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Collaboration or Solitude: Which is Better?

From time to time I’ve offered up my suggestions for powerful must have collaboration tools, tips on how to increase collaboration, and suggested alternative office designs to foster collaboration at the workplace. However, I feel that there’s a larger question, one that we haven’t covered or discussed very much – the debate on whether collaboration is the right thing for you?

I recently came across Susan Cain’s New York Times article, The Rise of the New Groupthink, which got me thinking about the question: collaboration vs. solitude, which is better for innovation? In her article, Cain states that the recent hype around the benefits of collaboration is just that, hype. Cain believes that when collaborating, “People in groups tend to sit back and let others do the work; they instinctively mimic others’ opinions and lose sight of their own; and often succumb to peer pressure.” We all know that when collaborating we always run the risk of Free Riders, I’ve always viewed this as the price of admission when working in large groups.

Cain also states that privacy and solitude is the key for productivity. “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption… people whose work is interrupted make 50 more mistakes and take twice as long to finish it.” She argues that this new emphasis on collaboration – Aka the New Groupthink- “has overtaken our workplaces…During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010.” In a study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tim DeMarco and Timothy Lister analyzed the work from 600 programmers at 92 companies. “Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers.” Cain believes some type of happy medium should exist in our collaboration efforts. “Our offices should encourage casual, cafe-style interactions, but allow people to disappear into personalized, private spaces when they want to be alone.”

While Cain highlights some of the problems inherent in collaboration, I believe she is looking at the problem through the incorrect lens. It should be a question of determining which form of collaboration is right for you not collaboration vs. solitude. According to Gary Pisano and Robert Verganti’s Harvard Business Review article, Which Kind of Collaboration is Right for You?, there are of four different types of collaboration.

Source: Which Kind of Collaboration Is Right for You?

It seems the problem Cain cites with collaboration hindering innovation is what Pisano & Verganti define as Open collaboration. It is true, when using Open collaboration, you do run the risk of the having a costly, ill-defined collaboration session. However, with four various collaborative methods to select from, I believe that one will not only fosters innovation, but also minimizes the downside.

This is why I disagree with Cain. Yes, having solitude is an important aspect of the creative cycle, but why does collaboration and solitude have to be mutually exclusive? I believe that the real issue is deciding what form of collaboration will be the most beneficial for a given situation and goal. Once you have selected the best type then collaboration should come naturally and easily. So, as the question moves from collaboration vs. solitude to what type of collaboration Pisano and Verganti make an excellent observation that “Choosing a collaboration mode involves more than understanding the trade-offs. A firm must take into account its strategy for building and capturing value…as the strategy evolves, the right mode of collaboration might change too” that said, I will gladly take that large, private corner office over my 3 foot high 50 sq. ft. cube thank you.

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