There's no denying it: two minds are better than one. That's the underlying principle of collaboration, and it's why businesses spend time and money trying to facilitate it. 

Without collaboration, opportunities get missed and the quality of delivery suffers. We just can't improve what we do. 

Yet occasionally we reach a point where there is too much collaboration. And this can be as counterproductive as having no collaboration. 

Balance Collaboration and Concentration

Imagine a workplace where everyone is a proactive collaborator: always sharing what they know, looking to improve knowledge as it flows through the organization. Thinking about outcomes beyond their tasks to see what else is going on. 

All great goals, except if this is how everyone works, how does anything get done? 

Perhaps when the workforce gets home, and switches off all communication tools, they will be able to focus on the task at hand. Not really a solution, of course, not if we're promoting work-life balance.

The risk is that projects won't get finished — and we're left with a perpetually expanding miasma of intellect and knowledge, but little delivery.

And then there are those of us who aren't natural collaborators. How can we make the most of the different skills that these groups have? We have diverse workforces, and it's important to acknowledge that this is a good thing. 

There is a balance to be had. In the midst of all that healthy collaborating, we still need to create the space that allows different people to think and work in their own individual ways.

Establish a Time to Focus

Collaborative working has been the key to help me deliver projects. Whether it's problem solving, the need for additional knowledge/skills or building an effective team dynamic, this essential business tool helps me both get the job done and improves what I do.

But the demands of the typical knowledge worker requires time to 'do stuff': Write reports, analyze data, answer crucial messages and perhaps most important of all, allow for some time to think. Depending on your personality, an overly open and collaborative office environment may inhibit this. Some people can concentrate happily with noise, others need an environment free of distractions.

Ultimately, though, the point of an office is to collaborate. Why else should we drag ourselves into an uninspiring building for most of our waking hours?

An office has to get people interacting, working on problems together. If you spend most of your time in the office with headphones on, stationary at your desk, ask yourself is it really worth bothering to come in?

It's not just face-to-face interruptions, no matter how well intended, that break into our thoughts and work activities. Alert tones are constantly going off — calls, reminders, messages, you name it — insisting we break our focus to attend to them. Once, email and the occasional pop-up alert on the screen were are only distractions. Now we have smartphones and social collaboration platforms that could play Beethoven's Fifth if they chimed in the right order.

Focus time doesn't have to be in the office. In fact, the office is probably the worst place for it. Focus time can be anywhere you can concentrate: in a cafe, at home or even exercising. 

Step out from the task at hand, get out and go for a walk, take a run — this is the best time to problem solve. Tackle your writer's block, work out how to phrase that awkward email you've been putting off for weeks. Think about what's making a smooth process complicated. 

These things will come much easier when you remove yourself (and your brain) from the day-to-day.

Why We Need Different Styles of Working

Aside from individual focus time, when working in teams or on projects with multiple individuals involved, we rely upon the unique paradox of collaboration: non-collaborators on a collaborative project. 

What does that mean? 

It means we're all different and naturally suited to different ways of working. Sure, plenty of team players love and are very good at working out loud, but other personalities are also integral to delivering projects. They are not bad collaborators, they simply contribute in different ways.

For example, some people tend to think and reflect more than others —  they take their time, allow thoughts to form, then come back with something others have overlooked. Others prefer to knock over hurdles through sheer determination. Then there are workers who will simply get on with a task and can be relied upon to complete it. Some will offer creative input on our work, often challenging core assumptions. And finally, we have the analyzers, the people who comb through details in search of alternative options.

These ways of working are often undertaken alone. Away from the collaborative buzz. All are equally valuable to the overall collaborative effort.

It's this mix of people that make a project work. 

Create the Right Collaboration Mix

Trying to impose a single, uniform collaborative way of working is both impossible and counterproductive. 

We need to recognize that different people have different ways of working, which are all necessary for the workplace mix. We need the soloists meeting the creative types, the trailblazers working out a problem with an analyzer.  

We can start by recognizing that time away from the desk isn’t wasted. Even a walk to a meeting in another building isn’t a waste of time. It's an opportunity for think time.

Rather than mandate collaboration uniformly for everyone, we should focus on finding ways to incorporate collaborative activities into our working days. 

Ask your colleagues to join you in getting a coffee. Sure, it only takes one person to go and collect the coffees, but the conversation you can have while waiting for the barista to twiddle his mustache will be of far more value than emailing them when you return.

One successful tactic that flies in the face of current wisdom is to specifically set aside time for collaboration. An hour or two a day when you invite your team to come and converse with you, to ask you about specific issues, to tell you what's on their minds. 

What you're really doing is giving them permission to collaborate in their own way or simply be a solo voice at the table. At first this may seem like filling up an already full day, yet wait and see. The number of emails will inevitably drop. Things will usually get resolved in one 10 minute chat rather than through 30 emails back and forth over several days. Freeing you up to actually get on with things.

Protect the Value of Face to Face Time

Many people don’t realize the value of their knowledge. Forcing them into an open, collaborative workplace with no clear goal of why they should collaborate won’t bring out collaboration. 

If there is one stand-out take home when trying to optimize collaboration, it’s ensuring that time spent together is not wasted. Do not make meetings about status updates and corporate messages. Use the time that people are actually together in a room to have a conversation. Tackle an issue, propose a new idea. Let everyone contribute. 

It’s these conversations that will allow the different personalities in the room to benefit from collaboration. Then, if we need to, we can disappear off to our focus space.

Time together is precious. Do not waste it.

Title image "Collaborations" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by val sv