Collaboration doesn’t work: How to stop running a three-legged race

Do you work in a collaborative office? Is there “an open office plan” with high loft ceilings and long tables shared by 10 laptops, so that people can just yell questions to each other? Do you overhear people complaining that there “isn’t enough collaboration”, and “let’s have ANOTHER group meeting” to discuss the issue?

Collaboration is not the same as a team work, in the same way a 3-legged race is not the same as a relay race. In true team work, there is a mutual respect for each member’s talents and opinions, but no mandate that all of the different inputs will be incorporated. Instead, each team member is working focused on their part of the project, and at frequent, but succinct, meeting points, showing each other what they’re working on. The project lead can then make a few calls about what needs to be improved. But overall, the goals stay targeted towards the finish line.

In contrast, “collaboration” usually translates into a complete work stoppage, where people go into a 3-hour meeting discussing the endless merits, problems, and possibilities. Even the most tireless leader, tied at the ankle to 5 or 7 people, will have a hard time not being dragged towards someone’s agenda to the left, or tangential concerns to the right.

And what comes out of that “collaborative” meeting? Oftentimes, an impossibly long list of requirements that have not been prioritized; half of the feature requests are completely unfeasible, and most are on a wish list that are completely out of scope. Some of the team members are tasked with actually moving forward, but with their day eaten up by the big meeting and now with an even more unwieldy, hazy vision of the finish line, they may find themselves falling over to the side with the rest of their group.

People sitting in a conference room trying to make decisions together is an exercise in constant compromise and mediocre products. Redline’s co-founder Doug Sellers, describes how one company’s site-redesign went down:

“The person running design at the time wanted a collaborative environment. Therefore, he and his team of three, very talented designers sat for hours in conference rooms. They produced a bunch of different comps and then voted on the best direction. They had long philosophical discussions about how this should work. They were given as much time as they wanted.

"In the end, the product stunk. Everyone knew it. The team knew it.

"So I sat down and had a discussion with the lead designer. I told him that I was sending him home and I wanted him to build a new design for the home page. Throw ‘collaboration’ out the window. 

"He went home for four days and produced his singular vision of what the site should be. It was beautiful. 

"He came back and we, the executive team, immediately gave the direction the thumbs up. He then spent the next two weeks working with his team to make it better. The main vision remained, but the lead designer was able to incorporate the rest of the team’s input and ideas and make it just 10% better - which ended up still having huge impact on the final product.”

So what are the true tenets of strong teamwork that isn’t collaborative, but is still team-driven?

1) Install a benevolent monarch, not a populist democracy #

The best work is done by a single individual who has a clear vision of something until they have taken it as far as they can. Take Doug’s example above - the most satisfying team formation was where the leader constructed the central tent pole from which everything hung; the rest of the team helped take it to the next level.

2) Hire a team that is naturally cohesive and beware of people who always clamor for more collaboration #

Natural team players seek out constructive dialogue - they listen as much as (or more than!) they speak, consider the context of the situation (is this kickoff or launch date?), and provide numerous solutions. They are they type of people who unprompted ask, what do you think? They are the people who build trust between team members.

In contrast, the people who tell you they REALLY WANT to collaborate don’t actually want to - they want you to affirm or build their ideas. When you don’t agree, they keep hammering over and over their ideas until you are forced to surrender to simply keep the project moving forward. Surrender is the opposite of teamwork.

3) Create an office plan where people can find private, quiet places to work #

Open office plans aren’t conducive to teamwork, they actively hurt it by creating a distracting environment where no single voice can be heard. Numerous studies affirm that productivity, health and satisfaction are all compromised by open office plans.

Doug and I actually co-founded and built Redline remotely – myself in San Francisco, and he in Los Angeles. And yet our team work is stronger than we worked in the same cubicle area at – we move forward on our individual tasks, and come together in once-a-week calls that help us to re-align or update our goals.

4) Meetings should be short and sweet #

Time limits are everything, and the project lead needs to be tyrannical about this. Decisions should not be debated for hours – the leader makes a choice, and the team runs with it.

This is especially potent in the start-up world where new interactions and behaviors are being created. No one truly knows what the best solution will be - only time and data can prove out whether one path is superior to another. Better to start building something that can be modified or adapted once more insights are gathered, instead of endlessly gabbing to get to the “perfect” solution.

Now, go out there and STOP collaborating!