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What Does Collaboration Even Mean Anymore?

Some notes on the C-word.

If I ask you to define the term collaboration, here’s what you’re probably going to describe: A bunch of people sitting in an open, sunlit room, engaging in enthusiastic banter while smiling, gesturing wildly, probably pointing at a screen.

Basically, you’re going to describe a stock photo of “collaboration.”

And you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong, because that is what the word has come to mean.

But there’s no room for nuance in this interpretation of the word. More and more, it’s being used as an arbitrary tool for the sake of appearance — and this is where the problem lies.

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As office walls come down and desks are configured into pods, an idealized version of the way we work has been embraced.

We live in a world dominated by what Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking ) calls The New Groupthink — a culture that values charisma over silence, the many over the singular, and the optics of a boisterous work environment devoid of physical barriers, over the privacy of an office, or one’s own head.

It’s this prevailing ideal that’s stripped the term “collaboration” of any nuance or subtlety, and by extension, discounts and devalues an entire spectrum of possibilities, creative solutions, and personality types.

Now, in the absence of a specific definition of “collaboration” for a given situation, the word is meaningless.

It’s become a vague, mythical term reduced to buzzword status, an aspirational value that celebrates an extrovert ideal, at the expense of allowing those less inclined to speak up in group scenarios to fall through the cracks.

Collaboration should be able to exist in forms outside of this ideal.

Because really, isn’t any kind of communication a kind of collaboration? What’s wrong with a workflow that resembles an assembly line, if that’s what works and gets results? Why can’t that be collaboration, too?

Just because it doesn’t match the current Platonic form of itself, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

In fact, according to Ron Friedman, Ph.D (author of The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace), implementing this idealized version of workplace collaboration can breed what economists call opportunity cost — in other words, all the stuff not getting done while you’re busy “collaborating.”

It’s easy to feel productive when you’re physically part of a group. But simply being part of a group isn’t what gets things done.

In reality, collaboration can take many forms. It can happen quietly, below the radar. It can change depending on the project and combination of people. But most importantly, it shouldn’t be something that needs to be seen to exist.

Which brings me to another point — when did everything become about optics over substance? Why are we policing the *way* people achieve results, if the fact is, they are getting results?

It seems to me that the need to see collaboration is rooted in the need for control. And this takes away any sense of freedom or autonomy from those doing the work. It suggests an implicit lack of trust — which will ultimately serve to discourage employees, and stifle the final product.

For people to push themselves and continue to do great work, they need to be afforded the trust and freedom to work in the way that best suits them.

That’s why vague invocations of “collaboration” are not going to help anyone or anything. It’s going to feel alien and forced, and ultimately prove to be counter productive.

To place a premium on an arbitrarily ideal way of working is to discount an entire spectrum of personalities and possibilities.

So, can we please stop invoking the c-word because it’s cool and buzzy and we feel like we should? Or at least consider the possibility that maybe it’s not the sparkly workplace panacea it’s made out to be… at least not in the way it’s currently being used.

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