When Collaboration Kills Innovation: Five Time Bombs to Surface and Defuse


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When Collaboration Kills Innovation: Five Time Bombs to Surface and Defuse

By Marcia Reynolds, PsyD, MCC

 Your efforts to promote collaboration could be killing innovation.

Collaboration is the hot word today, which means leaders and teams are expected to know how to do this. Teams come up with better ideas than individuals working on their own. Teams can get things done more quickly. However, the “rah-rah” of teams may mask the shortfalls of teamwork.

In a brilliant article recently published in the Harvard Business Review, Nolifer Merchant brought to light Eight Dangers of Collaboration. Subtle and sometimes invisible blocks to team productivity include

  • fear of speaking up against the majority
  • subtle tribal behaviors of inclusion and exclusion
  • slow reaction times as problems are talked to death
  • team assignments create more busy work for already overworked people
  • conflict is avoided so as not to rock the boat
  • solutions get watered down
  • lack of accountability

We like to coach leaders to create positive cultures and encourage team spirit. I think it is also important for teams to answer the question, “What will stop you from succeeding?”

These time bombs can kill collaborative efforts:

  1. Handclasping — One or two strong members agree with the leader no matter what, forcing others to align with their decisions.
  2. Majority voting — The majority silences the minority without fully hearing their points of view.
  3. Collusion of rebels — A number of members resist the leader’s decisions no matter what, or they question the leader’s action enough to slow down the process to an inefficient pace, demonstrating that the team is as useless as they predicted.
  4. Near-consensus — Some members don’t have all the details but the solution sounds good enough for them to go along with the others. This could lead to groupthink and possible serious errors.
  5. Village idiot — One person’s ideas are continually ignored or killed without any consideration.

In the 1980’s, I worked for a computer company that was sold to a group of four Harvard MBA graduates. The company was having difficulties shifting to the new smart computer technologies. The new owners thought they would fix our problems by creating cross-functional teams to make decisions. In a culture where departments didn’t get along and there was no corporate training, this grand experiment failed due to the collusion of rebels. The company went bankrupt a few years later.

My next job was to help take a floundering semiconductor company out of near-bankruptcy. We reorganized into cross-functional teams based on business units. Based on lessons I learned from the Harvard leadership team, I created a team training program that taught both the light and dark sides of collaboration. This allowed the team to surface and resolve resistance, poor decision-making, and unproductive practices. The team training was recognized as one of the key contributions when the company went public and became the top-performing IPO in the United States in 1993.

Coaching Tip:

To make collaboration work, make sure your teams are trained on how to do it and what to watch out for. Go into any partnership or team with your eyes wide open. All participants should have the “language of dangers” and feel safe enough to point out the possibility of these hazards occurring.

Highly productive teams know where they are vulnerable, so they can bring problems to light and commit to moving on to create a more open, respectful, and enjoyable experience.

About the Author:

Marcia ReynoldsMarcia Reynolds, PsyD, works with clients worldwide focusing on emotional intelligence and change. She is a Master Certified Coach and a past president of the International Coach Federation. Her website is www.outsmartyourbrain.com.

Contact her at 602-954-9030, Marcia@outsmartyourbrain.com