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Welcome to thinking against the grain: Both the New York Times (The Rise of the New Group Think) and the New Yorker Magazine (Group Think: Brainstoming Doesn’t Really Work) presented within a week articles challenging an understanding of collaboration as non-criticizing group work. Perhaps our beliefs about what constitutes great collaboration are off the mark?

More accurately, but surely less provocatively, these articles challenge not collaboration itself but how we approach it. The overlapping criticism of both articles revolves around the beliefs that avoiding criticism and relying on group-based interactions such as brainstorming will lead to better outcomes. And, as pretty solid research suggests, the authors have indeed a point. We concur: Our experience with teams and organizations led us to pick the quote on our home page: “The biggest predictor of company failure is complacency.” Few teams have the courageous conversations and the creative conflict that would make them great. But is it really one way to collaborate over another? Let’s look at the shades of grey:

  • False: Teams should avoid conflict.
  • True: Teams should avoid the wrong kind of conflict such as emotionally loaded (“affective”) conflict over personality or procedural conflict over routine tasks. They should, however, have the right conflict. That is, engage in exploring multiple perspectives, in playing with possibility, in daring to be over the top, and in pointing to what needs improvement.
  • False: Team members should criticize each other more.
  • True: This statement needs qualification. A structured debate can yield better results, as research clearly suggests. But you want to have a debate that opens up joint problem-solving rather than shuts down individuals! Ideas have been around for a while. A favorite is “dialogue vs. debate“.
  • False: Brainstorming doesn’t work.
  • True: Poorly done brainstorming doesn’t work.
    Both articles criticize brainstorming for its tenet of “not criticizing ideas”. I rarely see proper brainstorming happen and believe that brainstorming’s bad reputation results from it being performed poorly. Here is a primer of how to do proper brainstorming
  • False: Working in a group is advantageous over working individually.
  • True: You will need both to succeed. And true: Too few of us have quality “alone time” to do some serious creative thinking that springs from immersing yourself deeply and without interruption. Group time cannot be a substitute for this. Any research on cognitive diversity and problem-solving preferences shows that people’s preferences represent different polarities. Think MBTI – introverts and extraverts prefer different work environments. We approach problem-solving cycles differently. We need opportunities to do our individual reasoning – but then build on each other’s ideas for the highest possible group intelligence.

True collaboration cannot be mandated. It’s a decision people make – and they make it when it’s safe to share ideas and when risk, ambition and failure are collectively carried by the group. Those qualities, certainly not by accident, are at the core of how Pixar fosters collective creativity. Pixar university’s crest reads  in Latin “Alienus Non Dieutius.” Translation: Alone no Longer.


If you wish to participate in our team effectiveness study on the collaborative capacity of teams, you can do so here for free.

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