Caught up in Kumbayah: Are There Limits to Collaboration?

Strategic Philanthropy
Monday, December 6, 2010

I love to collaborate.  The more, the merrier, I say.  I’m excited by the “crowdsourcing” taking place in our politics, commerce, education, and social spheres.  But, recently, I’ve started to wonder about whether all this collaboration is “all good.” 

Behind this curiosity is my participation (in various capacities) with several organizations that happen to pride themselves on having a “collaborative culture.”  That includes ensuring that

 there is adequate input and discussion from everyone on a range of matters; valuing and trying to find consensus; and being respectful and collegial to others engaged in these conversations and gatherings.

So far, so good, right?  After all, the more ideas on the table, the better.  Not to mention that it’s a great opportunity to build relationships and trust, I say.

What I—and others—are starting to see, however, is that there can be a tendency for organizations to see collaboration as an end unto itself, rather than a process, management style or approach that’s a means to an end:  clear and informed actual decisions.  As a friend who consults with many large nonprofit organizations said to me recently, “I sat in an eight-hour meeting with a group that prides itself on its collaborative culture…But they couldn’t see that there’s a difference between valuing collaboration as a process and making decisions about outcomes.” 

A recent study of hundreds of nonprofit employees by CommonGood Careers underscores this point, finding that when staff is not involved in or aware of an organization’s decision-making practices, they express confusion, disempowerment and dissatisfaction.  The study reflects other research indicating that when it comes to how organizations make decisions, these approaches fall on a continuum—with a concentrated approach on one end (traditional top-down decision-making) and a distributed approach on the other (everyone’s involved).

What the study says is that there’s no right or wrong way as to decision-making approaches, but one thing is certain:  organizations need to be clear about how decisions will be made, by whom, and in what contexts.  While that may seem obvious, it’s surprisingly absent in some organizations, particularly those in which collaborative styles are most valued.  

But there are other issues cropping up around collaboration, including the risk of too much collaboration and consensus-finding leading to the dilution of any shred of creativity.  In “Is Gen Y Teamwork Killing Creativity?,” blogger Rebecca Thorman argues that while there are many positive benefits of teamwork that younger generations are bringing to bear in the way organizations work, the downside is that it may be resulting in less individuality and innovation.  She writes:  All this teamwork “make it incredibly easy to live in society, but also threaten the individual mind, intuition and originality. Consensus isn’t all gravy.”  

A related concern is that collaboration can elicit the regression to the mean.  Remember when the White House asked the public to vote on what they thought were legislative priorities and the number one answer was legalizing marijuana?  Definitely a sour note in the crowdsourcing melody.

And then there’s the problem of what to do when there’s an issue on the table that may warrant less consensus and more “fight”—a conundrum that President Obama seems to be confronting.  Two New York Times columnists—Paul Krugman and Frank Rich—have both written op-eds, asking whether it’s time for the president to “stand firm” on what matters to him, rather than “attempting to turn non-argumentativeness into its own virtuous reward” and questioning whether the administration’s constant attempts to find middle ground is leading to anything substantial in terms of policy changes.  Unfortunately, neither columnist gives us any idea as to what the criteria might be for determining when that kind of “fight” is needed and under what circumstances—a task that can be like trying to nail Jell-O to a tree.

You know things have reached a critical point, though, when even Clay Shirky, arguably the foremost advocate of “all voices, all good,” comes out and admits that even he may have been wrong about the “wisdom of the crowds.”  As Pete Peterson recently blogged, “it may be time to stop thinking about crowdsourcing and more about smartsourcing.” 

So what’s the answer?  Perhaps bees can tell us.  Yes, bees.  In HoneyBee Democracy, Tom Seeley describes how bees have developed an intricate system that uses both the wisdom of the hive, as well as the smarts of individual bees, to come to effective decisions about where to locate their homes.  It’s a fascinating read and one that may have something to teach those of us who care about collaboration as a process toward making smarter and sounder decisions that benefit the entire group—but who are also recognizing its limits when tough decisions have to be made.