The Collaboration Heuristic

I recently have been listing to On Second Thought: Outsmarting your minds Hard-wired habits by Wray Herbert where he talks a lot about why we tend to do things out of habit (and perhaps how to change those habits). I highly recommend the book as it has given me great insight into why people do what they do. I wanted to perhaps apply some of that to social media, social business and Enterprise 2.0. As I mentioned in my earlier post Information Overload is an excuse, it’s not really about the information, it’s about our attention and the actions we take to manage it. I want to introduce a new heuristic called: The Collaboration Heuristic.

Why heuristics?

Collaboration requires many decisions to be made. It is a high cost transaction (in terms of brain power). What do I want to collaborate about? Who do I want to collaborate with? What am I hoping to get out of a collaboration? How should we collaborate? Just to name a few. As we look a little more closely we can probably prioritize the list.

How (When & Where)?

Our brains tend to want to process these questions as quickly as possible and look for shortcuts (heuristics) to help us do that. We generally get very focused on the What  and want spend much less time on the rest. Do you really think about the who when you tweet a question? In some cases, this gives us the answer we need quickly and enables us to move on. Other times, our question goes unanswered and we get discouraged.

If your collaboration requires you to know who you are collaborating with, the decisions we need to make get much more complicated. It would do us very little good to tweet our question if we know the person we want to collaborate with isn’t on twitter. As a result, our heuristic usually tends to lead us back to e-mail. Our brains do all this processing almost automatically out of habit. Because of this complexity, it perhaps gives insight into why people don’t necessarily want to collaborate.

When we talk about habits, and apply that to collaboration, one thing quickly becomes clear. My habits and your habits may not be the same, in fact, there’s a very good chance they’re not. I may prefer to use Twitter or Google+ to share, and you may prefer e-mail, IM or some other platform. To effectively collaborate we should have a common set of rules or preferences which allows us to make collaborating as simple as picking up the phone (which has even become more complicated in recent years).

What is clear is the collaboration space has gotten much more complicated with new ways being introduced almost every day. There are often times 150 or more right answers. Our brains on the other hand want one right answer.

How cool would it be if we simply identified the people we want to collaborate with and perhaps a couple of other pieces of data and as a result  the appropriate how was identified? Today we are not there. We will need to continue to think through collaboration and deal with the intricacies it presents. By taking a little time to focus on answering all the questions before you begin collaborating, you will achieve better results.

What do you think? Did I get it right, or am I totally off base? I’m interested in continuing this discussion. Your feedback and comments are a vital component to keep it going.

6 thoughts on “The Collaboration Heuristic

  1. To join the debate I just extracted your quote “There are often times 150 or more right answers. Our brains on the other hand want one right answer” maybe the response is within one of your former blog post about management … at the end we will ask Mangers to resolve that for our brains as it is their native role in Enteprise. In business, collaboration means (for managers) also actions or decisions so unfortunate, pragmatism wins against heuristic (not always thankfully!)

  2. You make some very interesting points. I really agree with your point that it would be cool, “if we simply identified the people we want to collaborate with and perhaps a couple of other pieces of data and as a result the appropriate how was identified?” I also agree that we are not there today as you note. In large organizations it is often hard enough for members of teams to agree on who is even a member.

  3. IMHO, the collaboration is always going to be either one of these:
    (a) in an open space (using social media tools like twitter, sourceforge)
    (b) in a closed group of coworkers (using e2.0 tools like Basecamp or Communication Tracker)

    Once you choose (a) or (b), the ‘Who’ question gets answered automatically. Then, depending on ‘Who’ it is, ‘What’ and then ‘How’ would get crystallized. Does this make sense?

    1. I believe there are other considerations when you are deciding “who” and is much more complicated than “a” or “b”. For example some companies believe internal competition is the way to get the best end product, resulting in teams wanting to collaborate among themselves. If you look at all the hullabaloo around Google+ circles, you realize just how many permutations there are when you involve a group of contacts, a company or the internet and how that changes depending on the ‘what’.

  4. Interesting that this post comes a few days after we discovered Google+ which brings a new answer to the Who, and increase (improve? makes more confusing?) the proximity of business and personal, private and public…

    This post is helpful because it explains clearely why it’s complex, and why there’s not one answer!

  5. Good points Greg.

    The word “collaboration” has replaced “social business” and “enterprise 2.0” for folks looking for more grounded, relatable terms. But “collaboration” seems to not be very well understood.

    “Collaboration” means “working together.” That can be tough, and people who don’t do it well offline may not do it well online either. Good collaboration usually requires clear shared expectations and processes, which many teams have trouble building on their own.

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