Are People Useful?  

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Are you a people person, or someone that actually gets things done?

I was asked recently why the notion of collaboration is so important? It’s a good question, because knowledge workers are usually most productive on their own.

The benefits of brainstorming came into question with an infamous 1958 study at Yale University. The study found that individuals were much better and more creative at solving puzzles than groups were. Since then, many more studies have generally confirmed that groups think of fewer ideas than the same number of people working alone.

So what’s with all this collaboration talk?

Personally, I find that I get far more done after hours – when I’m alone. In other words, people are a drain on productivity. Is it just a coincidence that the old saying goes ‘if you want something done right, do it yourself.’

While there’s definite truth of solo-productivity, there’s also reasons why group collaboration can be important. For starters, complexity. Things are too darn complicated. A hundred years ago a house-builder built houses. Today, a house builder manages specialists. Big projects have lots of moving parts, and effective collaboration is critical to project success.

While complexity is increasing, the bigger change stems from distributed teams. Ten years ago, we all worked in the office. We could collab-at-will with conference room meetings or impromptu cubicle stops (also known as drive-bys). Today, a full-team in a single site is not only rare, but foolish. It’s foolish because its unlikely that all of the best people for a given task are in the same location. There’s no reason to limit hiring to a local pool.

Unfortunately, most of the current workforce grew up in a location-centric world. We all got schooled by physically going to school. So, distributed teams can be disorienting. What’s needed are tools, procedures, and clear expectations that facilitate collaboration among distributed teams.

Thus, the focus on collaboration tools.

Personally, I’m all for losing the colleagues. But even I find that people sometimes come in handy. Specifically, for three things:

  1. Human Contact
  2. Emergencies
  3. Option Development

Turns out we humans like productivity killing opportunities, and although cats are reasonably fun distractions, humans are often better. The problem with real-in person interactions is lack of control. Collaboration improvements such as the volume control and an off-switch make modern collaboration superior to in-person meetings (honorable mention to Fast Forward). I’m serious here – I get much more out of my meetings at my desk – with a full size keyboard, multiple monitors, and control over the volume – then I do in a conference room with a notepad.

Another example of future-let-downs is the fact that emergencies still exist.  While a team won’t necessarily eliminate them, they can be helpful in both managing the situation and obfuscating blame.

It is option development where collaboration shines. As Michael Jordan once said, “talent wins games, but teamwork and intelligence wins championships.” Developing options requires different perspectives, skills, and experiences. I interact daily with professionals around the world and have a variety of tools that nullify the great distances. Sometimes I believe “I can do more damage on my laptop sitting in my pajamas before my first cup of Earl Grey” than I could in a year in an office.

I am stunned sometimes by own memories of commuting and wearing a tie. What a bunch of nonsense – there’s too much work to do for such distractions. People are indeed very important and useful, and collaboration tools make them bearable. I do like people, from afar.

Dave Michels