You’re Not Good at Everything — Three Keys to Collaborative Success

Collaboration is so far past being a buzzword that it’s almost become kitschy. Nearly every booth at this past summer’s InfoComm show figured out a way to entwine the word collaboration in their messaging somewhere. But collaboration is truly important. It’s at the core of how the workplace is changing to accommodate modern work styles. Collaboration can leverage everyone’s expertise in open forums, transforms serialized presentation meetings (e.g., PowerPoint) into parallelized problem-solving sessions and encourages employee engagement. Selfishly, embracing collaboration can invigorate your own career: By being aware of its personal value, you’ll become the hippest (and most productive) member of your organization. Here are three examples of how:

1. Collaboration Covers Blind Spots

We are all products of our own cognitive framework, and an interesting part of that framework is cognitive bias.  These are deep-seated artifacts of our psychology that are difficult to be aware of and nearly impossible to overcome completely. For a very cool infographic on cognitive bias, look here. An important cognitive bias that can cause your career to stumble is your illusory opinion of your own highly-valuable intelligence. This bias causes you to self-assess your own capabilities consistently higher than they may be, particularly for skills that are just outside of your area of expertise (I’m a computer vision researcher but I’m SURE that I’m well skilled in AI). This is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect and causes friction at work, can cause individuals to take on too much work, and lead to inefficiencies.  There have been some great studies that outline the impact on the workplace and it’s not pretty. So, how do you overcome this? You embrace collaboration among your peers. Create small teams on projects – teams of people that acknowledge there are cognitive biases they (and you) can’t overcome alone. The great thing about the Dunning-Kruger effect in a group is that individual biases will not be correlated and by listening to others, coming up with solutions/approaches that everyone can buy-into, you’ve cancelled out the underlying biases of each individual. This means better solutions, more efficient solutions and it’s much more fun.

2. Team Sourced Solutions Improve Accuracy

When I used to teach an introduction to AI course, I’d bring in the classic three-volume ‘Handbook of Artificial Intelligence’ by Cohen and Feigenbaum, drop it on the desk and ask everyone to write down what they think the weight of the books might be. Outside of intimidating the class with a weighty display of textbooks, the point of the exercise was to demonstrate the ‘wisdom of the crowd.’ Inevitably, the median estimated weight of the books was accurate to within a few percentage points. Taken individually however, guesses could be wildly off. This is a well-known phenomenon and plays a role in everything from crowd-sourcing technologies, herding behaviors in animals and optimization systems (remind me to blog about particle filters sometime!). Use this principle next time you’re meeting with your team. Poll the group, write down ideas and take a look at the mean/median that the group coverages towards. This can lead to accurate solutions, and at the very least provides you with an interesting data point as part of the discussion. Your colleagues will feel engaged as part of the exercise as well. What better way to build consensus than to poll the group and discuss the result?

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3. Template Your Collaboration

Collaboration is a broad concept. Narrow your collaboration efforts to match your specific goals. Go into your next group meeting, whether it’s a 10-minute stand-up or a two-hour brainstorm, with a specific template in mind. What I mean by template is the general framework for the collaboration itself — including agenda/storyboard and the tools you’ll need to accomplish the meeting. Will you be building an ‘innovation matrix’ to explore potential product directions? Will the meeting leave behind an ‘idea board’ of sticky notes? Will the meeting include a presentation oriented segment at the outset? If so, think through how you can get your team to transition from being observers to collaborators when the presentation is done. I highly recommend further reading on collaborative tools and templating. Perhaps start with ‘Design a Better Business’ – it’s a great book to help frame collaboration into something tangible and beneficial to you specifically.

This column was reprinted with permission of Mersive and originally appeared here.