The dangers of groupthink

Is collaboration good in itself, or only insofar as it helps individuals?

I’m reading Quiet by Susan Cain, a fascinating look at the differences between introverts and extroverts.

The chapter on collaboration at work is particularly interesting. Basically it says that the new trend for almost enforced collaboration and team working not only pushes people into unproductive meetings and open plan spaces but also gives advantages to the outgoing and quick thinker rather than the more considered, slower thinker.

But even more importantly it says that the trend toward collaborative team working ignores the crucial role of introspection in creating new ideas. The ‘dangers of groupthink’ as she puts it. Cain cites countless inventors, scientists, engineers and artists who may have benefited from conversations with people but ultimately made a breakthrough only by putting in hard work on their own. Innovation, effectively, is often a solitary pursuit.

To me this draws attention to a distinction that is often elided in all the talk about collaboration at work.

– On the one hand there is the idea of collaboration as a way of drawing out the wisdom of the crowds; the idea that collaboration is more creative and effective than working alone because it allows new and different ideas to develop, people to spark off one another, etc. This is the view that teams are good in themselves.

– On the other is the idea that collaboration is a means to boost individual creativity and effectiveness; giving them the financial security to pursue their ideas, or creating a framework where people can give their own input into an organisation while being rewarded equitably. This is the view that team working is a good insofar as it supports the individuals within them. 

It’s the latter understanding of collaboration that seems most valuable – and the one that organisations tend to use.

Of course, there are some senses in which collaboration has broader value – it fosters greater cohesion, helps people understand one another or an organisation’s goals, among other things – and so the aim should not be to subordinate all collaboration to individual ends but to recognise what you are trying to achieve through collaboration rather than simply defaulting to it.

But what Cain draws attention to is that collaboration is not so much of value in itself but only when it aids individuals in generating ideas and things of value.