Monday, September 29, 2014

Does Collaboration Actually Just Screw Things Up?

A depiction of the supposedly evil activity known as baton-passing

We work in a highly collaborative industry. And collaboration is universally held to be a good thing.

In fact the very worst thing you can say about an agency is that they work 'in silos'.

But hey, long-term readers will know that I get a kick out of questioning received wisdom. 
So - just as a thought experiment - let's ponder for a moment, what would our industry be like without any collaboration? 

I guess it would take the form of 'baton-passing', which means that one person hands their portion of a job over to the next person in the chain, with no time spent working on it together.

Currently, baton-passing is thought to be pure evil, akin to harming children or animals. And all we ever hear around collaboration is unequivocally positive. It is said to lead to more and better ideas, as different disciplines spark off each other. And it is said to lead to ideas that are 'more right', as each discipline reins in the excesses of the others.

But is collaboration really the dog's nuts?

The main argument against collaboration is cost. An example - a particular agency where I once worked was radically collaborative. Often we would have multi-hour meetings in which ten or so of the agency's most senior staff were sat in a room together. Result: we didn't make money. The benefits of collaboration must outweigh the increased cost, otherwise it's pointless. Are you sure that's the case in your agency? Have you stopped to think how much those multi-person meetings are costing?

The other argument against collaboration is that it dilutes expertise. Example: Person A is an expert at what they do, having logged more than 10,000 hours in their field. Under the collaborative system, they are encouraged not to completely finish a piece of work, but instead to leave it, say, two-thirds finished. They then go into a meeting with Persons B, C, D and E to finish it collaboratively. But whereas Person A is a highly regarded specialist in his field... B,C,D and E are well-meaning amateurs. Would it not be better to just get A to do the job by himself, and then pass it over?

Third and final point: one of the basic principles of economics is that division of labour is more efficient. This is from Adam Smith, people - the guy on the twenty pound note.

In the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith explains that traditional pin makers in a home workshop could produce only a few dozen pins a day. However, when organised in a factory, with each worker performing a limited operation and then passing their part of the pin onto the next worker, they could produce thousands a day. The pins were higher quality too, as once each worker became specialised in their own part of the process, their dexterity at it improved. Their tendency to innovate rose also.

Now obviously, we're not making pins here. But do some of Adam Smith's points still stand? Would an agency work better if it fully entrusted each step of the process to the specialists, rather than (for example) having meetings where suits help create strategy, or planners critique work?

Sure, we'd lose something if we abolished collaboration. But my provocation is, would we gain more?


Unknown said...

I'd like to add to this.

Collaboration is one of those words that industry people love. It's a 'break-glass-in-case-of-looking-out-of-date-or-stupid" word.

A bit like social engagement.

The absolute worst form of collaboration is when people replace doing their job, with talking about their job.

"Oh hey, I haven't written a brief yet but i just figured we could chat about the Client problem. It's a much better way to collaboratively work through strategy."


"No, we don't have any ideas yet but thought we'd kick it around with you guys until something pops. Collaboration with the whole team is a better way to get to ideas nowadays"

It's infuriating.

However, that's not to say that collaboration is a bad thing. It's just a word that gets used as an excuse for being lazy.

True collaboration is division of labour.
It's baton passing.
It's specialists.
But they're all working simultaneously.

For me, that's the big difference.
When communication was a statement (albeit a beautifully crafted one) it was perfectly fine - in fact, optimal - to define what should be said, then craft it.

Now our ideas live in systems and they require huge amounts of expertise to make them work. People are more complicated, splitting their time between devices, platforms, physical places and everything in between. In order to breathe life into a good idea, we need those specialists to hand. We need to draw on their expertise as we craft and shape these ideas.

Dan Ng articulated this a few years ago as a process similar to making a vinyl (records).

An LP may play out in a linear fashion - you place the needle at the start of the LP and it moves through the groove playing music.

But LPs aren't made by writing the groove in a linear fashion. They're stamped in one go. Much like our ideas needing UX, IA, Copywriting, Art Direction, Interactive Design, Strategy and Client 'collaboration' at the same time. We need to see the whole story and 'stamp it' in one go.

That's collaboration. Or at least what it should be.
It's a shame it currently stuffs up so many great opportunities.

Scamp said...

Nice. Love that point about 'collaboration' being an excuse for people to not do their jobs. And the vinyl analogy is cracking also.

Anonymous said...

I would have to disagree with both of you on the sentiment that 'collaboration is and excuse for people to not do their jobs'.

In Australia, where everyone tries to do the other persons job, 'collaboration' is actually a very polite way of saying 'we'll let the director bring his expertise to the table. Let the editor bring his expertise. And let the client bring theirs, while secretly hoping they'll listen to our expertise'.

And when you get that happening, the work generally becomes very, very good.

Anonymous said...

David Abbott posts:

Mark Teece said...

Here's another thought. Maybe it's about whether the individuals collaborating work well together. If you compare it to a football team, the players have to build a rapport and understand each other for the team to play well. If they're not on the same wavelength and have different ideas about how the game should be played, they won't gel. So maybe theres a clue there about finding which individuals collaborate well together in an agency, and trying to team them up when possible. There'll always be room to introduce a new person to that team (a sub, to pull through the analogy), but maybe we shouldn't expect to be able to throw new people together for a project and for them to boss it, even if they are superstars individually.