When Collaboration Kills Innovation: 5 Time Bombs to Surface and Defuse

Your efforts to promote collaboration could be killing innovation.

Collaboration is the hot word today, which means leaders and teams are expected to know how to do this. So we train people on how to honor everyone’s strengths, how to include different perspectives in decision-making and how to celebrate team milestones. We push people to say “we” instead of “me.”

Knowing how to collaborate is also handy for families, volunteer groups and team sports.

Yet the “rah-rah” of teams may mask the shortfalls of teamwork.

In a brilliant article recently published in the Harvard Business Review, Nolifer Merchant brought to light Eight Dangers of Collaboration. Subtle and sometimes invisible blocks to team productivity include

  • the fear of speaking up against the majority
  • subtle tribal behaviors of inclusion and exclusion
  • slow reaction times as problems are talked to death
  • team assignments create more busy-work for already overworked people
  • conflict avoidance so as not to rock the boat
  • watered-down solutions
  • lack of accountability

I am often told to keep my training positive. Negative views bring down the energy. Regardless of how it makes my participant feel, I think it is important for teams to answer the question, “What will stop you from succeeding?”

In my doctoral studies, one of my professors shared some additional time bombs that can kill collaborative efforts:

  1. Handclasping – When one or two strong members agree with the leader no matter what, forcing others to align with their decisions.
  2. Majority voting – When the majority silences the minority without fully hearing their points of view.
  3. Collusion of rebels – When a number of members resist the leader’s decisions no matter what or they question the leader’s action enough to slow down the process to an inefficient pace demonstrating that the team is as useless as they predicted.
  4. Near Consensus – When some members don’t have all the details but the solution sounds good enough for them to go along with the others. This could lead to groupthink and possible serious errors.
  5. Village Idiot – One person’s ideas are continually ignored or killed without any consideration.

In the 1980’s, I worked for a computer company that was sold to a group of four Harvard MBA graduates. The company was having difficulties shifting to the new smart computer technologies. The new owners thought they would fix our problems by creating cross-functional teams to make decisions. In a culture where departments didn’t get along and there was no corporate training, this grand experiment failed due to the collusion of rebels. The company went bankrupt a few years later.

My next job was to help take a floundering semi-conductor company out of near- bankruptcy. We re-organized into cross-functional teams based on business units. Based on what lessons I learned from the Harvard leadership team, I created a team training program that taught both the light and dark sides of collaboration. This allowed the team to surface and resolve resistance, poor decision-making, and unproductive practices. The team training was recognized as one of the key contributions when the company went public and became the top IPO in the United States in 1993.

Collaboration can increase creativity and innovation as people build on each others ideas. Collaboration can increase team spirit and motivation when people succeed together. The younger generation of workers tends to thrive in collaborative environments.

To make collaboration work, people need to be trained on both how to do it and what to watch out for.

A great program that addresses all sides of collaboration is The Team Advantage by the Pyramid Resource Group.

You must go into any partnership or team with your eyes wide open. All participants should have the “language of dangers” and feel safe enough to point out the possibility of these hazards occurring.

Highly productive teams know where they are vulnerable so they can bring problems to light and commit to moving on to create a more open, respectful and enjoyable experience.

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