Is Collaboration Inherently Counterproductive?

Some people like to argue that collaboration is the key to innovation and productivity in the workplace. In reality, what they really seek is teamwork–and despite those terms being used interchangeably, they aren’t the same thing.

Collaboration is a process of working together to generate agreed-upon solutions or ideas. With the explosion of social media, teleconferencing apps and program management tools, we’ve been conditioned to assume that collaboration of all forms is good.

In truth, it can be valuable for brainstorming sessions, but can sometimes be counterproductive in the day-to-day business environment, where decisions need to be made as efficiently and strategically as possible. In these scenarios, the most effective approach is teamwork, with a leader who sets goals and keeps the team focused on desirable outcomes.

“Collaboration often gets in the way of innovation,” says Theresa Wellbourne, director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and CEO of eePulse, a technology and human capital consulting firm. “It requires constant negotiation between team members, which actually drives innovation out of the process.” But teamwork enhances it, ultimately upping the company’s chance of success.

It is vital that managers understand the difference between the two if they want to foster a productive corporate culture.

The problem is that managers often confuse the desire for teamwork with the need for collaboration, which can end up wasting everyone’s time, especially when managers force collaboration as a standing practice–i.e. mandatory weekly team meetings, or decision-making processes that require input from the entire team, says Shane McWilliams, director of client services at CSID, an identity theft protection company in Austin, Texas.

“If you have to gather everyone in a room to vet every idea or jointly make every decision, people start to feel unproductive,” he says. “You get mired in group think, which tends to drive you to the wrong conclusions.”

In many of these instances, employees just need to know what happened in a meeting; they don’t need to be involved in the process.

“Remote teams have fewer distractions, and they use technology to connect only when collaboration is needed, rather than forcing it through constant scheduled interactions,” she says. Such intentional collaboration is more productive and more valued by those participating.

Effective collaboration doesn’t just happen

Regardless of whether employees work in the office or remotely, managers need to be more strategic about how and when they want employees to collaborate.

It’s important that team leaders set up specific goals and a clear structure for the collaboration sessions, Wellbourne says. “Otherwise it will be ineffective.”

Once these sessions are over, managers need to make sure team members have the freedom to break away from the team to get their work done. It is important to build a culture where people’s time is valued and protected, McWilliams says.

“In the office, it is easy to get caught up in spontaneous questions and conversations, especially if you are the subject matter expert,” he says. Working remotely is one way that can help employees stay focused, while still being connected to the team via video conferencing and instant messaging.

While none of these experts believe collaboration can or should be eliminated from the workplace, they all agree that managers need to be cognizant of the difference between collaboration and teamwork, and which business strategy will generate the best results.

“Think about what you are trying to achieve and whether collaboration will help you get there,” Wellbourne says. “You have to do it for the right reasons to get the results you want.”

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