Collaboration; And don’t waste your time critiquing trash.

A recent post in The Economist caught my eye. Possibly because I enjoy revising titles for accuracy.

The Collaboration Curse

Suggestions: Collaboration, done poorly, has some measurable negative effects. Or, Collaboration, when it isn’t actually a collaboration, has some measurable negative effects. 

I’m leaning toward “when it isn’t actually a collaboration.”


‘interruptions, even short ones, increase the total time required to complete a task by a significant amount…. jumping rapidly from one task to another also reduces efficiency because of something she calls “attention residue”. The mind continues to think about the old task even as it jumps to a new one.’

If you are being interrupted by another person—neither of you are collaboratingYou’re working on different tasks. Which is by definition NOT collaboration.

If we’re building a table and I’m responsible for the legs, through our collaboration my legs will be stronger or more beautiful, and they’ll fit in better as a part of the entire table. I still have to do the production work on my own, but when we’re actually collaborating and working through how the table will look, it’s impossible for you to interrupt me. Because we’re working together. Focused, on the same question.


“Rob Cross and Peter Gray of the University of Virginia’s business school estimate that knowledge workers spend 70-85% of their time attending meetings (virtual or face-to-face), dealing with e-mail, talking on the phone or otherwise dealing with an avalanche of requests for input or advice.”

75-85% of knowledge workers are (apparently) spectacularly bad at managing their work. This is a problem with how meetings and general communication are handled. This has nothing to do with collaboration. Catherine Shinners wrote an extensive analysis of the problem (it deals specifically with the HBR article cited in The Collaboration Curse). These critiques are a great opportunity to recognize that we have substantial hidden problems in the workplace. These hidden problems need to be uncovered and resolved, but they are much broader than collaboration.


“A succession of studies have shown that multitasking reduces the quality of work as well as dragging it out.”

Collaboration requires focused effort. You can’t multi-task while collaborating. So again, if you’re multi-tasking, you aren’t collaborating. Shut down the distractions and focus on your collaborators.


“What can be done to restore balance in a world gone collaboration-mad?”

Set aside time for “deep work” where people aren’t allowed to interrupt. Fix your terrible communication and meeting practices. Have hope! There are many solutions to this problem!


This whole discussion brings to mind Sturgeon’s Law, another tool for spotting weak arguments.

“Sturgeon’s Law is usually put a little less decorously: Ninety percent of everything is crap.” – Daniel C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Anyone can spot garbage. It’s a waste of time. If we want to critique collaboration (The Collaboration Curse certainly implies this), we need to find some good examples to critique. Critique Orville and Wilbur Wright’s collaboration on the Wright Flyer. Critique The Rolling Stones. Critique the collaboration process used by John Lasseter, Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton and Joe Ranft as they fleshed out the story for Toy Story. Spotting the flaws in these cases (and there ARE flaws) would be more illuminating than pointing out that garbage is, in fact, garbage.

That’s the takeaway tool. If someone is critiquing an idea, ask yourself if they’re a critiquing an effective representation or a poor one. If you take the time to critique, ask yourself if it is worth your time to focus on the artifact in front of you.

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