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Busting the collaboration myth.

Posted/ 09 October 2013

Susan Cain’s book has perked up the ears of many designers. If you haven’t read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, the theme of the book is simple and relevant. Cain argues current society’s focus on extroversion as the dominant and most desired character trait is flawed. In-turn, the author raises questions about the way many offices are designed: open-plan, shared spaces, with no privacy or silence, rendering deep thinking and solo work virtually impossible.

Cain argues high quality innovative ideas - the ones businesses in the developed world covet as critical ingredients for success - are often born of individuals thinking deeply, by themselves. She concludes our focus on collaborative spaces at the expense of those that support individuals performing solo, focused work is a cause for concern. Her statements are both true and false.

The popularity of ‘coworking’ may suggest she is wrong. This style of working offers a space shared by occupants generally not employed by the same organisation. They are bound by shared values and a desire to be a part of a broader community. From Mind Spring in the USA, The Hub in Australia and Club Workspace in London, coworking has understandably attracted a large number of start-up entrepreneurs and freelancers, but what is most interesting is their ability to lure large corporates, which they have – why?   

One reason is our desire to connect with other humans face-to-face, all the more important in these times of great mobility and inclinations to work anytime anywhere. In addition, the rise in digital connectivity has not downplayed the role networks play in professional careers. Coworking provides an opportunity for high density collaborative work, along with a mix of other types of spaces. By bursting through the confines of the office and the company, they have taken collaboration to a new level.

One reason for their success lies in the effort they make to actively encourage coworkers to connect with one another. Staff with hospitality backgrounds are sought out to add this human touch, a stark departure from the typical serviced office model. Additional differences can be seen in the workplace aesthetics; most have a definite absence of design preciousness. The spaces encourage manipulation, but the real attraction, and why corporates should pay attention to them, is their ability to create a unique user experience.

Meaningful corporate collaboration is created by transcending the status quo water cooler exchanges to more meaningful, value and goal driven interactions. This is enhanced through workplaces with character, encouraging empowerment, and a connection with a broader community. These social sentiments are mirrored in the art world where works are sending a parallel message favouring experience.  

The performance artist Marina Abramovic recently held the biggest exhibition of performance art in MoMA’s history with her work “The Artist is Present”. The work is a 736-hour and 30-minute static, silent piece, in which Abramovic sat immobile in the museum's atrium while spectators took turns sitting opposite her, experiencing a range of emotions. A support group for the "sitters", "Sitting with Marina", was established on Facebook as was the blog "Marina Abramovi made me cry”.  

These stories of unique experiences and global trends towards coworking do not prove Susan Cain wrong about her observations of introverts or the environments we create for them. Many workspaces do prioritise collaboration at the expense of focused work, and many more have introduced such spaces without fully appreciating their purpose or the desired outcomes from the interactions they encourage.

Many companies and the designers they hire to create workplaces for them include stereotypical collaborative spaces mistakenly believing they will encourage workers who do not normally interact, or interact around technology or data, to interact like a group of advertising creatives. This is one motivation for busting the collaboration myth, or at least gaining a greater understanding of the collaborative process and its various phases.

Reviewing the literature on the topic, one learns project based collaboration can be broken down into three phases across the life of the project: collaboration, delegation and cooperation the (CDC model). Our stereotypical notion of collaboration happens at the beginning of a project and is used to define scope. Next the project enters the delegation stage where work is broken down into packages and distributed across team members. Finally, the project is progressed under a cooperation framework.

Each phase of the collaborative process will vary in time and require a different level of personal interaction. It is believed that some phases of the process may be better suited to physical environment while others may benefit from virtual connections. This is the focus of a new research initiative being undertaken by Swinburne University, Geyer and The Great Place to Work Institute. The collaborative has received an Enterprise Connect Australian Government grant for the research.

At the core of the research will be a deeper look at the CDC model with the intention of providing greater granularity to our definitions of project based collaboration. By using physical observation and message tracking, the study will also consider the levels of trust required in each phase of the process, which builds on previous research undertaken by the same collaborative in 2011. In that study, the impact of the physical environment on organisational trust was explored.

It is hoped that greater insights into what actually happens when we ‘collaborate’ will assist in breaking the collaboration myth: not in proving that collaboration is unimportant, rather that collaboration plays an equal bill with focused work and has many phases and variations. Channelling the myth that the Swedish have 100 ways to define snow, this research hopes to provide a new narrative to describe this critical yet misunderstood business process.


View Susan Cain's TED Talk: The Power of Introverts here.


Read more about Geyer's Trust in the Workplace Research here.