Striking the wrong note: three ways you are collaborating badly

Ever wondered why, despite an abundance of meetings, brainstorms, time sheets and appraisals, we often struggle to collaborate effectively? Here are three ways people get it wrong

One: Collaborating Pointlessly

Have you ever been in a meeting full of people agreeing with each other and felt it was utterly pointless? Human culture and language typically tends to encourage a certain harmony between individuals – we are ‘pulling together’ or ‘in the same boat’, while ignoring the fact that effective collaboration should be a messy, conflicted and ultimately innovative process.

Lack of disagreement leads to an echo chamber devoid of criticism

When there is no disagreement, suddenly this whole process collapses into a rubber-stamping exercise for ideas from one or two people (who already probably think the idea is good, as they suggested it). Our tendency to want to get on with people leads us to express agreement with them, and this social desirability bias leads to an echo chamber devoid of criticism.

When ideas are criticised, they go through a natural selection process akin to evolution. Ideas are tested and rejected at an early stage and only those that survive this process are allowed to go on. With everyone agreeing, there is no selection pressure to weed out the good ideas from the bad, and so without disagreement, collaboration becomes far less effective than it should be.

Ideally, disagreements should help ideas to develop, and there are even some departments which naturally tend to conflict. Sales teams may want to develop their own relationships while marketing teams may prefer all communications to go through them, for example. Although these departments may have conflicting goals, they are unlikely to voice them in meetings as they do not want to be perceived as difficult in any way and do not want to ‘rock the boat’.

To get the most out of meetings and collaboration, constructive disagreement should be encouraged as much as possible. This can be achieved by use of a ‘devil’s advocate’ approach to meetings and projects, whereby one attendee is tasked with criticising ideas to attempt to develop them. This should help to promote a culture in which nobody is afraid to speak out and say something if they disagree with it.

Two: Brainstorming Badly

Coming together to generate and evaluate ideas has become known as ‘brainstorming’. The general idea is that people generate more and better ideas together than they would alone, as they are able to consider one another’s ideas and add to them. They are also nominally free from criticism and encouraged to suggest any idea that comes to them, even if it seems silly or unworkable.

When this idea was originally formed in the 1950s, its creator Alex Osborn claimed that using the brainstorming method, the average person could think up twice as many ideas as when working alone. Research into the psychology of group dynamics and decision making has largely failed to find any evidence that people come up with more ideas, and the evidence regarding quality of ideas is highly mixed and often uses different methods of assessing quality.

There are many reasons why brainstorming might not be as effective as it first appears

There are numerous theories as to why it is not effective, including: production blocking (people forget or are distracted from their ideas while others are talking), evaluation apprehension (fear of ideas being criticised) and free riding (failing to contribute as results will be pooled). It would seem, therefore, that brainstorming is not as effective as it first appeared.

However, many modern fields of business, science and government rely on decision making based on the combined expertise of a number of people. Sometimes it is important to be able to work together to come up with ideas and make decisions. There is also further evidence that indicates more diverse workplaces benefit from having a wide range of viewpoints and experiences.

Since the 1950s, a lot of work in social psychology has identified problems when groups have to work together. Phenomena like groupthink and social pressure often result in high levels of conformity between decision makers, which hampers the point of processes like brainstorming anyway.

In order to get the full value out of brainstorming (and group work more generally), splitting up the process may be more beneficial. If people work alone at first, they will be able to develop their own ideas in the absence of influence from others and then they can come together to follow a common selection process in order to refine and/or eliminate ideas. This avoids the pitfalls of group ideation, while retaining the strengths of different opinions and viewpoints. Methods that can support this include the 6-3-5 method and Nominal Group Technique.

Three: Resourcing Carelessly

Although companies often take great care to control finance and property resources, many fail to do an adequate job of measuring their human resources. Although maintaining a workforce is generally the highest cost associated with doing business, almost no attention is given to the tracking of people and their effectiveness.

At most, companies generally have a system of timesheets and appraisals that do little to fully evaluate how people’s time and efforts are being spent. The ebbs and flows of capital resources are easier to measure and track, so they are used as a simple measure of effectiveness and success, while human capital remains largely unnoticed. When people need to work with others, the resource cost in employee hours can become huge.

Drawing on time rather than knowledge can be a draw on resources

Fundamentally, the amount of productive time that each employee has to provide is a finite resource. Resources like knowledge are essentially infinite once they have been accrued. An employee sharing their knowledge with another employee (or 10, or 100, or 1,000) does not diminish their knowledge. It is similar to the concept of a public good in economics – one consumer’s use of it does not diminish the ability of anyone else to consume it.

Now, this becomes a problem when people request to draw on time, rather than knowledge. Even if people only need a quick introduction to a project for example, they will usually invite someone involved to a meeting. This will normally take the form of at least 30 minutes booked into the calendar, diverting precious time from the employee’s own work (including the project they are taking time out to tell someone about).

Companies tend not to look at time in this way, even though there are significant gains to be made. By identifying which employees have the most draws on their time from others, organisations can start splitting these into draws on finite resources versus draws on infinite resources.

Where there is a significant, unnecessary draw on finite resources (for example, a senior developer having to explain processes to juniors) it could be beneficial to develop ways to avoid these through cultural change or transferring knowledge more efficiently (for example, through group seminars rather than in meetings).

Arraz Makhzani is a workplace analyst at UnWork