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Collaboration is Overrated

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Posted at ATD here: https://www.td.org/insights/is-collaboration-overrated

Collaboration. It shows up on every list of top soft skills needed today. You’ve seen these lists. The order changes somewhat but all of them include communication, problem solving, creativity, work ethic, and, of course, collaboration. A few more skills are thrown in to get to the ten items that all lists seem to require: Top Ten Skills Employers Want! You may get the idea that you can’t train or manage today without collaboration, right? You must organize individuals into teams, and you must make sure that all people are working with others. Working alone cannot be tolerated.

Let’s challenge the collaboration mentality. Yes, some projects do require diverse people to work together collaboratively to produce a result that no one person could achieve alone. But how many times does that unique situation occur? Most often, I fear, people are put together for the sake of putting people together. Let me share some concerns that I have about collaboration.

Collaboration may be uncomfortable

         I watched an online video of someone walking onto the ice at a lake somewhere up north. Seems it was his job to test the thickness of the ice. He got out about 20 meters before the ice broke. Hilarious fun for the videographer and his buddies but pretty uncomfortable for man whose life was in danger, I’d guess. I mention this because it made me rethink icebreaker activities that trainers commonly use. The truth is that many people find these activities uncomfortable. Have you read the book Quiet by Susan Cain? She suggests that up to ½ of us are introverts. I’m in that half, and I always found breaking the ice extremely uncomfortable. A training is already a little bit awkward: your normal schedule is disrupted, there is some apprehension about the training and the trainer, and there may be the pressure of performing for strangers. I didn’t really care to know who had the same number of sisters that I did or who liked the same type of vacation. I just wanted to get the needed information. And, as Cain points out, I was not alone.

  • Don’t do icebreaker activities unless they are necessary. Would it matter if people left the training without knowing each other’s names?
  • Consider doing icebreakers later in the schedule. Let participants settle in, get a feel for the day, and have a chance to become more comfortable. Why not have the group activity after the first break?

Collaboration may be unnecessary

Perhaps I have stretched the definition of collaboration as I talked about icebreakers. Maybe you put people together to work on some task. Does the task require collaboration? Here’s what I mean: Pixar Studios needs collaboration. One film needs writers, illustrators, voice-over talent, editors, computer animators, technical directors, foley artists, and many more folks to come together. The film could not be completed by one individual. Pixar doesn’t need a group of people, it needs a team of people. There is a difference. What is true of your activity? Is it a team activity or a group activity? You know a common complaint with group activities? “Kim did all the work! None of us were allowed to help.” Well, if Kim could all the work without help, then it wasn’t a collaborative activity. It was an individual job pretending to be a team job. These situations affect morale. Some are miffed at Kim for being domineering, Kim is miffed at having others kibitzing and complaining.

  • Look closely at your activity. Are you putting people together because you think you should or because no one person can do it alone? If the latter, fine, but if not, rethink the activity.
  • If the activity does not require a team, give an option of working with others or working alone. Say, “Feel free to work with others on this if you’d like” instead of “Get together in groups of four” to make all participants comfortable.

Collaboration may silence important voices

         Another point from Quiet: groups can be dominated by the assertive and the eloquent. But boldness and/or verbal skill does not equal having the best ideas. You have witnessed this. You know that in all group activities some people are mostly spectators. They may have excellent ideas, but they may not be forceful enough to present them. I have often thought, “I don’t think that’s the best idea, but they seem to like it so oh well” when in groups. Yes, maybe that’s arrogance, believing my idea is better, but maybe it’s introversion keeping a good idea off the table.

  • Set up activities where no one person can dominate. Design a way for all voices to be heard.
  • Respect processing differences. Some people need more time to think through problems and to formulate answers. Don’t listen only to the quick thinkers. Allow sufficient time.

The bottom line: collaborate when necessary not because it’s trendy and understand that many individuals in your trainings are exactly that: individuals. We aren’t all wired for sociability and group work.