Collaboration: ‘We have a new, almost religious belief in the wisdom of the crowd’
Collaboration: ‘We have a new, almost religious belief in the wisdom of the crowd’
A view from Sue Unerman

Collaboration isn't all it's cracked up to be

Do all projects benefit from more people getting involved and does collaboration have other implications?

If you aren’t collaborating on a project these days, I don’t know what you are doing. It is everywhere in media and advertising circles.

If we’re not partnering, we’re collaborating. If we’re not collaborating, we’re playing as a team. And if we’re not doing that, we’re probably barely on speaking terms. 

Does no-one do anything on their own any more?

Teamwork is a good thing and an essential ingredient of the communications ecosystem. Matrix management is crucial for most businesses and working together to promote a single goal is key. 

However, sometimes it seems that no organisation can take any steps without ensuring lots of people have collaborated on a project. We have a new, almost religious belief in the wisdom of the crowd and any sense of healthy competition makes some people faint in their designer sports shoes.

Everyone has to at least give an impression of being collaborative. There are two issues about this.

First, not everyone thinks that collaborations are the best way to achieve excellence. Brilliantly creative people don’t always regard it as a key criterion for success. Dave Trott, writing on the dangers of the wisdom of the crowd, points out: "A crowd is just other people. And people can be wrong. Just because there’s a lot of them doesn’t make them any less wrong." Picasso wasn’t known for working in a team.

Second, even if you accept that collaborating can get you much further with a project than mulling it over on your own, collaboration does not always mean a fair distribution of labour. A study in Harvard Business Review by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. 

In most cases, they suggest that up to 35 per cent of value-added collaboration comes from 3 to 5 per cent of people. And these people, who are great at adding value, and generous with their time and energy, get drawn into more and more projects in a spiral of "escalating citizenship". 

This is great for a time but it can backfire. These people can become bottlenecks. Colleagues may start delaying meetings because a particular collaboration star isn’t available or a piece of work cannot progress because this person has not endorsed it. 

And these people can get burnt out. However flattering it is to be asked to contribute to five projects a week on top of getting on with their day job, no-one is that good. Often, this goes unnoticed because those people are being called upon by different teams and being pulled in very different directions. And because they love being helpful, they don’t ever say no.

The researchers give one example of a woman who had a network of more than 80 people who wanted her to be involved in various projects. Forty per cent of those people wanted more of her time, and she was increasingly unable to cope or know how to say no in order to protect her own work and work/life balance. 

Leaders need to be aware of how collaboration is operating across their business. They need to make sure that it is not the default plan for every project and that some of their brightest stars don’t get "collaborated out" to the point where they cannot add value where and when it is really needed.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom