Lately, we came to revere collaboration as something that makes or breaks an organization. Collaboration become a silver bullet for everything. If you can’t solve a problem or can’t meet milestones in time - collaborate! We begin to insist on collaboration even in places where it hinders productivity.
Take Linux or Wikipedia for example, all projects that became successful because of the sheer power of collaboration. They make us revere the hive mind, the wisdom of crowds, the miracle of crowdsourcing.
But we’re missing the big picture. If we take a closer look, all those projects were created by people working alone. There were no brainstorming sessions or huddle ups. They were all asynchronous, relatively anonymous interactions. This doesn’t sound anything like a typical, politically charged, face-to-face open office.
We need alone time to get things done. For example, the best musicians and athletes become the best not by playing with the orchestra or in a team - they become the best by practicing alone for long stretches of time. Same way with students: those who study alone learn more than those who work in groups.
You can engage in deliberate practice - the thing that actually makes you better - only when you’re alone. When we practice deliberately, we identify tasks that are out of reach, learn how to do them, monitor progress, and revise the process.
This applies especially to developers, designers, and writers. Kafka for example couldn’t write when his fiancée was near him:
“You once said that you would like to sit beside me while I write. Listen, in that case I could not write at all. For writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender, in which a human being, when involved with others, would feel he was losing himself, and from which, therefore, he will always shrink as long as he is in his right mind. That is why one can never be alone enough when one writes, why there can never be enough silence around one when one writes, why even night is not night enough.”
That’s why open-plan offices reduce productivity. Open office plans simply squeeze more employees in less space, while management hopes that’ll make people collaborate more. But it doesn’t work like that.
People at open offices need to deal with a lot of interruptions and noise. For instance, a guy to your right might have allergies and is constantly clearing his throat; or a girl to your left is a smoker who constantly coughs; or a person in front of you may constantly interrupt everyone with a non-funny joke. To make matters worse, the non-productive employees only get louder and louder as time goes on.
Open offices make people generally more hostile, unmotivated, and insecure. Research found that people in open offices:
- change job more often,
- take more sick days,
- suffer from higher blood pressure and stress levels,
- argue more with colleagues,
- worry someone is eavesdropping or spying their computer screens,
- have fewer personal and confidential conversations,
- are more socially distant and slower to help others,
- have elevated heart rate due to loud and uncontrollable noise.
Collaboration is important but sitting people next to each other doesn’t translate automatically to more of it. What people need to be productive is:
- a quiet space to work without distractions (2-4 person per office),
- a place where they can casually mingle and exchange ideas (during lunch or chat),
- a place where people can have a meeting (conference room).
The presence of others can impair our problem-solving skills. Due to peer pressure, we tend to follow what others say. No matter how smart we are, we’re all susceptible to the herd mentality.
In one experiment, students were given a test so simple that 95% of the group answered every question correctly. But when the experimenters planted an actor who intentionally gave wrong answers, the percent of students who gave all correct answers dropped to 25%. And the funny things is, when everyone was asked if they were influenced by the actor, everyone truly believed that they came up with the answer on their own.
Group brainstorming is another popular concept that doesn’t work as advertised. Common wisdom says that people in groups generate more ideas than individuals - but that’s not true. People produce more ideas of equal or higher quality on their own. And the performance gets worse as the group size increases: groups of four perform better than groups six, which in turn perform better than groups of hundreds
There are three possible explanations to why group brainstorming fails:
- Social loafing: people work less to achieve a goal when they work in a group than when they work alone.
- Production blocking: only one person can talk and generate ideas at a time while others have to sit passively.
- Evaluation apprehension: people are less likely to suggest an idea in fear of looking stupid.
Even though group brainstorming doesn’t work, it’s getting more popular than ever. That’s because people need to believe the group performed much better than it really did; they are attached to the activity and need to justify it, or else admit they wasted time.
It’s ok to have a group brainstorming, as long as you know that the main benefit of the activity is social cohesion and team bonding, and not getting best ideas.
The exception is online brainstorming. It combines the best of both worlds: people get to think alone and produce more, while at the same time get to bounce ideas off each other. Online brainstorming, when properly managed, gives better results than either group or solitary brainstorming. Even the group size positively affects the results: the more people, the better.
So next time you need to brainstorm some ideas, open a discussion, invite people, and let them collaborate alone yet together. You’ll get better results than if you’d organize a meeting and force people to sit passively while the speaker gets to finish their monolog. Plus, you’ll have a written trace of all the ideas so you won’t have to type them out manually.
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