Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Collaboration Paradox: Why Working Together Often Yields Weaker Results

On a midsummer afternoon in 1957, a church fundraiser altered the course of music history. It was just after 4:00 when a group of teenagers took the stage. Rumor has it the boys were so anxious about playing in front of their neighbors, they downed a few beers before launching their set. 

This may explain why several songs into the performance, their lead singer forgot his lyrics, struggled to improvise, and somehow mangled, “Come little darlin’, come and go with me,” into, “Down, down, down, down to the penitentiary.”

Most of the audience was oblivious to the flub. But not everyone. One listener was watching intently, impressed by the band’s antics. His name was Paul McCartney. And he’d just had his first glimpse of John Lennon.

Half a century later, Lennon and McCartney’s collaborative works are credited with launching a new era in music history—one in which it became acceptable to combine genres, play a sitar alongside a violin, and use technology as an instrument. We know the Beatles were creative, but how they got that way remains something of a mystery. So just what were they doing right?

The Secret Formula

Marriage therapists have an equation they use to evaluate relationships.

In a functional marriage, the arithmetic is simple. One plus one equals two. Each partner has their individual strengths and together, the pair is reasonably compatible. In unhealthy marriages, the math turns funny. Here, one plus one equals one, and typically, it’s because one partner is holding the other back.

Successful marriages are different. Chances are you’ve seen one, or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to experience it yourself. The husband is a talented chef, the wife a masterful gardener. He tutors the kids in grammar, she teaches them how to defuse arguments. He is a visionary, she is an organizer. Together, they are more than the sum of their parts, and it’s here that the arithmetic turns exponential.

For them, one plus one equals three.

The Beatles illustrate what can happen when you group the right people together. The band’s achievements also lend credence to a belief that’s practically gained universal support within the business community: the idea that collaborations fuel success. The conviction that we all benefit from working in teams, and that more often than not, one plus one does equal three.

But what if we’ve misunderstood the lessons of McCartney and Lennon? What if The Beatles’s productivity teaches us something entirely different about how collaborations work? What if we’ve been doing it all wrong?

Successful marriages are different. For them, one plus one equals three.

Why Workplace Collaborations Often Fail

On paper, collaborations have a lot to offer. By putting our heads together with others, we’re attacking a challenge with greater intellectual firepower. The more perspectives we bring to the table, the more likely we are to eliminate blind spots, unearth creative solutions, and minimize mistakes.

The logic seems irrefutable. So it’s surprising that studies on collaborations have yielded mixed results. First, brainstorming was shown to undermine creativity. A closer look at the literature reveals that brainstorming is hardly the sole culprit. At times, it’s the collaboration itself that diminishes the quality of our work.

Take a look at some of the findings:

  • Collaborations breed false confidence. A study in Psychological Science found that when we work with others to reach a decision, we become overly confident in the accuracy of our collective thinking. The confidence boost we gain from working in teams can feel exhilarating in the short term. But it also clouds our judgment. We become dismissive of outside information which prevents us from making the best choices. 
  • Collaborations introduce pressures to conform. Within many team collaborations, we face an impossible decision: choosing between the quality of our work and the quality of our workplace relationships. Studies show that group members tend to conform toward the majority view, even in cases when they know the majority view is wrong.
  • Collaborations promote laziness. Ever been to a meeting where you’re the only one prepared? Then you’ve probably experienced social loafing—people’s tendency to invest less effort when they’re part of a team. When others are present, it’s easy for everyone to assume someone else will take the lead.

The Price of Partnership

But there’s a bigger problem with workplace collaborations. One that is the corporate equivalent of high blood pressure—a silent killer that often goes undetected. Attached to every meeting, conference call and mass email you’re exposed to is an invisible price tag. Economists call it opportunity cost, and it refers to all the tasks you’re not getting done while you’re busy “collaborating.”

In many organizations, the higher up you are in the hierarchy, the more often you’re called upon to collaborate. Intellectually, it’s a progressive tax.

So, why are we so enamored with an approach that often fails? Partly it’s habit and partly it’s organizational expectations. Of course, there’s also more emotional risk in presenting ideas alone, and political ramifications to leaving others out.

Attached to every meeting, conference call and mass email you’re exposed to is an invisible price tag. 

But there’s something else that makes collaboration’s questionable yield so difficult to spot.

Collaborations seem more productive than they are, in part, because of the way our minds experience them. It’s easy to feel productive when we’re part of a group, listening to other’s ideas and contributing our feedback. Especially when compared to the alternative: sitting at our desks, staring down a blank screen. It’s too bad the progress is often illusory.

Which raises an interesting question. If the research says collaborations often undermine performance, why did it work so well for The Beatles?

The Art of Successful Collaborations

Paul McCartney and John Lennon were not psychologists. But their approach to collaboration highlights many of the recommendations experts are now offering organizations for making groups more effective.

Find teammates who do something you can’t.

McCartney excelled at melody, Lennon at lyrics. His songs were uplifting, Lennon’s had an edge. McCartney was left-handed and, importantly, Lennon was not. Playing together, they each benefited from seeing a song’s chord progression reflected back at them, making it easier to improvise notes that fit the scale.

The lesson: Collaborations are most effective when teammates complement rather than replicate one another’s abilities. Skill duplication leads to power struggles.

Differentiate between roles.

Social loafing isn’t inevitable. It happens when responsibilities are ambiguous and collaborators aren’t clear on where their role ends and another’s begins. When McCartney and Lennon collaborated, it was clear who served as the lead songwriter and who was there to offer suggestions.

The lesson: Delineating responsibilities at the start of a project gives everyone at the table direction and a sense of ownership.

Insist on homework.

McCartney and Lennon are thought of as a songwriting team, but the truth is they conceived of their songs alone. They collaborated after they had gotten a piece as far as they could, and were ready for suggestions. Most of the heavy creative lifting happens when we’re by ourselves, working on our own. We’re in a better position to evaluate the merits of an idea after we’ve given a topic some thought, not when encountering it for the first time.

The lesson: Use meeting time to exchange ideas, not generate them.

***

It would be foolish to suggest that collaborations are always a detriment. Without them, we wouldn’t have Apple, Google or Microsoft, not to mention airplanes or the discovery of DNA. They’re just not the panacea we’ve been led to believe.

Can one plus one still equal three? Potentially, yes. But getting there requires a new kind of thinking. One that recognizes the pitfalls of collaborations and welcomes a sobering perspective that most workplaces like to avoid: It’s only by acknowledging our (individual) weaknesses that we can discover our (shared) strengths.

How about you?

How have you seen collaboration go awry? 

More insights on: Collaboration

Ron Friedman

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Ron Friedman, Ph.D. is the founder of ignite80 and the author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Connect with him @ronfriedman.
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