Limits of collaboration

teamwork1 free to use“Hackman’s paradox: Groups have natural advantages: they have more resources than individuals; greater diversity of resources; more flexibility in deploying the resources; many opportunities for collective learning; and, the potential for synergy. Yet studies show that their actual performance often is subpar relative to “nominal” groups (i.e. individuals given the same task but their results are pooled.) The two most common reasons: groups are assigned work that is better done by individuals or are structured in ways that cap their full potential.”
~ Richard Hackman, Harvard professor and team expert

Wait a minute! Most of the business and leadership literature published in the last couple decades extolls the virtues of collaboration in our workplaces. And it seems that collaboration is the new mantra among leaders in higher education, with leaders admonishing staff and faculty to “move out of their silos” or “create cross-disciplinary or cross-campus partnerships.”  Yet, as Richard Hackman observed, collaboration does have its limitations.

The benefits of collaboration are great, and can include:

  • Diversity of Perspectives: bringing people from varying disciplines and backgrounds together to work on a project can generate greater creativity and problem-solving by looking at things from different angles
  • Increased Synergy: forming collaborative teams with members who have varied expertise and clear roles and responsibilities can bring new solutions to the table
  • Balanced Decision Making: including stakeholders in decisions can reduce the occurrence biased or partisan decisions as they look at the effect of their decisions on all stakeholder groups

However, collaboration does have its limits, and if overused in an organization, can result in:

  • Group Think:  groups that work together over time can sometimes be lulled into “going along” with a persuasive member
  • Mediocre Results: involving more people in a collaboration can water down the results due to the number of compromises in the project that are made to satisfy all stakeholders
  • Slow Progress: depending on the scope of the collaboration and the size of the group, including numerous stakeholders in multiple decisions can slow down the effort

Like other paradoxes or polarities that we manage in our workplaces, like change and continuity, collaboration is best seen as one part of a polarity between competition and collaboration. Both have its own benefits and limitations. As leaders, our role is often to determine where is it most advantageous to employ collaborative efforts and where might we employ competitive efforts.

How have you managed the collaboration vs. competition paradox in your work?

Anita Rios

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