Why collaboration is overrated

Collaboration is a buzz word, fashionable with grant agencies and lauded as creative dynamite. But there's a place for those who like to go it alone.

Collaboration unlocks creativity. The key to success is collaboration. Two minds are better than one. Cross-disciplinary collaboration is the key driver the creative economy.

You have heard these phrases many times. There is a remarkable amount of emphasis placed on collaboration and its importance in the creative process and organisational growth. Perhaps it’s because it feels warm and fuzzy to include everybody in the process, like tales shared around a campfire. But is it really that good for creativity or are we just caught up in the hype?

A study by the Boston University’s Questrom School of Business found that collaboration may hinder creativity as people have a tendency to fall into groupthink or “cognitive laziness”. Because people inevitably begins to mimic each other's ideas and opinions – or often the most charismatic team member’s views – it was found that collaborative groups actually come up with fewer solutions than more isolated groups.

Groups working together often discourage individual expression. Team members dilute daring, inventive ideas in order to appear cohesive rather than break from the norm.

Similarly, author of Collaboration Morten Hansen found that the more hours spent in groups, theworse the result. ‘We ultimately determined that experienced teams didn’t learn as much from their peers as they thought they did,’ wrote Hansen.

Often collaboration can lead to complacency as the responsibility is spread so thin that it can be evaded, often leaving one person to do the heavy lifting, begging the question of why there was any need to collaborate in the first place.

On the other end of the scale, there is the problem of over-control whereby nobody wants to take a backseat. Personalities and work styles begin to conflict, with time and resources spent going around in circles to come to an agreement.

As writer Ted Bauer puts it, people are generally more comfortable doing their project and their work. ‘As opposed to being brought into a group that would require new context and new politics and new navigation of responsibilities.’

It can also result in applauding the loudest idea, rather than the most creative. But as author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain said in her TED Talk, ‘There's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.’

‘You might be following the person with the best ideas, but you might not. And do you really want to leave it up to chance? Much better for everybody to go off by themselves, generate their own ideas freed from the distortions of group dynamics, and then come together as a team to talk them through in a well-managed environment and take it from there,’ she said.

Link between creativity and solitude

Turning to some of the great thinkers and artists throughout history, solitude is often credited as the key to unleashing ideas.

Mozart once said, ‘When I am, as it were, completely myself, entirely alone, and of good cheer–say, traveling in a carriage or walking after a good meal or during the night when I cannot sleep–it is on such occasions that my ideas flow best and most abundantly.’

Albert Einstein would go for long walks on the beach to listen to what was going on inside his head. Dr. Seuss dreamed up many of his creations in a lonely bell tower office. JK Rowling came up with the character Harry Potter while travelling but was too shy to ask anybody to borrow a pen.

Be it on a train or in the shower, being alone with our own thoughts can create a breeding ground for ideas. In the words of Picasso, ‘Without great solitude no serious work is possible.’

As a writer, I have a natural inclination towards working independently, but for other creative projects I also find solitude to be the crucial ingredient to my creativity. I often need to approach ideas in my own time as opposed to feeling rushed on the spot – and no surprises here – feel I articulate myself better in writing than say speaking up during a meeting.

I’ve also found working solo to be more productive. Any time I’ve come up with an idea in a duo or group it has remained simply a pipe dream. It is all too easy to place the responsibility on another person, but when you are left to your own devices to get a project off the ground, you have no other choice but to take action yourself.

Whether or not collaboration works for you could also be linked to our personal tendencies towards extroversion or introversion. As Cain describes, ‘Extroverts really crave large amounts of stimulation, whereas introverts feel at their most alive and their most switched-on and their most capable when they're in quieter, more low-key environments.'

With more than a third of the population being introverts, that’s a high proportion of colleagues whose potential may not be reached through collaborative work, leaving remarkable ideas undiscovered. By catering to the extrovert in our work environments, we miss out on the benefits that introvert leaders and employees bring.

‘Creativity often seems to come from a deep connection with our inner world. Underneath the surface are sparks of imagination, waiting to ignite. Because we do our best work in solitude, creative introverts may be less reliant on established norms and more able to see and hear new things,’ said Cain.

Where we fall on the introvert/extrovert scale can fluctuate day by day, meaning we can adjust our approach to creative work. ‘The key then to maximizing our talents is for us all to put ourselves in the zone of stimulation that is right for us.’

When collaboration has a place

Collaboration does have its place, but it needs to be managed and timed well, and it needn’t be part of every step of the process.

Hansen said collaboration should not be a question of how, but when. ‘Too often a business leader asks, how can we get people to collaborate more? That’s the wrong question. It should be, will collaboration on this project create or destroy value?’

It has been found that collaboration often works well for brainstorming, but implementing ideas works best as an independent pursuit.

Collaboration should also be thought of as a skill that requires training and resourcing to manage well. Team members must be chosen carefully – and not for their likeness to you but rather the opposite: they must be able to challenge yet work in tandem with a team, with respect, recognition and good communication being paramount.

What I tend to favour is conversation over collaboration. Sharing your ideas and opinions with others often broadens them, and taking on board constructive criticism can help a project flourish.

In a similar vein, many artists prefer to ask for help where it is needed, rather than commit to a collaborative project. Sharing skills helps to build community in creative industries, but it needn’t be depending on doing everything together or risk being watered down by groupthink. 

Collaboration isn’t all bad, but perhaps it needn’t be placed on a pedestal or championed as the core driver to creativity. We need to recognise that we all work differently, and the individual brain and collective brain offer benefits during different stages of the creative process.. 

Ideas are also communicated differently, people need varying amounts of time to let them kick in,nd filling a wall furiously with post-it notes may not suit those who need to contemplate or write down their ideas.

To echo Susan Cain, it’s about putting ourselves in the right lighting. If our creativity blooms by a lamplight rather than a spotlight, so be it.

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