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.)