Is collaboration killing your team’s creativity?

“Collaboration”, “teamwork”, “brainstorming”. These words have become synonymous with today’s working culture. The shift toward working environments that are based on face-to-face interaction has increased in recent years. It’s something I’ve witnessed during my five-year tenure as a business and technology consultant.

But what if, in the race to develop new ideas and produce higher quality work, this shift is actually having a detrimental effect?

Here’s why that could be the case.

The background

In her Sunday Times bestseller “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, Susan Cain proposes that this shift toward more a collaborative working culture has its roots in the rise of open source and crowdsourced online platforms.

Think Quora, the knowledge sharing platform, Wikipedia, the free online encyclopaedia and Linux, the open source operating system. These revolutionary platforms are a result of millions of people working together.

In its simplest form, people looked to the success of these projects and started to apply the same principles to offline scenarios. This has meant more open plan office space, more meetings and more group activities. It has also meant less privacy and less opportunity for independent, focused work (and more distractions).

The critical difference

What is often overlooked is that these open source and crowdsourced projects are contributed to by people acting anonymously, from the comfort of their own living rooms and at a pace that suits them.

What many business owners, leaders and managers don’t seem to realise is that you cannot simply put people in a room and expect the best answers to emerge.

A study into the effectiveness of brainstorming, for example, shows that people working in groups are actually less creative. They come up with fewer ideas and the ideas that they do come up with are of lower quality.

What’s happening here?

Think back to the last meeting you were in with four or more people. How did you act? How did it compare to when you were working alone or with just one other person?

There are a number of factors at play when you’re working in a group. Firstly, you tend to share the workload with the rest of the participants, whether you consciously choose to do so or not. This is referred to as social loafing.

Secondly, in a functioning group, only one person can speak at a time. And because speaking typically correlates to output, there is a limit to how productive you can be. Reduced efficiency is even more prevalent as the group size increases.

The third factor is social anxiety – the fear of being judged that causes people to withhold from sharing ideas. And unfortunately, the same people who are most likely to have thought through a complex problem and prepared most for the meeting are also the ones who are least likely to be heard.

Introverted people, by their nature, will often withhold from saying anything unless they categorically believe it to be true. More extroverted people, however, will express their opinions, often in a way that leads a group in a particular direction, despite having less substance to back it up. Which brings us to the fourth factor, peer pressure.

Numerous studies, such as those conducted by social psychologist Irving Janis, have shown that in groups, people are liable to avoid challenging or raising controversial ideas in order to minimise conflict. This, in turn, can lead to irrational decision making based on little or no critical evaluation of the decision itself.

What can you do about it?

Teamwork is not bad. It’s necessary for organisations to function, whatever size or shape. You should, however, consider how you encourage people to work together. Especially if your organisation is likely to attract more introverted individuals, such as a software developer.

Companies such as Basecamp have developed a different way of working. They’re opting to utilise passive communication tools such as chat, discussion boards and other workflow management tools. People are able to voice their opinions in a way that suits them and at a pace that suits them. Even attendance in the office is completely optional.

Employees are able to create their ideal working environment from the comfort of their own home, their local coffee shop or, if they choose, at the office. The only requirement is that they complete their assigned tasks to the required quality and deadlines.

This model, which is not unique to Basecamp, fosters similar working conditions that created Wikipedia and other crowdsourced projects, whilst still maintaining a cohesive team structure. The best of both worlds perhaps.

Is it time that you fundamentally change how people work together in your organisation?


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