Maybe Collaboration Doesn't Work?

by Beth O'Neill

Did I get your attention? I thought so. It would be odd if the organization that’s been teaching people how to collaborate for almost 50 years – Interaction Associates – was ready to give up on the notion.

And yet, the idea that collaboration doesn’t work surfaces from time to time in and around the business press – including most recently in a piece for Working Knowledge, an online forum for business practices published by the Harvard Business School. Naturally, that piqued my interest.

The article cites an academic paper in the journal Organization Science, which is based on findings by researchers from Harvard, Boston University, and Northeastern University.

What the Research Found

Before I dive in, the Working Knowledge article summarizes what appears to be an indictment of collaboration with this declaration: “While connecting employees does increase the ability to gather facts during the early stages of tackling a problem, it also inhibits the ability to analyze those facts and find a solution.”

Participants were randomly assigned to one of 70 16-person networks, some of which were more interconnected—or "clustered," in academic parlance—in terms of who could share information with whom during the game. "In the most-clustered conditions, people were connected in a clear team structure," Shore explains. "In the least clustered, nobody's partners were also partners with each other."

Participants were asked to play a high-stakes "whodunit" game developed by the Pentagon’s Command and Control Research Program. Basically, players were asked to try to solve “several aspects of an imaginary pending terrorist attack: the identity of the terrorists, the target of the attack, and where and when the attack would happen.”

The researchers found that the more-networked groups gathered five percent more information than the least-networked groups. The researchers note that, “The least-connected networks came up with 17.5 percent more theories and solutions than did the most-connected networks. Less networking also increased the likelihood of correct solutions in that those in very networked positions were more likely to copy an incorrect theory from a neighbor than their less-networked counterparts,” the article reports.

Here’s the Rub

I’m not surprised by these findings, and my insight is based on many years teaching the skills and tools of collaboration. What’s more, I don’t think the study proves that “collaboration doesn’t work” to solve problems. The research confirms what I see time and time again with the people I teach: Collaboration isn’t easy, and it doesn’t come naturally.

Many people simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills. And without a conscious, strategic approach, discussions become unwieldy. People go off on tangents. Others dominate while the introvert in the corner (with the brilliant idea) doesn’t speak up. The non sequiturs and interesting (but off-topic) comments are tantalizing and hard to resist. But resist we must – and that’s where so many fall down. They take the bait and traverse territory that leads the group on an unproductive odyssey. And that's just when collaborating in person.

While these obstacles are factors when people collaborate face-to-face, they also interfere with effectiveness when people are connected online. In fact, the absence of body language clues in online environments can make collaboration even harder there. It’s no surprise that people might conclude that “collaboration doesn’t work.”   

We go to school to become experts in our functional areas. Yet we are supposed to intuitively navigate a collaborative discussion, online or off. This is magical thinking. Yes, our intuition gets us through some tight spots, but not always. It only takes us so far. With a conscious approach and tools to guide us, we can consistently move a team through a collaborative process. IA teaches that. Most universities don’t.

Creating an atmosphere where people can respectfully disagree, where all voices are heard and the leader brings out the best in everyone leverages the time and effort of all involved. This takes discipline and skill.     

While some people are innately good at collaboration, we can all attest to the fact that much problem-solving, as taught in US schools, is done from the individual point of view. So students, logically, are going to be better at solving problems alone. And, by the way – copying someone else’s solution isn’t actually “collaboration.”

Open, Narrow, Close

As researcher Ethan Bernstein notes, "Problem-solving looks different from other stages of a project in which the team is defining the problem, gathering data, or synthesizing results." Interaction Associates teaches the concept of Open, Narrow, and Close© to help people with just that issue.

Here’s how it works: To help the group move through each stage of a discussion, a facilitator or leader selects and applies a specific tool or tools appropriate to that stage of the discussion. This maximizes content, process, and relationship satisfaction, and helps the group reach effective conclusions. Facilitators make conscious choices about when to open, narrow, and close discussions. Learn more here (pdf).


                 Open, Narrow, and Close - ©Interaction Associates

These techniques work in both online and face-to-face situations. It’s a matter of consciously choosing the phase of a discussion and applying the appropriate methods there. Just think: If the networked groups in the study discussed here had access to “Open, Narrow, Close,” the researchers likely would have reached an entirely different conclusion.

Tags : facilitation collaboration conscious collaboration