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Forget Collaboration – I Work Alone!

BalanceTeaching at Stanford, I spend a lot of time touting the wonders of various ideation practices, and brainstorming tools.  I talk a lot about how sharing ideas with a wide variety of people can increase the breadth of ideas and lead to greater innovation.  (We call it the mindset of “Radical Collaboration.”) And I’ve spent the last several months developing a Collaboration module for Arena (called Scribe).  It allows users to record real-time conversations in an already familiar social look-and-feel interface, around parts and assemblies they are designing, stored right with the product information for easy reference.  I think collaboration is great.

Except when it isn’t.

I have to admit, all the “real-time”, always-on, inclusive ideation and collaboration is sometimes just exhausting.  When the instant message chime sounds or someone drops by my desk with a question, it is occasionally tempting to take a page from the book of a college friend of mine: He once put a sign on his own back that said “Buzz Off” and sat in his office with the sign facing the door.  If truth be known the first word was actually not the sound of an irritated bee and is normally heard in more rustic settings. The next lab tour luckily had a nimble tour guide who adroitly commented, “We have some tough hombres in this office!” and walked quickly past, but his major professor suggested he go with a more subtle approach to fending off interruption in the future.

Let’s face it – it can damage relationships if you turn away collaboration and questions abruptly. And we worry that we’ll miss some excellent ideas by closing off the discussion.  We have built a society that values extroversion and the expectation is that with smartphones, email, and 24-hour news cycles, we are “always ON.”

So how do we support the kind of work that really requires individual concentration and focus in a hyper-connected world? How do we acknowledge that poorly timed collaboration is sometimes just interruption?

The most productive work is likely work that is done with a clear mind, and a mix of close individual attention and creative discussion with others. A few ideas to consider while trying to strike the right balance:

Take some time unplugged.  Unplugging sets a precedent for your office that there are times that you are unavailable, and therefore allows those you work with to find other resources, and solve problems independently.  Further, it allows you to take space to contemplate problems on a subconscious level, and to recharge.  All of this will lead to better collaboration and interaction when you come back on online.  Here is a great article about an introvert’s method to ideation, which deliberately incorporates overnight idea marination –offline!- into the problem-solving approach: 5 Steps to Developing an Introvert’s Superpower.

Use tools to gently alert coworkers to your status when you are working on something that requires individual concentration.  Set your status to “Busy” on instant message, consider a nicely worded sign on your cube (or back), and close your office door.  Even using headphones can be a subtle signal that you are in the middle of something.

If you can, choose an office environment that allows some working from home.  Being in a different physical location can prevent the pop-in interruptions and can allow you to choose a work environment with the optimal amount of ambient noise, and reduced distraction. Freakonomics’ Stephen Dubner gives a nice interview here about the benefits of working from home: Can working from home increase productivity?

Consider tools that allow collaboration asynchronously, so members of a group can add to the discussion at times that work best for them. Tools that capture users’ comments (and alert watchers as these comments are added) keep the team on the same page while allowing individuals the freedom to think the problem through fully on their own.  (Shameless plug: Arena Scribe is one of those tools.)

Determine the times of day which are optimal for you for deep concentration, and set aside time to work on projects that require this kind of thinking.  Research has been done on when most people are optimally effective (or ineffective) doing particular tasks (see a recap in one such article here: The best (and worst) times to do things at work but take the time to determine what works for you.

I push hard to have students and coworkers craft solutions and solve problems by working together from many perspectives, but at the end of the day, it takes a balance.  I do think that there is such a thing as too much collaboration.  Sometimes, the only way to get to the core of a tough problem is to wrestle with it on your own a bit.  Setting a culture in your office that values individual focus in addition to group input is critical for optimal performance.

That said, I still don’t recommend the “Buzz Off” sign.