ignores the second—“traitorous cooperation with an enemy, usually an occupying force.” Both are valid definitions! Or consider Michael Schrage’s take: “Sometimes collaborative, cooperative relationships indicate a well-run organization, but [they] can also signal self-indulgent complacency.” Hence there are two opposing forces at work whenever we talk about collaboration, but the downsides are generally ignored. While this book has focused on the practical outworking of the good side of collaboration, let’s briefly consider nine downsides of collaboration.

  • Decision-making approaches are worse.
  • On average, people invest less of themselves.
  • Work-in-progress is highlighted.
  • No additional benefit or value is gained.
  • Seeing outside perspectives is more difficult.
  • Innovative ideas are held back.
  • Distinguishing collaboration from other joint work patterns is difficult.
  • Extra time to complete the work is required.
  • Seizing the collaboration mandate leads to significant organizational changes.

Let’s take each downside in turn, and also consider how to mitigate the negative effects.

Downside 1. Decision-Making Approaches are Worse
Collaboration can lead to poor decisions, such as when the easy path is chosen because it’s efficient, with no consideration being paid to evaluating its effectiveness. For example, when introducing a consumer product to a new market, the product team needs accurate information about market conditions. If one group member has had previous experience with the new market, the group may take the easy path of only consulting the team member instead of commissioning market research or engaging experts from other parts of the organization or world to give their input on entry conditions. Thus poor decisions are made due to reliance on an easy source of information—perhaps this means collaboration is seen as a “short-cut, not the right-cut.”

Reducing the likelihood of poor decision-making can take a number of forms. In its communication with the project sponsors, the team can specify the key decisions it is working on, and note how they are dealing with them. If a sponsor thinks something more or less should be done, they can raise it as issue. A second approach, and one that embodies more action, is to have periodic reviews with the sponsors. These review meetings assume the existence of corporate guidelines on project processes, such as a project methodology. A third approach is to pay for an external review of critical projects at various stages, to catch poor decisions before they impact on the overall quality of the project. This costs money, but for critical projects it will be worth it to have an external pair of eyes look over the work to date.

Downside 2. On Average, People Invest Less of Themselves
Collaboration can result in people investing less effort in the project. In social psychology this is called social loafing, and happens whenever one or more group members do little or no work and rely on the other group members to cover for them. Social loafing destroys the synergistic potential of bringing multiple people together, so that rather than achieving greater value due to synergy (2+2+2=8), lower value is obtained (2+2+2=3.5). Social loafing in collaboration can be seen when people don’t give their full input into a decision, their comments on a document under-review, or sit quietly during a discussion.

Dealing with social loafing in ongoing groups can be as simple as speaking to the individual concerned and making them aware that other people know of their loafing tendencies. More complex reactions include leaving them out of group activities, formal warnings by involving the HR department and their manager, and at the extreme, the termination of their employment. Social loafing is best handled quickly, so patterns of behavior are not formed. One way of preventing social loafing from having a detrimental effect on a group is interim deadlines for all deliverables. This gives clear insight into who is not pulling their weight.

On the other hand, perhaps the root problem isn’t social loafing at all, but instead an ingrained culture that punishes collaboration. If people’s ideas are stolen and passed off by others as their own, people will not want to share their best ideas. Because the culture suppresses them from bringing all of themselves to the work, they give up grand ideas about working effectively with others and do the bare minimum to get by. If it’s a cultural problem that’s driving people to invest less of themselves, major changes will be required to change the situation.

On the third-hand—we did say that collaboration was supposed to be synergistic!—technology-enabled collaboration could be causing massive communication challenges for group members. If people are working with others across multiple time zones, different languages, and divergent national cultures, doing it all by phone or video conference could be too hard. For example, team members just can’t face spending hours on the phone talking through critical issues and coming to agreement—hence things are left to fester. In such situations, getting everyone together in person for a few days of face-to-face work will be required to change the situation.

Downside 3. Work-in-Progress is Highlighted
Collaboration highlights work-in-progress—as Martin White likes to say, “that there is no work and there is no progress.” Working with others in regular group meetings, and even using technology tools to support tracking of task allocations between meetings, quickly gives a sense of what is not happening. Specific people aren’t completing their assigned tasks, and this has a negative effect on group performance. Work-in-progress is highlighted, and what’s seen is all bad! One comment on a McKinsey article about workforce collaboration focused on the lack of accountability that can occur in collaborative efforts:

It’s difficult to say “the buck stops here” when the “here” is spread amongst so many in so many locations. It can be easy to hide inside a collaborative effort without doing much actual work, because your individual role/expectations/output may be difficult to isolate and the person in charge may not have much control over your job performance (does not have power to hire/fire/review). Wally in the Dilbert cartoons has made a career out of exploiting the vagueness of individual accountability in collaboration to end up doing nothing.

While there are various surface reactions to dealing with a lack of progress, hiring the right people to begin with is the root mitigation strategy. Finding, hiring, and encouraging people who want to work hard and get stuff done—in conjunction with other people—is essential to creating a high-performance organization. With respect to surface reactions, however, approaches to dealing with a lack of progress include offering additional coaching on effective collaborative work, training in personal time management, and the introduction of formal project management methodologies.

Downside 4. No Additional Benefit or Value is Gained
Collaboration may not be required, based on the nature of the task. The outcome from the task may be achievable by a single person working alone, or by a group working without reference to other groups. In such cases, forcing collaboration on the task will result in greater expenditure of time and effort, with no gain in benefit, and possibly even a decline in overall value. This is what happened at Sterling, when all sales teams had to “collaborate” with other sales teams and experts during the creation of proposals, even though it was only the new sales teams who needed the benefits that collaboration with experts could bring.

Reducing the negative effect of this downside is centered on being clear about why collaboration is needed for a particular task or project. Is it due to needing access to specialized knowledge that one person does not have? Is it due to needed buy-in and support from multiple parts of the organization? The manager responsible for allocating the task to a group should clearly specify to themselves first, and to the group second, why multiple people need to be involved.

Downside 5. Seeing Outside Perspectives is More Difficult
Collaboration can lead to groups becoming blind to outside perspectives, particularly among groups that have worked together successfully in the past. Their internal process for deciding on the importance of information has become stabilized, which is positive for increased efficiency, but at the same time negative for ongoing effectiveness. It can be negative for ongoing effectiveness because when the external environment changes—through new industry regulations, the entrance of new competitors, or the change in consumer preferences—the group can’t see the implications of these changes. The group’s internal stability hides the lack of stability on the outside.

For example, consider the fiasco around HP’s release of the WebOS-powered TouchPad tablet in mid-2011. Facing stiff competition from the Apple iPad, HP pulled the product from all global sales channels after only 10 weeks. While we could applaud HP for listening to the market, the bigger question is why the TouchPad made it to market in the first place. Palm, which HP purchased for $1.2 billion in 2010, hadn’t released a runaway product for years, and the tablet market was crowded with Apple in the foreground and many other challengers rallying for position. The level of ineptitude at HP in being unable to see that the TouchPad faced a tremendously difficult road from day one is startling, but this was exacerbated by the swift removal from the market instead of committing for the long-term.

Mitigations for this downside center on bringing in new people, looking at the current situation from new viewpoints, and deliberately seeking out counter-arguments.

Downside 6. Innovative Ideas are Held Back
Collaboration can cause innovative ideas to be watered down or neglected altogether. As awareness develops among the team members of each others’ individual preferences, a given member may feel that their idea is too radical for the group, or will get shot down in discussion. Therefore they suggest it with only half-hearted enthusiasm, or never voice it at all. If that innovative idea is exactly what the group needs, future performance is compromised.

Collaborative groups are great when they work, and terrible when they don’t. The risk with ongoing groups is that they get stuck in a particular way of doing things, and lack the willingness to make fundamental changes. There are two recommended ways of dealing with such groups—bringing in an external expert to review the performance of the group, and changing the group members. For both, however, the pressure to conform to current ways of working will be significant. For the external expert, the group will argue against his or her recommendations if it involves significant change. For changing group members, if only one or two people are changed at any given time, the group will attempt to socialize them into the group’s current performance strategy. In the final analysis, take it as a warning sign when a group that’s supposed to be doing important work for the organization is always recommending the same course of action. It may be time to get rid of the group entirely, and start again with a completely new set of people.

Downside 7. Distinguishing Collaboration from Joint Work is Difficult
Distinguishing collaborative work from other joint work can be difficult, particularly when thinking about the technology people use to get their jobs done. They send an email message to a colleague suggesting lunch, another message to a direct report to set up a meeting, and a third message with their feedback on a draft document for the team project. The technology used is the same, although only the third message is part of a bigger picture collaborative effort. When everything flows through a single tool, it can be difficult to show the differences between collaborative work and non-collaborative work. Or think about meetings. They can be a deeply collaborative affair for creating shared understanding between a group of people, or merely another way of asserting your right to speak and pull rank. It’s a meeting nonetheless, but not all meetings are created equal.

Collaboration is an implicit part of work, especially in modern organizations. One estimate puts the costs of collaboration at over 80% of the annual budget, and yet there isn’t anyone with responsibility for “collaboration.” It’s implicit and invisible. “We’re collaborating” indicates a constellation of many common processes in working together to achieve a common outcome, rather than a particular special activity that only applies to collaborative work. There is work that’s more collaborative than other types of work, but there is a risk of becoming too fixated on very nuanced differences in trying to explain exactly what collaboration is and is not.

Downside 8. Extra Time to Complete the Work is Required
Collaboration adds time to the process of completing a successful project. Groups made up of people who have not worked together before, and groups with a changing roster of members will frequently take longer to complete a project successfully compared to more mature and stable groups. Requiring more time to complete the project is usually due to increased coordination costs—the time and effort required to keep each team member apprised of what other team members are doing, and by implication, what each team member should do next. These coordination costs are shown through a greater number of meetings, or a higher incidence of email discussion threads to share status updates.

There are a few ways of reducing the extra coordination costs in collaborative projects, but before jumping to possible mitigations, it’s important to respect what is going on here. The coordination of joint action is essential to the project getting done, and as team members work together over time, the cost of extra coordination will decline. However, bringing people together—in person—at the beginning of a new project can reduce ongoing coordination costs, because team members have a greater awareness of each other and their respective styles. Likewise, for intensive work during the collaboration, nothing beats putting people in the same room. On a more fundamental level, though, by keeping project teams small enough, coordination costs can be minimized.

Downside 9. Seizing the Collaboration Mandate Leads to Big Changes
The final downside is that collaboration is very unforgiving of half-hearted attempts. A leader, manager, or employee can’t be collaborative one moment and dictatorial the next. You can’t say you respect a team member’s opinion in one breath and then shout at them for their dumb and stupid ideas moments later. Incentive schemes that reward individual excellence, compensation strategies that create rivalry between departments, and talking “collaboration” only when it suits, denigrate the concept and possibility of collaboration. Unless collaboration is a way of living and being all the time, it’s not going to work. This isn’t to say that perfection across your organization in collaboration from day one is required, just that if collaboration is advocated in name only—to align with flavor-of-the-month management speak—then it’s not going to work.

Making collaboration work in an organization requires an authentic willingness to change the culture, incentive schemes, internal competition dynamics, and working practices across-the-board. But it’s not all going to happen at once, or even quickly—for bigger firms with people spread across the world, transitioning to a collaborative way will take years. Start the journey, and then keep going. Take notice of what isn’t working, and make the necessary changes. Observe the conflicts that collaboration brings about, and decide whether the conflict is something intimately linked with being collaborative or something that’s detrimental to ongoing efforts. Take notice, and then take appropriate action.

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