What if collaboration hurts productivity?

Collaboration Slows Down Productivity

If you had to make a list of every business buzzword that a top dog/senior executive says in a meeting/presentation, I doubt you’d get very far down the list without hearing “collaboration.” People love to talk about collaboration. It seems like, you know, maybe … it will solve all ills! After all, two heads on a problem (a deliverable) has to be better than one, right? The dirty little secret of all this, of course, is that no one really wants to collaborate. (As I’ve gotten older, I’ve thought more and more that maybe the reasoning there is that individuals get promoted, but teams don’t … so why not focus on your personal deliverables? That’s going to get you further.)

But what if there’s another dirty little secret? What if collaboration, which every manager is preaching, actually is bad for productivity? Well, it probably is.

Here’s research from Northwestern and the Kellogg School:

During a recent trip to his physician, Jan Van Mieghem started thinking about the interplay between his doctor and nurse. Sometimes each professional had to execute a task on Van Mieghem’s case alone—the nurse administering a test, for example—and sometimes they had to work together on a task—the nurse and doctor doing his initial intake together. He wondered what their system’s maximum efficiency was. In other words, how many patients could they see a day?

This question led to a theoretical research paper by Van Mieghem and Itai Gurvich, both professors of managerial economics and decision sciences at the Kellogg School. In it, they show that when skilled workers are engaged in simultaneous collaboration—when they are all needed to execute a single task—the throughput of the entire system can suffer. This need to synchronize while coordinating can lead to a productivity loss, and workflow can slow down even further than would be predicted by the usual bottlenecks in the system.

The hospital is a very specific place for this type of research — talk about a mix of highly-skilled workers — so it might be hard to extrapolate the results more broadly, etc. (That’s true of virtually all academia, and in this case, it’s even called “a theoretical research paper.”)

But think about this: here, collaboration is slowing down productivity. So something we want — or are being told we want and need — is actually bad for stuff getting done.

If you don’t work in a hospital, the major way you see this is probably meetings. Meetings are an absolute scourge. People keep calling ’em because, heck, that’s the way we do things! But typically in situations where collaboration is needed, you need to have meetings — because people are probably from/working on different teams, so you gotta get ’em together. Meetings definitely slow down the rate of productivity, so it makes sense that “collaboration” (and thus more meetings) is leading to a decline in productivity.

Here’s the end of the Northwestern article, which contains a point that summarizes everything fairly nicely:

“It’s not that any of these physicians are just sitting back and being on Facebook or reading the newspaper. They’re continuously busy,” he says. “But being busy may increase interruptions. At the end of the day, being busy may not equal being productive.”


Busy isn’t the same thing as productive.

Here’s why (IMHO) people confuse those too: it’s pretty hard to be “productive,” per se. That would involve, well, first of all it would involve you knowing what the actual priorities of your organization and job are. That’s not true for a lot of people. But it would also involve having some idea of purpose or connection back to the work away from just a paycheck. (Again, not true for a ton of people.) So “being productive” is hard…

… but “being busy” is comparatively easy, and it makes us feel good!

So in addition to this idea of “Two heads gotta be better than one!,” maybe we secretly don’t mind collaboration because it allows us to be busy without necessarily having to be productive (“I would help, but I gotta get on this new project with Lars! Teamwork, baby!”).

Interesting human psychology to consider, but again … everything about business and work is essentially just human psychology played out on a broader scale.

Ted Bauer


  1. Wow, another very interesting post, Ted. There are so many layers to this. First, the idea that being productive is hard stems (I think) from lack of direction (besides, of course, outright laziness). This is directly related to the anathema that is the meeting-centric business world. We meet and meet, and sometimes someone even comes up with “action items,” but lots of times people still don’t know exactly what their expectations are after meeting about something.

    Second…whenever collaboration is mentioned in a business setting, I’m reminded about the advent of “open offices,” which propagates the argument that office settings with no or very few doors/walls encourages collaboration. This, of course, is the exact opposite of reality, which is not only common sense but backed by scientific research. Open office plans actually discourage collaboration and productivity because they increase distractions and cause even more-than-typical “siloing” — people want their privacy and they want to be treated as professional adults.

    The real reason company executives just love the idea of open office plans is because it’s a cost-savings measure. Fewer walls, doors, and glass equals less money to dole out for maintenance, heating/cooling, etc. Yes, collaboration has become a maligned buzzword that allows group-think, the 80-20 rule, and busywork to metastasize and lower efficiency, productivity, and morale for many companies.

    • You’re right that the whole idea of “open office” is really cost-saving and less about “team functions.”

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