Collaboration – How to Do It Right

The New York Times had an excellent article entitled “The Rise of the New Groupthink” a couple of days ago, which pretty much slammed the idea of physical collaboration – or rather, an over-emphasis on it in our offices, our schools, our working spaces, and our friggin’ lives.

I think they’re on to something here. Do you remember the last time you stepped into one of those ridiculous “brainstorming” sessions where you’re stuck in a room with people throwing out unimaginative ideas, rehashing old ones, and managers criticizing every aspect of them? Or worse, one of those “collaborative” meetings that turn into 50 people deciding which words should go into a stupid document? It’s enough to make me wanna stand on the conference table, and pee on everyone’s notebooks. Most collaborative sessions at the workplace are total bullshit sessions, where no one takes ownership of the ideas brought up, and everyone’s perspectives get polarized towards the most vocal person’s (usually the manager) opinion. Need further proof? Name one game-changing invention/idea that was a result of a “brainstorming” session. That’s right.. there are none.

It’s clear that putting everyone into a room and forcing them to innovate is a terrible idea. People have different styles of working – what’s the off-chance that the 30 people in the room all decide to become creative at the same time? It’s just not gonna happen.

The Wisdom of Crowds

Yet… there is hope for true collaborative work. James Surowiecki wrote an awesome book titled The Wisdom of Crowds with the following hypothesis: That large, diverse groups of people are infinitely smarter than any singular person in the group. One example: In 1968, the US submarine Scorpion disappeared somewhere in the North Atlantic. No one knew what happened to it, or how far it had traveled since it last made radio contact. A particular naval officer assembled a team of men with a wide range of knowledge: mathematicians, submarine specialists, salvage men, etc. Instead of asking them to consult each other and “brainstorm”, he asked each one to offer his best guess about what had happened to the submarine. Using a formula called Bayes’s Theorem, the officer found a collective estimate of where the group thought the submarine was. Five months later, a navy ship found the Scorpion – 220 yards from where the group had said it would be.

The internet has brought the effectiveness of collaboration into new levels – there are now fake “stock exchanges” where you can bet on which Hollywood star will win an Academy Award. The market sentiment site Piqqem lets traders vote on which stocks are likely to rise, giving you the opinions of “the crowd” on thousands of stocks. These, and other “crowdsourcing” sites, have proven to be deadly accurate. Open-source software like Linux can rival, or sometimes beat, traditional operating systems. Collaboration works, but it’s got to fulfill two criteria: diversity and independence. The internet automatically fulfills these two criteria – a diverse group of people, shielded by their computer screens, independently volunteering their own ideas to the whole. Contrast this with the practice of putting a bunch of people who’ve been brainwashed by the same departmental mindsets in the same room. Or putting a bunch of passive executives with no opinions of their own together with an overbearing manager who’s going to control the decisions made.

Some people may be skeptical of my recommendation of doing one thing at a time, with no distractions, no sourcing for opinions, no asking for permission, nothing. My view is that this is actually the BEST way of getting your share of the work done. Sure, you could talk to people to get their ideas and criticisms, but in terms of doing actual, real work, and actually creating something, I believe that people perform their best when they’re left alone. Once you’ve done your part, if a collaborative decision is required to improve it, submit it using one of the many collaboration tools like BaseCamp to get feedback and buy-in. Or schedule a meeting with a definite, fixed agenda, no longer than an hour, to say: “Okay, this is the idea, tell me what’s awesome about it, and what sucks.” (so much better than “ummmm okay.. so we have this problem… what shall we do about it?) I think that if we actually operate this way, things would get done so much faster, and we’d be able to generate way better results.

Collaborative Ideas

Since we’re on this topic – excuse me for writing a particularly long post but I might as well slip this one in – do the companies you work for have one of those lame “submit an idea” schemes where anyone is allowed to submit an idea, any idea, and it goes through a series of facilitators and evaluators who decide if it’s a stupid idea or something that warrants a reward? Personally, I think it’s a terrible scheme. Let me tell you what most evaluators will think once they read the first sentence of the submitted idea: “OMG NOT ANOTHER ONE OF THESE MORONS. I’ve received 10,000 of these ideas this month already, and I have to clear my already full inbox. REJECT” No one looks at the idea, no one considers it, and no one has any incentive to give good quality ideas. And yet, companies reward the submission of these dumb ideas as “yay! People are submitting ideas! We’re an innovative company! Lovepeacehugzandkisses”

Instead of it being purely a numbers game, why not make it a stock market? Have people submit their ideas as “stocks”. Everyone then has a certain amount of “cash” that they can bet on a particular idea. Once an idea stock gets enough cash votes, it rises. And companies just have to pick the top 5 (or 10 or 20) ideas to implement every quarter. And then you reward the people who voted for the winning ideas. And I’ll bet that if you let people independently vote on these ideas, the top 5 are going to be of awesome quality. Having just 5 high-quality ideas per quarter is way better than having 1,000 dumb-ass ideas. Again, collaboration works, it’s just a matter of how we do it.

Okay, so unless you’re in charge of your company’s innovation policy, you’re unlikely to be able to do anything much here. Except maybe annoy your bosses with this idea, as I have. But you can choose to reject going to dumb brainstorming sessions. If a meeting ends up becoming one where you’re all crafting a document together, you can excuse yourself from it. Then disappear to somewhere quiet, get some real work done, and then come back and do collaboration right.

Here’s to creating innovation at our workplaces, and eliminating one useless brainstorming session at a time!