Two people are walking towards each other along a crowded pavement. Each is carrying a precarious pile of boxes in front of them. They see each other coming, and as they approach engage in a careful dance to get past each other without dropping anything. They succeed and carry on about their days. No one else notices or cares.
Another two people approach each other on the same street in the same circumstances. They look at each other’s boxes and are a little intrigued. There is a relationship between them. It slightly distracts them. They collide and their boxes fall to the ground. Now they have conflict and opportunity. Sparks might fly. Confusion might grow. People will watch and make judgements, some of them harsh. Things aren’t under control.
Too many “collaborations” are like like the first, and get judged a success. Two many of the second kind get dismissed as pointless.
Nancy Dixon has a fascinating post about working with researchers who were getting a new work environment designed to foster casual conversation and collaboration. Basically their new cubes were going to be built either side of a communal area that was part coffee bar, part meeting table. Before the change, they knew very little about each other’s work. They weren’t interested in finding out and couldn’t see much use for the new social space. Afterwards? Big, big difference. They were interested, seeing connections and working much more collaboratively.
I loved two in particular of Nancy’s conclusions: the value of connection before content, and of conversation instead of presentation.
Carl Franzen describes how scientists captured the first picture of atoms vibrating in a molecule.
What caught my eye was that the technique used has been around for some years.
Blaga said that the team’s main innovation — and the reason why nobody had achieved such a view of atomic vibrations before — was overcoming the molecule’s electrical field, which would block out any imagery of the scattering. Blaga told TPM that the team was able to address this problem by using laser pulses in the mid-infrared range, rather than the near or far range.
My hunch is when people talk about innovation, they have a narrative of big leaps and miss that much of the time it’s a case of really valuing what’s already known and then making one small step further.
I’ve noticed that collaboration seems a lot easier to talk about than to do and this article looks at some of the issues. I largely agree with his first reason for difficulty:
Failure to recognize the complexity of group thought. When we think that communicating and producing outcomes en masse should be just as easy as doing so individually, we tend to negatively judge the slower pace and additional processes required for collaborative activity.
Many objections to group process seem to come from impatience. The critic argues, sometimes fairly aggressively, that there is a perfectly simple and better way to do this and is annoyed that this obvious solution is being ignored.
This is based on two, equally doubtful assumptions:
1 That the critic’s way is actually better and…
2 Even if 1 turns out to be true… that everyone will instantly see the critic’s wisdom and accede readily to the alternative process. Of course in the real world instead of accelerating we end up in another loop of confusion.
I am reminded of the “perfectly simple” reference in this Python classic:
(A wise therapist would often argue that a great many relationships crash around issues of pace, which are confused with other stuff and therefore never really addressed.)
The article makes a number of plausible points about what else makes collaboration difficult. They make a lot of sense but I’m cautious about taking any of them too literally. For instance, this comment:
Multifocusing. As individuals, we can attend to only one item at a time. Groups can multifocus and this capacity can make it very difficult for all individuals to track what’s going on. This is why effective collaboration requires that all relevant inputs are heard by everyone and recorded for all to see.
This sounds very sensible but is in some contexts a recipe for a logjam of diagrams and postit notes.
Groups operate in very complex ways and the idea that everyone must be in explicit agreement doesn’t actually match up to practice. We end up in a tyranny of the explicit.
For instance, one organisation I know laboured long and hard to get “everyone” to agree to some list of values or a mission statement. It was a lot of work and they were very pleased to get there. Only, now they’re complaining about who people aren’t living up to the statement they agreed to. At some level, they’re stuck in a loop of moralising and missing the dangers of linguistic conformance.
I think brilliantly performing teams are often getting quite different results for different people. This comes out often when I debrief an improv game like “1 to 20”. Essentially, a clump of people have to count from 1 to 20 where one person can’t say two numbers in a row, and if two people speak over each other, they group has to start again. It’s harder than it sounds but usually they get there in the end. Then we debrief and people will often confidently explain the strategy that they devised and assumed everyone else was following. They’re surprised to find that often no-one else was following the master plan. Debrief further and even in this simple game, you find people optimising for all sorts of different experiences.
And just as brilliant performing groups are doing really complex stuff, so in their way are the really terrible ones.
I think we’re talking about flow states which can be evoked but it’s hard to explain how and what works one day won’t work the next.
So is collaboration difficult? Well, only on a bad day. When you’re in flow, however you get there, it’s easy. Control, now that’s the really difficult one.
(I will be happy to engage in a conversation with any really obsessed Monty Python fan about the tile I’ve given this post.)
Everyone’s seems to be into co-creation and crowdsourcing these days. Here’s a lovely reality check for lazy brands who assume too much about what to expect. It’s the phenomenon of “yes I’d love for you to collaborate by washing my dishes and peeling my potatoes”
Recommended viewing for contemplating the power of self-organisation and the hidden costs of top-down control. The best line in the commentary was this: “Road capacity might be limited but empathy is boundless.”
(If you can’t see the embedded videos, click here and here.)
Sometimes I go searching for something in an old post and stumble on other stuff I wrote years ago. This can lead to cringes but occasionally to things I think bear repeating, such as this this reflection on how come collaboration sometimes seems so difficult:
Collaboration is a low status game. The offer to collaborate generally involves an opening up, a suggestion of vulnerability.
One of the supposed challenges of innovation is getting ideas to spread and Tim argues that empathy is pretty key to that, especially if you’re into Mark’s Herd worldview.
He also points out that not all innovation is good. This shouldn’t need saying but innovation-bores often seem to separate innovation out as inherently wonderful and detached from the rest of life. Empathy might have some part to play in separating good from bad – and in connecting innovation to our lives and purposes.
Tim links empathic innovation to the blurring of boundaries between companies and their customers, another good point.
I think if we had more conversations about what we really care about, we might find innovation happens pretty much spontaneously.