A few recent stories in the mainstream press talk about how collaboration on teams is wasteful, therefore collaboration isn’t what we think it is. They’re right, mostly.
Our field research of the past decade in over 35 countries in the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America, supported by our survey research in 98 countries, suggest that what people mean by collaboration varies greatly, along a continuum. At one end of the continuum, we find groups organized to segregate people into similar general purposes, each acting only with their own perspective in mind. At the other end of the continuum, we find groups organized to unite people into a larger whole that requires each individual’s unique contribution towards a shared deeper purpose, each keeping in mind their own perspective, that of the others in the group, and the group’s deeper purpose. From focus on self with no conscious focus on the relationship with others to a conscious focus on self and the relationship with the other. Somewhere in the middle, we find groups organized to work together, mostly aware of their own perspective, while aware that other groups have different perspectives that may combine or compete with their own, towards a common purpose. Three very different ways of organizing human interactions in groups, two of them with their own dysfunctional form of group work.
Groups as segregating. Focusing at the outcomes-noun level of perceived reality, these groups are structured to work with resource power only, depending completely on the existing capacities available. To get work done, they tend to invest heavily in paying for lots of people to spend many hours sitting around many tables to which they make no contribution and gain no value. People attend these meetings because they were told to, it was put in their calendar for them. This is the phenomenon most of the “collaboration overload” criticism is rightly pointing at, where collaboration means sitting in the same room together, without clarity of a shared purpose or of the need for any of the specific people in the room.
Groups as flocking. Focusing at the development and outcomes levels of perceived reality (verb and noun levels), these groups are structured to work with network power, leading them to invest in some people who are making many connections and bringing great creativity, while others are not. They pay conscious attention to their own node and to the relationships with a set of nodes that influence them over time. In these groups, people work together because this is where the action is, or where they need to be seen, where relationship is built. Collaboration here often means lots of meetings, lots of learning conversation, and asking lots of the people into the room, especially the star contributors.
Groups as uniting. Focusing across the potential, development, and outcomes levels of perceived reality (light, verb, and noun levels), these groups are structured to work with tangibilization power, seeing potential, pathways to manifest that potential, and rapid deployment to test that potential with specific outcomes along the way. This leads these groups to invite the contributions of different perspectives to a deeper shared purpose that each individual is uniquely able to make. These people engage because this is how they can collaborate in service of something they deeply care about. Collaboration in these groups requires each to bring their unique gifts, together, to be able to achieve the deeper purpose they share.
So collaboration meaning group activity might not work because of the underlying agreement about what we are working on, about who needs to be in the room to serve that purpose, and how we work together, not just because it is people coming together. Maybe collaboration is not equal to group work.