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Wisdom or groupthink from collaboration?

“Ten men in a room trying to come up with their favorite ice cream are going to agree on vanilla,” [movie director Darren Aronofsky] said in The New Yorker. “I’m the rocky road guy.” Timothy Egan, Creativity vs Quants

One of my tech integrations specialists and I are having a friendly debate over the value of collaboration. I see collaboration as a means to an end - just one arrow in a quiver of tools one might use to achieve an outcome. (Been beating this drum for awhile.)

Tracy sees it as an inherent good. Even if the end product of collaboration is no better or worse than independent action, the process of working together itself has value. I will admit that developing good working relationships built on mutual respect is a wonderful thing. 

But I still wonder if collaboration is the answer to every problem or plan. I've found three conditions to effective collaborative efforts, ones that keep us all from going over the cliff while holding hands and singing Kumbaya...

1. Multiple POV are represented in the team. The best groups are ones in which each member can make a unique contribution, has specialized knowledge, and may have a different goal (agenda?). If I remember, Surowiecki says it's not the size of the crowd as much as the diversity of the crowd that leads to wisdom.

2. Guidance not consensus is the goal. Groups who cannot deliver a decision that is not agreed to by all parties will always take the safest approach, the one least likely to create significant change. Individuals take risks; groups maintain the status quo. While input and an understanding why a decision is made is critical, 100% agreement on a course of action or plan is not. In fact, it may be the worst choice made. Unless you always want vanilla.

3. Expedience is not essential. Most of us in managerial positions make multiple choices every day. Were I to call just my department leadership team (all four) together to get agreement on each decision I need to make, none of us would get much done. When we do meet (and when members of my department work jointly with other departments), it's about big projects, rules and policies, and basic philosophies (that can then be used to inform specific decisions).

Good leaders and managers build consensus. They make decisions based on multiple frames of reference. They take time when necessary in making good choices.

But ultimately their course of action is one for which they take individual responsibility and they sometimes make choices that are not uniformly popular. And sometimes I am wrong rather than safe.

It's the only way organizations get jamoca almond fudge.

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Reader Comments (2)

Like you, I'm not a believer in the absolute goodness of "collaboration." In fact, I believe that the nature of the task is what determines whether a group is necessary at all. That is, only if the task at hand demands the collected effort of a group of individuals can it truly be called collaboration.

Too often the tasks assigned to students do not meet this standard, as evidenced by the fact that teachers have to dream up systems of accountability (in the form of grading policies) to combat the "smartest kid does all the work and the group gets credit" phenomenon. If the project *can* be completed by a single student, then forcing students to work together will as often lead to resentments as to any lessons on working well with others.

What irks me is that most adults know from experience that this is true, yet we still assign "group projects" that don't truly require group effort.

March 27, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTom Donovan

Hi Tom,

Your observation about the "smartest kid in group" doing all the work reminded me of when my daughter was in school and complained about doing all the work when there were group assignments. My rather unsympathetic reply was that she should get used to it since that's how it is in work world too.

Personally, I like group work for students when the completion of the task calls for multiple talents - drawing, writing, speaking, tech, interpersonal, etc. Everybody gets a chance to shine that way.

Thanks for the comment,


March 28, 2014 | Registered CommenterDoug Johnson

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