collaboration illustration
Matt Batten
This is a post by Matt Batten

Collaboration became a business buzzword sometime around 2008, snuck into the adland lexicon around 2010 and was adopted by agency and holding company CEOs as a primary agent for transformational change around 2012. These days, it’s a commonplace methodology, the word itself having lost its buzziness and become standard business.

But, it’s mostly bullshit.

Literally, it means "co-labour" or "work together”. Which sounds just peachy.

The Oxford English Dictionary (the first and therefore most wordy of word books) defines collaboration as:

1. the action of working with someone to produce something

2. traitorous cooperation with an enemy

While businesses – ad agencies in the context of this article – are hoping for the former, the second definition is far more appropriate.

Ideally, collaboration is the joining of supplementary and complementary resources in order to achieve an outcome that neither party could have achieved alone.

Still sounds peachy, right?

Problem is, the peach is rotten. Just ask Bruce Murrie.

Who dat? Exactly. You’ve all enjoyed hundreds of the delicious little product that would never have existed without him, even sucked his very initial off to get to the goodness inside, literally.

This is the story of m&m’s.

Ever wondered why there’s an apostrophe of possession in the brand name? Probably not, but I’ll tell you anyway.

In the 1930s, there was only one chocolate empire – Hershey’s. Founder Milton S was an entrepreneur and a much beloved boss. As he aged, his trusted friend and company president William F Murrie took the reigns. Murrie’s own son Bruce also had a job at the Hershey’s company, but was often overlooked by dear-old dad and struggled to get recognition.

Meanwhile, the Mars Confectionery Company was much smaller and a sometime customer of the Hershey’s company, buying their chocolate. Founder Frank C Mars, had a son of his own – Forrest. Their relationship was even more strained than the Murrie boys’. Even though Forrest was the brain behind the Milky Way and the original Mars bar, Frank disowned Forrest.

So the stage is set – two sons of the chocolate world, both with fractious fraternal relationships and each with a point to prove.

Shortly before WWII, Forrest had an idea for an amazing new product of his own. But he predicted the oncoming war would create a chocolate shortage as sugar was rationed. He was right, and the larger Hershey’s got the government contract to supply chocolate to the US Army, giving them access to all the sugar they wanted. #whitegold

Forrest took a train ride across two states to meet with Hershey’s president William F Murrie. The old man was too busy (and important) to meet the son of a competitor, so the disgruntled Bruce had a little chat with Forrest who revealed a handful of chocolate beads coated in hard candy. Bruce loved them. And was amazed that they’d traveled in Forrest’s pocket on the train ride, without melting in his hand.

Carpe diem, Forrest. A collaborative opportunity!

Forrest had an idea, but no chocolate. Bruce had chocolate, but no idea. Both want to be better than their daddies.

Forrest cemented the deal by saying they’d name the little beads after the two of them: Mars and Murrie. Or maybe it was Murrie and Mars. For short: m&m’s.

Great story of collaboration, right? No. Forrest got his chocolate and started production. Bruce got a new job and 20%. Forrest’s father died and he took over from the old man. The war ended. Chocolate was available again. Forrest moved primary production of m&m’s to his own plant then Forrest pushed Bruce out of the company. Bruce was persona non grata back at Hershey’s for getting in bed with the enemy and was never heard from again.

Today, Mars is still a family-owned company with a revenue of $35 billion, compared to Hershey’s revenue of $7 billion.

I love that story. For lots of reasons. Drama. Intrigue. Betrayal. Chocolate.

And a great example of the lies of collaboration.

Lie No. 1 – Personal Gain

What’s in it for me? As an individual and as a business. A collaborative approach begins when one party admits they do not have a skill or resource required to achieve the objective. As the initiator, they have set the goal they wish to achieve. Which puts them at a disadvantage when recruiting collaborators, because every business must look out for its own best interests. The goal must be mutually beneficial. But even then, each party has its own desired outcome.

This is even more prevalent among individuals, especially when they are employees tasked with collaboration. Businesses have long established a culture of individual recognition and reward by setting job descriptions, performance reviews, remuneration, KPIs, promotions, salary reviews and bonuses. All these aspects of employment are based on the individual taking personal responsibility to work hard and do well. Everyone is operating in a system that makes them look out for themselves. They need to outperform others. Even those they have been forced to collaborate with.

Lie No. 2 – Protection of IP

Now that we’ve established a framework of individual performance, staff will protect their own IP to prove their value to the business, even if that means getting a leg up over others. In a collaborative scenario, this means individuals will withhold knowledge or ideas from others to prevent the glory being shared or the idea being morphed into someone else’s.

Lie No. 3 – Tyranny of Distance

Collaboration is often adopted when resources are geographically distant. Unfortunately, the further apart two parties are, the less real-time interaction occurs, resulting in flawed communication from a reliance on digital conversation.

In a face-to-face conversation, people talk, listen, interject, over-rule, capitulate, use intonation, facial expressions, gestures, and body language. They start a sentence, then shift their thoughts midway, but building off the words that are already out there. They correct themselves, publicly.

In digital communications, one person writes then another responds, each carefully structuring their comments, sometimes deleting thoughts before making them public, and sometimes making them public but unable to adequately retract.

In 1971, Dr Albert Mehrabian (now Professor Emeritus of Psychology, UCLA) published his now famous research findings on verbal and non-verbal communication that showed 7% of communication was verbal (the actual words), 38% was vocal (the intonation), and 55% facial (gestures and expressions). While the interplay between these figures is more complex than that and they have often been misinterpreted over the past 47 years, it basically means communication requires much more than can be adequately expressed via email or Slack.

People simply can’t express themselves over distance, resulting in the collaborators disputing or working independently rather than together.

Lie No. 4 – Shallow Work

‘Deep work’ is activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. It requires intense concentration to master a difficult discipline, solve a demanding problem or succeed in activities of cognitive worth. To effect deep work, one must avoid distraction.

At the neurological level, learning requires repeatedly isolating circuits. Distracted attention fires too many different circuits. Constant stimulus/distraction causes long-term changes in the brain that prohibit the ability to focus deeply. A study at the University of London found that participants who multitasked during cognitive tasks experienced IQ score declines that were similar to what they'd expect if they had smoked marijuana or stayed up all night. Researchers at the University of Sussex in the UK compared the amount of time people spend on multiple devices (such as texting while watching TV) to MRI scans of their brains. They found that high multitaskers had less brain density in the anterior cingulate cortex, a region responsible for empathy as well as cognitive and emotional control. And creativity.

Author Jonathan Franzen unplugs from the internet when writing. Legendary physicist Richard Feynman practiced “active irresponsibility” to avoid participation in academic meetings so he could focus on his primary goal: deep work.

The irony is that collaboration seeks to achieve the same result as deep work, but by its very nature makes it near impossible to do so. Collaborative processes usually require digital communications, quick catch-ups (or stand-ups), validation of quick-thinking sessions, and constant input from the other collaborators. A lot of distractions, rather than locking oneself in a room and just getting on with it alone.

Basically, the all-in, rapid fire, multi-interaction approach of collaborative processes makes us more dumberer.

Lie No. 5 – Measurement of Success

Collaborative behaviours are easier to measure than deep work behaviours. On the surface, the number of meetings, attendees, emails, Slack posts, and brainstorm sessions gives the impression of a collaborative culture, not necessarily success toward the objective. By comparison, it can take a long time to determine if someone in deep work is producing a breakthrough. Collaborative cultures are often more focused on measuring the process rather than the result.

Lie No. 6 – The Cost

Unless your collaboration method is to lock a team of people in a room without any technology until the objective is achieved, only occasionally opening the door to throw in boxes of pizza, you’re probably wasting a lot of time and money. Collaborative processes usually involve a lot of digital chatter and micro-meetings.

Rob Cross and Peter Gray of the University of Virginia estimate that knowledge workers spend 75-80% of their time attending meetings, managing various digital communications, or dealing with continuous interruptive requests for small-scale input. Many employees are spending so much time interacting that they end up having to do much of their work at home in the evenings. Tom Cochran, former CTO of Atlantic Media, calculated that a mid-sized company spends more than $1m per year on processing emails. “A free and frictionless method of communications” he said, is equal to “procuring a small company Learjet.”

Collaborative communication is expensive.

The Truth

While collaboration is a valuable methodology – and is really just teamwork in a shiny new suit – businesses, especially creative ones like ad agencies, must shift the way in which they expect people to collaborate.

If you must collaborate, then make sure you have the right people on the team. They have to bring different skills and, more importantly, different skill-gaps that need to be filled – the chocolate they don’t have. If the collaboration is between separate businesses, then there must be a meeting of the minds. Both must be able to equally benefit from the endeavor. Ideally, the idea was co-conceived.

Rewarding collaborators on a project must be for the team and the result, not the individuals, nor the process. But make sure you avoid situations where a few in the team aren’t working as diligently as the others, otherwise you end up with disgruntled hard-workers when everyone is rewarded equally. If someone isn’t carrying their load, take it off them.

Allow for non-collaborative processes that give people with specialist skills the time to shut themselves away from the rest of the open-plan office and do what they do best. This allows each person to excel in their field, show their true worth, make them feel valued and trusted, and provide the business with the very knowledge they were hired to provide in the first place.

Recognise that time is finite and maximise the availability of it to tap into the primary skillset of each employee. Set tasks for your people and let them get on with it. Every meeting or email discussion leaves less time for them to provide what your business really needs – skills billable by the hour. Oh, and success.