Is There a Science Behind Collaboration?

Why work collaboration matters more than ever and how you can help it thrive.

by Adobe Communications Team

posted on 06-13-2018

Chances are you’re using a smartphone or personal computer to read this. You can thank the legendary collaboration of Apple founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in large part for that.

Got “Hey, Jude” on replay? Direct your gratitude to John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s superb collaborative skills.

Do you have a personal stash of Phish Food hidden away in the back of your freezer? Thank collaborators Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield for the extra delicious calories.

Providing a list of successful collaborations isn’t difficult. Understanding why and how they succeeded, however, can be.

When Simon Sinek, author of business bestseller Start With Why, was asked what made the Apple founders tick, he said: “Steve Jobs was the rebel’s evangelist, but Steve Wozniak is the engineer who made the Apple work. Jobs had the vision, Woz had the goods. … The thing is to find somebody who compliments your skillset, and you’ll be a powerful team together.”

Conceptually, we understand the principles here: people from diverse backgrounds and skill sets, working together with a healthy dose of respect, can yield big returns. The inevitable question then, is whether business leaders can purposely duplicate this kind of collaboration. Can they capture this lightning in a bottle?

The good news: researchers say yes, it is possible to bring great collaboration to organizations at scale — but it requires us to better understand how to set the stage for our best work. When done right, collaboration can be the foundation of the next big innovation.

Why collaboration matters

Since the dawn of work, people have communicated with each other to get things done. What makes good collaboration so critical today is the steady increase in specialization among “knowledge workers.”

Specialization has been on the rise in offices around the world for the last 30 years, says Benjamin Jones, professor of strategy at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Shifting needs and workflows have forced workers to narrow their expertise and specialize in more focused areas than those before them. “Narrowing expertise can reduce individual capabilities and force innovators to work in teams,” he says.

This phenomenon then creates a direct correlation between level of specialization and the need for collaboration. “Over time, this is an ongoing, never-ending phenomenon of increased specialization, which is ever increasing the demand for collaboration,” says Benjamin.

“Close to nothing is done by one person,” says Shawn Cheris, director of Experience Design at Adobe, who sees this trend playing out in his own design team. “Collaboration is how work is accomplished, and that should not be considered an obstacle to good design. All of that additional input is what makes it better.”

Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Catalyst Companies, tech industry analyst, and work futurist, believes that an increasingly flex-time, remote, or freelance workforce is also behind this trend. “If I need a community manager part-time, a data scientist, or a market researcher, I can find willing freelancers or contractors online and borrow part of their time,” he explains. “These are professionals that may have deep domain knowledge, skills, or extra time that I don’t have, and I can access them instantly.” This is creating what Jeremiah calls a “collaborative economy.”

Therefore, more than ever before, companies are now facing a flexible workforce of specialists — specialists incapable of completing diverse projects by themselves but, when able to collaborate with other expert specialists, capable of great innovation. Business leaders who provide the tools, environment, and policies to enable greater collaboration will reap the fruits of that innovation. Those who don’t, won’t.

Add to this the fact that more effective collaboration has been linked directly to higher business performance, and business leaders have more than sufficient reason to take collaboration seriously.

The tools that support collaboration

As we work in an increasingly connected world, a host of digital tools — literally hundreds of them — have sprung up to address the need to get workers working more closely together. With this barrage of tools, and so many vendors, companies may find it difficult to determine the best tools to invest in.

Recognizing this problem, Ephraim Freed at intranet software company ThoughtFarmer put forth this concise definition for collaboration: “Two or more people working together toward shared goals.” Using this simple description, business leaders can frame their technology-buying efforts in terms of the distinctly human activity that is at the core of collaboration.

To ensure that companies are investing in collaboration tools that team members will actually use, Ephraim says, “There is no one-tool-to-rule-them-all approach to collaboration… Collaboration is role- and context-dependent.”

For instance, picture a marketing team putting the finishing touches on their big campaign launch. This is likely multiple teams requiring a great deal of coordination. They will need tools that enable instant response times, like instant messaging.

For legal or compliance teams, however, looking for a collaboration tool that will let them hold discussions in the context of a deliverable or document, instant messaging would be easily overwhelmed. Collecting comments and tracking revisions right inside the document, as you can in a PDF, for example, is the correct approach.

Along the same lines, collaboration meant specifically to survey opinions or to facilitate broad conversation on a given topic (i.e. whether to provide high-end coffee grinders in the breakroom) tends to do best in intranets, forms, or public forums.

However, choosing the right tool is only part of the collaboration equation, cautions Michael Schrage, author of Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration.

“Technology remains an indispensable ingredient,” Michael says. “But enabling collaborators to get greater value from their shared spaces remains both the most rewarding and frustrating challenge.” For example, a cloud-based library will do little to help collaboration if team members access only their files on their computer. Training and enforcement are necessary to make sure collaboration tools become entrenched in workers’ routines and actually amplify collaborative efforts.

Tips for putting collaboration to work for you

With a commitment to collaboration and the right tools in hand, you’ll want to do everything you can to increase the odds that your efforts to collaborate will yield better business results.

Here are four surefire tips from the experts to help you put the science of collaboration to work for your teams:

1. Create collaboration-friendly physical environments.

Does your workplace encourage or discourage interpersonal interaction? “Successful collaborators don’t just work with each other; they work together through a shared space,” Michael says. “Shared space is the essential means, medium, and mechanism that makes collaboration possible. No shared space? No real collaboration.”

This concern has led more businesses to adopt open work spaces, disposing of the old standbys — enclosed offices and their cubicle imitation. No wonder animation studio Pixar consciously designed its Emeryville, California, headquarters with bathrooms in the center of the building and all food and coffee options in a central atrium.

But, says Jeremiah, open offices should not be considered a magic bullet solution for all organizations. The answer for some enterprises could lie in a combination of old-school offices and open spaces. “We’re seeing a hybrid space where there are cubicles and closed offices mingled with touchdown spaces, or impromptu spaces where people can meet, discuss, and work together,” he says. Ultimately, however, it’s about finding what works for your organization. “There is no right way, one way or the other,” says Jeremiah. “It’s going to depend on the need, the goal, and the culture of the company.”

2. Custom-build teams for each collaborative effort.

Naturally, due to an increasingly specialized workforce, each project may very well require a different combination of team members. This might seem to fly in the face of the traditional, rigid model of team organization, but in fact, more enterprise teams are moving toward such a model, where teams assemble the right skill sets for each new project and then dissemble at project completion. It’s worth noting here that you should take this need for flexibility into account when selecting collaboration tools.

3. Eliminate sources of “forced” collaboration overload.

Research by professors Rob Cross, Adam Rebele, and Adam Grant, featured in Harvard Business Review, found that, at many companies, people can spend 80 percent of their time in traditional collaborative activities: meetings, email, and conference calls. And that number has risen steadily — 50 percent in the last two decades. Often these activities are completely warranted, while other times, they are done out of force of habit. Meetings that could probably be completed in 15 minutes can be stretched out unnecessarily to an hour. Managers stuck a dozen people into a 30-minute conference call when an email would have sufficed. These instances can add up to big losses in productive time. Sadly, when business leaders are responsible for these time sucks, employees feel the pinch but also feel powerless to push back.

Collaboration- and productivity-minded business leaders work to uncover and trim out these instances of forced collaboration overload. For example, Asana has instituted weekly “No Meeting Wednesdays.”

4. Reward top collaborators with more freedom.

At the average enterprise, a mere 3-5 percent of employees are responsible for 20-35 percent of truly valuable collaborations. In other words, some team members are just better at collaboration and actually make up for the collaborative shortcomings of their fellow teammates. Wherever they go, collaboration flourishes and performance improves.

What to do with these extra milers? Some business leaders might react by throwing as many projects onto their plates as possible — and inadvertently drive these gifted individuals to a premature burnout and exit from the company. Rather than punish your extra milers, Jeremiah says, leaders need to reward them in terms of compensation and recognition.

This should also include allowing extra milers more freedom in what they work on. “If you don’t give people an opportunity to do something that they think they can improve, they’re going to go elsewhere, and you might actually create a competitor,” says Jeremiah. “So, the culture and the leadership team need to allow some percentage of time for employees to explore new projects and give them that latitude.”

Not only will these projects be blessed by extra milers’ collaborative prowess, but your extra milers will stick around longer and pass their collaboration best practices on to their team members.

Bottle the lightning

While it’s true that cosmic luck played a role in some of the most noteworthy collaborations of our time, certain constants — which can be duplicated in the context of business — are obvious.

Great leaders understand the science of collaboration and make it a priority to bring the right people together — those with a diversity of experience and the specialized skills needed for a project. They provide the shared space — whether digital, physical, or both — for their team to brainstorm, communicate, disagree, and overcome obstacles together. And they understand how to weed out activities that can stymie team collaboration and productivity.

Finally, great collaborators themselves recognize the importance of differences and how to have a strong respect and trust for others’ strengths. Prioritizing and cultivating collaborations will help you bottle the lightning of innovation and transform it into great success.

Read more articles in our Working Smarter collection.

Topics: Future of Work