Is Collaboration Overrated?
How many prospects does it take to buy a light bulb?
More than ever it seems, thanks to social networks and a plethora of great collaborative software solutions. Maybe the question should be “how many committees does it take to buy a light bulb?” At least the number will be smaller.
The benefits of ubiquitous collaboration are undeniably clear, including more democratic decision making. Thanks to technology, we have the ability to ask anyone, anywhere, any time, “Hey, got a minute?” Click to collaborate! How good is that? But every new solution creates new problems. When do business processes become engorged on 24/7 collaboration, and implode into a digital morass of bypassed Outlook meeting requests and defunct online communities?
I don’t know the answer. In the blink of an eye, “Let’s run this up the flagpole” has morphed into “We won’t make a decision until the team has the chance to meet . . . and meet, and meet, and meet, and meet . . .” Today that means talking with Ryan, Jennifer, Rohit, Colin, Gbenga, Prashant, Nigel, Lillian, Ohad, Chi Wei, and dozens of others in multiple time zones. The same thing happened when FAX machines were introduced. “We instantly transmit documents all over the place because we can, not because we need to.” Someday it will settle down, but I don’t see it happening anytime soon. The people who sell collaborative technologies are that good.
Still, some are beginning to question the answers. In an article in The New York Times, Susan Cain writes (The Rise of the New Groupthink, January 15, 2012), “solitude is out of fashion . . . most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in.” But she cites an emerging problem. “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist . . . Solitude is a catalyst to innovation.” Apple co-Founder Steve Wozniak wrote in his memoir “I’m going to give you some advice that might be hard to take. That advice is: Work alone . . . not on a committee. Not on a team.”
Yikes! All this time, we’ve been showering salespeople and others with accolades for being team players. Thanks to Susan, I’m learning that we’ve been inhaling our own smoke. Remember the exercise that the Teamwork Facilitator de jour used to trot out at the annual sales kickoff? “Your plane has crashed in the Himalayas. Fortunately, you and six others survived. You have the following items . . . rank them in order from most important to least important for your survival. . .” For reasons that I’ll charitably describe as self-serving, the facilitator demonstrated that the answers you alone provided on the first pass were not as correct as those communally formulated with your assigned team. Score! Works every time! Payment terms are net 15 days. You know where to send the check.
And the point is . . . ? The point is, as knowledge workers, we’re more knowledgeable when collaborating than when we’re not. And, by extension, we’re assuming more effective, too. Heaven forbid if I were the only person to survive the crash. I was adamant about keeping the straight pins, which the expert survivalist considered nearly useless.
But if you’re a salesperson collaborating with buying teams, you know just how irritating all that knowledge sharing can be. And if you’re on a collaborative selling team collaborating with a collaborative buying team, multiply that irritation by five. Case in point: many years ago, my colleague and I met with a 12-person team to discuss a fairly prosaic need for a factory shop floor data collection application. Two hours later we left the plant with no consensus, and no decision. We both remarked that the meeting would have gone much more quickly had VP Steve just said, “This is what I want. Let’s do it.” If collaboration has a point of diminishing return, we found it that day.
As Susan Cain and Steve Wozniak point out, collaboration and innovation aren’t always compatible bedfellows. And with selling and innovation so closely connected, it’s counter-intuitive that collaboration has gained such prominence in buying and selling today. But it has. At what cost? As Daniel Hannan wrote in The Wall Street Journal (The Lessons of the Turnpike, January 19th, 2012), “the success of any economy depends on the velocity of commerce.” And the velocity of commerce depends on the velocity of decision making.
In a world where economic systems are interdependent and knowledge-based, there are compelling reasons to use collaborative technology, but at a certain point, less is more. It’s just hard to know when we’ve reached that spot.