Are We Too Engaged With Each Other At Work?
It has become an article of faith in business that collaboration fosters innovation. “Many hands make light work, and many brains make better ideas and solutions.”
Yet, evidence can be found that hyper-collaboration is not always as productive as solitary work done away from the maddening crowd of the open-office environment.
Great Minds Need Private Time
Writer Susan Cain, in an opinion piece in the New York Times, argues that we have become too reliant on collaboration as a path to innovation and problem solving. She cites a great example of how Steve Wozniak first developed the original Apple computer: Time away from his collaborators proved critical in pushing along the development process.
For Ms. Cain, this highlights how solitary work has lost its place in our professional lives. She blames “groupthink” on the debasement of alone-time as a productive form of creative thinking. She has a point, and makes a good case for the downside of relentless collaboration. (We certainly agree with her position on brainstorming.)
“It’s one thing to associate with a group in which each member works autonomously on his piece of the puzzle; it’s another to be corralled into endless meetings or conference calls conducted in offices that afford no respite from the noise and gaze of co-workers. Studies show that open-plan offices make workers hostile, insecure and distracted. They’re also more likely to suffer from high blood pressure, stress, the flu and exhaustion. And people whose work is interrupted make 50 percent more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.”
This is plea to recapture time for introspection is an intriguing idea, and bears investigation. But there are actually two messages that we found within this opinion piece:
- Innovation demands alone time for the brain to process data, piece it together, tear it apart and reassemble it into productive new ideas. Inspiration often also happens not just during alone time, but while you are sleeping (link to past post).
- Collaboration is a necessary part of the build-up to solitary ruminations and gives us a constructive environment in which to further test and develop the ideas that come out of solitary work.
Once again, the truth lies between the two extremes. You have to strike a balance between collaborative time, and solitary time when working on challenges that demand new solutions.
Not every creative person is an introvert, as Ms. Cain perhaps inadvertently contends. Some people are indeed more productive when they can isolate themselves and think through problems without distraction. Other people, however, need that collaborative interaction to fully unleash their creative juices!
Ms. Cain does frame the leadership challenge properly:
“To harness the energy that fuels both these drives, we need to move beyond the New Groupthink and embrace a more nuanced approach to creativity and learning. Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone.”
As a leader of creative teams, you must tinker with your work environment and your team scheduling to accommodate the needs of all your individuals. Only when you create such a flexible method for fully engaging your employees will you maximize their productivity.