Michael Schrage is a Research Fellow at the MIT Sloan School’s Center for Digital Business. He is the author of several critically acclaimed books, including No More Teams!: Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration. The major theme of his book is that collaboration requires shared space, that collaborative thinking requires a space—be it a napkin, flip chart, whiteboard, or some other medium—where the collaborators are able to share their thoughts.
Schrage uses several examples to illustrate this theme, all of which have the flavor of the following anecdote. Imagine two advertising executives at lunch discussing how to structure an upcoming presentation to a client. Before long, there is too much to remember, so one snatches a napkin and jots down some key points. The other takes hold of the napkin and adds his thoughts. They debate and modify the ideas a bit more, then return to the office, where the napkin’s contents are transferred to a whiteboard. Ideas are added, elaborated, and organized. The whiteboard quickly fills to capacity, so the conversation spills over onto a flipchart. More points are written and sketches are drawn. By mid-afternoon, the walls are decorated with flipchart pages. The two executives step back to view their work, conclude that they are finished, and hand the pages to an assistant for transcription.
There are several ways to describe what went on here. The first is to say that the executives engaged in collaboration. Some may call it teamwork, but Schrage argues that there is a critical difference between the two types of group work. The difference has to do with what is known about the desired end product. Teams know what they are trying to produce and how to produce it. For example, a football team knows that their end product is a “won game” and they know what they have to do to win it. Likewise, a work team in an automobile factory knows what sort of car they’re supposed to produce and how to go about producing it. Collaborators, in contrast, work to create or understand something they don’t know. The two advertising executives didn’t know the “what and how” of their client presentation in advance of creating it. Similarly, a group of managers doesn’t know “what’s going on” when they confront a novel situation, and a laboratory full of scientists doesn’t know “what causes what and why” when they set out to study some phenomenon. In short, whereas teams work to reproduce old knowledge, people collaborate to create new knowledge.
Why do people collaborate to create new knowledge? They collaborate because none of them, individually, possesses enough knowledge to do it alone. They collaborate when products and solutions are so complex that they require multiple minds to conceive of them and when situations and phenomena are so complicated that they require a group of people to understand them. It’s as if each of the collaborators possesses a piece of the puzzle—a critical skill, fact, inference, or observation. The collaborative enterprise is about fitting the puzzle pieces together to create some new object or understanding. As Schrage explains, “. . . collaboration is the process of shared creation—two or more individuals with complementary skills interacting to create a shared understanding that none had previously possessed or could have come to on their own.” [Italics mine.]
The second way to describe what went on in the advertising anecdote has to do with shared space. The executives employed the napkin, whiteboard, and flipchart pages as spaces to share their thoughts. Schrage argues that creative collaboration takes more than conversation. In his view, the key to successful collaboration is the creation and management of shared space . . . a space for creating shared understandings . . . a space where ideas can be contributed, combined, recombined, and extended to arrive at new knowledge—knowledge that no one previously possessed or could have created alone.
Here, again, we want to ask, “Why? Why does collaboration require shared space?” Part of the answer is provided by Andy Clark, a philosophy professor at Edinburgh University, whose research interests include the cognitive role of human-built structures. As detailed in the blog article titled Where is Thinking?, Clark proposes that our minds are so weak that we have to rely on technologies to think through. He uses the example of multiplying two numbers. Most of us can easily multiply 7 x 2 in our head, but when it comes to multiplying two large numbers, like 72,431 x 36,287, we use a calculator or pen-and-paper technology to compute the answer. When this happens, Clark explains, the mind and the technology function as a “unified cognitive system” in which the pathway of thought “loops” through the technology. Similarly, word processing, or pen-and-paper, technology boosts our intelligence by enabling us to keep track of a long chain of reasoning, which is something we would be unable to do without the technology—imagine trying to write an article like this one entirely in your head. What holds for individual minds, holds doubly (or more) where collaborators are at work. A shared space, such as a flipchart or whiteboard, is required to record and track the collaborators’ chain of reasoning, or train of thought.
Schrage provides another part of the answer to the question, “Why does collaboration require shared space?” Before I elaborate on this, consider another anecdote. Imagine a meeting of a dozen people in a boardroom, seated around a boardroom table. The group’s meeting method is what I like to call the BOPSAT—Bunch Of People Sitting Around Talking. More precisely, people take turns talking. As Schrage describes it, “When someone talks, he is the focus of discussion. People look at him. People react to what he says and how he looks. . . .The meeting is a carousel of egos, each grasping for the brass ring of attention. The group does nothing.” He goes on to explain that the group does nothing because, “Everything about the design of the meeting encourages individuals to make their points, not the group to create a shared understanding. . . . There’s nothing in the ecology of meetings that encourages collaborative creativity, problem-solving, or decision making.”
What’s missing from the ecology of a BOPSAT meeting is shared space. Have you ever noticed how the character of a meeting changes when someone gets up and starts recording ideas on a whiteboard or flipchart? Everyone turns to face the shared space. People contribute their ideas to it. The combination of ideas begins to take shape. Perhaps as an outline or hierarchical diagram in which the ideas are categorized and sub-categorized. Or possibly as a wheel in which the spokes (ideas) center on some topic. Or maybe the ideas are chained together to map a causal pathway, like X causes Y causes Z. Whatever the case, the focus of attention is on the collective thought of the group rather than the individuals who contribute to it. As Schrage explains, “The key is to create an environment that shifts attention away from the individual participant and toward community expression. The key element, the key ingredient, the key medium for successful and effective collaboration is the creation and maintenance of shared space. You cannot create shared understandings without shared space.”
So what’s the lesson in all of this? The lesson is simply this. Collaboration is required when you want to create a complex product, understand a complicated situation, or otherwise produce new knowledge, and the key to successful collaboration is the creation and maintenance of shared space. If you want to produce something new and valuable, find yourself some collaborators, buy a flipchart, and BOPSAT no more. In Schrage’s words, “If there is a core theme to this book, it’s that people must understand that real value in the sciences, arts, commerce, and indeed, one’s own personal and professional lives, comes largely from the process of collaboration. What’s more, the quality and quantity of meaningful collaboration often depends upon the tools used to create it.”
I’ll have much more to say about the “tools used to create it” in future blog articles. For the moment, however, ponder this: What if the flip chart could compute?