Haque discusses the limits of collaboration

I am in general agreement with Naumi Haque’s observation about the limits of collaboration:

While generally a believer in how collaboration can lead to better insights and greater efficiency, I continually see examples of where it is neither effective, nor terribly efficient – and in the worst cases totally counter-productive. I work in a highly collaborative environment and study many others, and my experiences have led me to two areas where problems typically emerge:

  1. At an individual level people suffer from cognitive overload. As people get busy and collaborate across a multitude of projects, the brain gets distracted, and the quality of the output suffers. In short, one person can only do so much.
  2. At a project level where you run into a situation of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth.’ In short, only so many people can do one thing.

If you put the two of these together, the worst-case scenario is that in an individual could join a project as the Nth person who ‘spoils the broth,’ while the time they dedicate towards doing so distracts them from their other work – which, continuing the cooking metaphor, leads them to burn the toast as well.

Once again, it’s good to see people running the numbers on concepts we tend intuitively to accept.  One thing the OD crowd neglects to contemplate in Lewin’s work, for example, is that although democratic leadership tends to produce higher-quality results, it also is a higher-cost and more time-intensive process.  The point in both Lewin’s studies and in the collaboration research is that neither is cost-neutral.  A balanced view takes the benefits and the costs into account.

4 responses to “Haque discusses the limits of collaboration

  1. Collaboration works well when it is done right. But there are many reasons to collaborate, and not all of those reasons are geared toward more efficient and effective work. Some collaborations, such as mentor-mentee relationships, have the aim of developing skills in a less experienced worker. Other collaborations are developed specifically to get a job done that could not be done individually. Context is terribly important.

    • Agreed. Anytime one method becomes the default, the organization becomes very narrowly focused and ignorant of context. It’s a situation ripe for unintended consequences.

  2. Pingback: Haque discusses the limits of collaboration » Dig for Leadership - Stories that try to make the world a better place.

  3. Pingback: Week in Public Organizations, 22Jun2009 « PublicOrgTheory

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