Is collaboration destroying your success?

My struggle to focus on doing work instead of working at nothing.

A few weeks ago I wrote about the end of a startup where I was employed. Being a remote employee for three years taught me a great deal about myself, both good and bad, but one lesson wasn’t so obvious until now. I’m finally starting to understand the power of focus.

Now, depending on my next adventure, that focus is in serious danger of being ripped away from my control.

I’ve been speaking with lots of different organizations but the common thread seems to be the term collaboration. To me there’s an odd focus on that idea. Some will say, “remote doesn’t work for our company. People need to be onsite for collaboration.” Others proudly show their open workspace as a place for collaboration. Still others elaborate on their “collaborative process”. These enlightened groups are right to extol the virtues of collaboration. Over the years its reduced silos, helped teams solve difficult problems and arguably improved business culture. But I wonder, can too much of a good thing actually be bad?

There’s recently been plenty of commentary around group chat. Slack has been compared to an endless meeting. Jason Fried even suggested that tools define our process and argued for intentional use of group chat. I think we can go a step further to say tools (like Slack/Hipchat/Campfire) are actually products of our infatuation with collaboration. Therefor its not the tool but our mindset causing problems.

Collaboration is code for distraction

Collaboration in and of itself isn’t really the problem. But the pendulum has swung so far toward group interaction as the foundation for culture that collaboration has become an “always on” part of business culture. Suddenly we place less value on “me” time, that block of the hours where work actually gets done, in favor of “tap me on the shoulder so I can help you solve a problem” collaboration. Look around your open floor-plan space. Go ahead, I’ll wait. How many of your teammates have on headphones, the international symbol for “leave me the hell alone”? I’ll bet there’s a few. Yet do you really think it's working? Are they no longer distracted by colleagues walking past to grab a snack? Are they impervious to your “quick question” that you’ll ask via Direct Message (instead of shouting across the room — because headphones)? Collaboration has enabled humanity to build some amazing things but it's also stealing our focus in the name of working as a team.

Schedule your collaboration

This is not a discussion of the pros/cons of being a remote employee, but looking back, location alone, provided blocks of time that allowed my attention to focus on doing work. That’s not to say being remote somehow makes one free from distractions. But it does allow group times to be intentional and time boxed. Oddly scheduled collaboration was frequently extremely productive as it contained both goals and a deadline.

If you want to be productive, try scheduling your day on a calendar. Block off decent chunks of time to focus on meaningful work. During that time close your email, quit Slack and by all means put on your headphones!

Also remember to leave time to schedule collaboration where you can come to a solution and get back to doing that other stuff you’re being paid to do.

As I grapple with returning to a traditional work environment where focus is so easily lost, I don’t want to contribute to the problem. If I’m going to guard my attention I should also help others do the same. I’ll be working hard to ensure I don’t fall back into requesting those quick chats/brainstorms/critiques/reviews/questions that are so ingrained in collaborative business. And I challenge you to be less “collaborative”. Instead focus on doing your work. You’ll be more productive and maybe, just maybe, a bit more successful too.

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