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What “Work” Looks Like

Collaboration is amazing! There’s absolutely no trade-offs, right?

The mantra of sharing your work and involving everyone in decisions naturally leads to inviting and copying people into things that add no value to them, or you.

That’s from “The Case Against Collaboration”, an interesting piece about how collaboration can be a very fine line to walk (especially in a business setting).

Work at MIT found that brainstorming—where a bunch of people put their heads together to try to come up with innovative solutions—generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones.”

I think Business with a capital B loves “collaboration” because of the seeming evidence of the feat: the potential for innovation is visible, even palpable when people are in a room — “I can see people meeting and talking and there are sticky notes all over the wall!”.

But don’t equate seeing collaboration with the outcomes of meaningful, collaborative work. “Inclusivity has its limits.”

Despite overwhelming evidence [that collaborative brainstorming] is a waste of time it continues to be used because it feels intuitively right to do so.

The funny thing is, sitting alone thinking doesn’t “look” like work. Even more so if it’s away from your computer. However, my own process for brainstorming and ideating often looks like this:

  1. Load my brain with all the context of a problem.
  2. Step away from the computer and go live — do the dishes, go for a run, vacuum the carpet.
  3. Once potential solutions distill in my mind, go back to my desk and write them down or sketch them out.
  4. Prepare a presentation, demo, or prototype to convey my idea to others and gather their feedback.
  5. Rinse & repeat.

I recently had a conversation with a long-time colleague, someone I know and respect. I found it interesting that even he, who has worked in software since the 90’s, still felt odd when he wasn’t at his computer “working”. After decades of experience, he knew and understood that the most meaningful conceptual progress he made on problems was always away from his computer: on a run, in the shower, laying in bed at night. That’s where the insight came. And yet, even after all these years, he still felt a strange obligation to be at his computer because that’s too often our the mental image of “working”.