The proverb that “two heads are better than one” has been in use since at least medieval times. James Surowiecki’s 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds showed how aggregating the decision of a group of individuals generally leads to better decision-making than any single member of the group. When companies collaborate, they make more money. Governments have recognised this and are encouraging more collaboration in industry and science programs.
One of my standard slides when I’m presenting just says “2 + 2 = 5”. I use it when I’m talking about the power of collaboration to illustrate that whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I’ve got no doubt it is true. But is it always true? Is it possible that collaboration can be taken for granted?
We’ve all been in situations where a ‘team’ is thrown together for a task or project but just doesn’t work that well. Just because better choices can be made through a group doesn’t necessarily mean using a group is always the best way forward. There is growing evidence that when creativity is involved, individuals will often outperform a group.
Professor Leigh Thompson of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University argues that there are tools and methods to lead to better collaboration. She goes further, providing evidence that creativity is stifled in teams that don’t introduce some formalised methods to collaborate well. For example, Thompson argues that brainwriting, where individuals writing down their own ideas for 10 minutes will yield many more ideas than a similar amount of time of group brainstorming.
Dr Mark Elliott of Melbourne company Collabforge says that collaboration is a way of working that you can learn. His company provides services to teach teams and organisations when and how to collaborate.
When Government offer to pay for collaboration, such as in the CRC Program, they encourage more of it. The financial leverage of requiring industry to match government dollars is a great way to ensure the resulting collaboration has a strong purpose. Just how a sector collaborates to bid and then run a Cooperative Research Centre is largely up to them. We know some do it better than others.
I argue that once a funding round is announced, it is almost too late to concentrate on the quality of collaboration. Deadlines loom; there is a tonne of work to be done. Rounding up resources becomes the priority. That’s why it is so good to see major CRC and CRC-P proposals taking a longer time to really develop the quality of their collaborations well ahead of a funding announcement. The CRC Association is trying to assist this process by teaming up with Collabforge to run workshops on Collaboration for Industry Impact. We try to provide ways of enhancing the creativity of collaboration, while not forgetting that there are lots of practical issues that must be addressed in a CRC or CRC-P bid.
Whether you can participate in one of our workshops or not, don’t assume that all collaboration is good, all of the time. Taking the time and effort to think through collaboration itself will help increase its ultimate impact.