To Collaborate…Or Not?

“Every sin is the result of a collaboration.” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca, ancient Roman philosopher.

To Collaborate...Or Not? by Laura Stack #productivityAs Will Rogers once pointed out, “It isn’t what we don’t know that gives us trouble, it’s what we know that ain’t so.” Sometimes we make unwarranted assumptions that just don’t hold up under close scrutiny…but they survive longer than they should because we don’t scrutinize them. Here’s a good workplace example: collaboration. As much we might like to think otherwise, not everything requires it.

I can almost hear the shocked gasps from those enthusiastic souls who’ve bought into this sacred cow, seduced by cheerful slogans like “Teamwork Makes the Dream Work!” and “There’s No ‘I’ in Team!”

Now, please understand: I believe wholeheartedly in the value of teamwork. It’s as obvious as a slap in the face that when properly handled, collaboration builds to the irresistible force of synergy. But “properly handled” is the key term here. Some tasks clearly work best as one-person jobs. To use an everyday example, both my teenage boys can’t push the lawnmower simultaneously without getting in each other’s way; a lot of shoving would result. A better collaboration would be for one to mow while the other trims or bags.

Collaboration is a fine concept; we couldn’t have a decent civilization without it. But it can’t possibly apply to every human endeavor, any more than a hammer applies to every mechanical situation. So while it offers a seductive, feel-good solution, it can also dull your agile edge.

Before you just assume collaboration offers the best approach for a particular task or project, give it the VALUE GAP test, taking these considerations into account:

1. Velocity. All the meetings and give-and-take any collaboration requires can’t help but slow you down. That alone might kill the idea if you have no time to spare.

2. Attention hogs. If you work with someone who prefers arguing or preaching to moving things forward, your collaboration may be doomed from the start.

3. Language Skills. Some co-workers may have problems communicating, either because they beat around the bush, or because they lack the ability to present their ideas clearly.

4. Unequal partnerships. Not everyone brings equivalent skills, willingness, and value to a collaborative effort. Will you have to partner with someone problematic?

5. Extroverts vs. Introverts. About 25% of all workers are introverts, who have trouble working directly with others—offsetting any benefits they bring to the table.

6. Groupthink. Collaboration fosters a “yes-man” mindset, especially when it seeks to impose a unanimous viewpoint. While this can move a project along quickly, the quality may suffer.

7. Apathy. Some people just don’t care about the task, often because they find the issues boring or irrelevant. They can slow your progress or damage its final quality.

8. Preparation. You’d never attend a meeting without prepping for it, right? Too bad your co-workers don’t always feel the same. Some may forget about it, lose their paperwork, or fail to follow up on last meeting’s issues. The result? Frustration and slow progress.

Good. Bad. Ugly.

While collaboration gets high marks in many situations, it doesn’t work for everything. Not only does it hamper single-person tasks, not everyone plays well with others. So before you roll the collaboration dice, run the problem through the VALUE GAP calculator based on what you know about the project and the people involved. You may find it easier to go it alone—or appoint others to do so, if they happen to be a better fit.



  1. Chris Trevis says:

    Dear Laura,
    I beg to differ with your comment about introverts vs extroverts. Introverts do NOT have trouble working directly with others and they DO bring benefits to the table (read “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain). Introverts are simply not as talkative as extroverts. In fact, extroverts are usually so busy talking just to talk and to hear themselves talk and to get other extroverts to talk that they often bring little value to a collaboration. I urge you to consider how introverts are misunderstood and write a piece about the many benefits they bring to an organization and its teams.

  2. Deb Oakeson says:

    In your article you state, “5. Extroverts vs. Introverts. About 25% of all workers are introverts, who have trouble working directly with others—offsetting any benefits they bring to the table.”

    I think this statement is a gross generalization. Introverts simply derive their energy in a different way than extroverts do. I am considered to be an introvert (Myers-Briggs criteria), and yet I manage to function very effectively as both a team member and as a team leader. I don’t dislike people and I’m not anti-social, I just know that I need to take some time by myself to recharge if I’m involved in a lot of interaction. The book, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain is a great resource if you want to learn more.

    I think you lose out on a lot of valuable information if you eliminate the perspectives of 25% of the people in an organization (and some occupations attract even higher percentages of introverts) simply because you need to work with them a little differently.

    • LauraStack says:

      Thanks for your responses!

      If you were wondering, I got the 25% figure from this article by Allison Arieff, and from Dr. Marti Laney’s book The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World. I’m aware of Ms. Cain’s book, though I haven’t yet read it myself.

      Of course I don’t deny the contributions of introverts; some of the people I work closely with are introverts, so I’m well aware of their amazing capabilities! I admittedly over-generalized on point #5, and a better statement might have been, “About 25% of all workers are introverts, who may have trouble working directly with others—potentially diluting the benefits they bring to the table.”

      When I used “offsetting” in the original statement, I didn’t mean to imply that being an introvert negates a person’s group contributions—by no means. But in my experience, collaboration can dilute an introvert’s efforts if they’re forced to work in an environment in which they feel acutely uncomfortable.


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