Is Too Much Collaboration a Bad Thing?
Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Why We Collaborate.
About Jason Fried's TEDTalk
Software entrepreneur Jason Fried has a radical theory of working: that the office isn't a good place to do it. In his talk, he lays out the main problems and offers suggestions to make work work.
About Jason Fried
Jason Fried thinks deeply about collaboration, productivity and the nature of work. He's the co-founder of 37signals, which builds web-based collaboration tools. Fried is the co-author of the book Rework, which examines new ways to conceptualize working and creating.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. And on today's show, ideas about the phenomenon of mass collaboration. And we've been talking mostly about online collaboration, massive projects with hundreds, even millions of people participating. But what about the kind of collaboration that goes on at work every single day?
JASON FRIED: My name is Jason Fried. I'm from 37signals here in Chicago.
RAZ: Jason's company makes software that helps people collaborate.
FRIED: Our most popular product is called BaseCamp, which is a collaboration tool that millions of people around the world use to get all sorts of different projects done online.
RAZ: And he loves collaboration. It's what he peddles, except sometimes he hates it.
FRIED: There is certainly a thing such as overcollaboration, and I believe most companies have that disease.
RAZ: And in his TED Talk, Jason asked a simple question. Why can't people seem to get work done at work?
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
FRIED: We have companies and nonprofits that have employees or volunteers of some sort and so what they typically do is they decide that all these people need to come together in one place to do that work. They build offices, and they expect their employees or their volunteers to come to that location every day to do great work. However, if you actually talk to people, if you ask people the question, where do you really need to go when you need to get something done, you'll find out that people don't say what businesses think they would say. I'll hear things like the basement, the coffee shop, the library, the train, a plane.
And then you'll hear people say, well it doesn't really matter where I am, as long as it's really early in the morning or really late at night or on the weekends. You almost never hear somebody say, the office. But businesses are spending all this money on this place called the office and they're making people go to it all the time, yet people don't do work in the office.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER; SCATTERED APPLAUSE)
FRIED: What is that about? This is what happens. It's like the front door of the office is like a Cuisinart, and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits 'cause you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there and then something else happens and you're pulled off your work and you gotta do something else. And you have 20 minutes then it's lunch. Then you have something else to do. Before you know it, it's like it's five P.M., right? I got nothing done today. I was at work, I went to these meetings, I did these conference calls, I did all the stuff, but I didn't actually do anything.
And even though the workday is typically eight hours, how many people here have ever had eight hours to themselves at the office? How about seven hours? Six? Five? Four? When was the last time you had three hours to yourself at the office? Two hours? One maybe?
If people don't have time to think and thinking time needs to be your own time, then they have a really hard time actually producing great work.
RAZ: So when you think about collaboration, you think, especially with what you do, right, in the tech world - it's like there is a room full of pizza boxes, you know, basketball hoops...
RAZ: ...Over the trash cans and unwashed young people just, like, making it happen.
FRIED: I mean that's the picture of it, but that's more of a - just a brainstorm sort of thing, which is fine and healthy and good. But the real work doesn't get done in those rooms. That's not what collaboration is all about. Real great work gets done when people leave those rooms and they get to work and they think and they have uninterrupted time.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
FRIED: So what are these interruptions that happen at the office that don't happen in other places? The real problems are what I like to call the M and Ms. The managers and the meetings. Those are the real problems in the modern office today, and this is why things don't get done at work. And managers are basically people whose job it is to interrupt people.
That's pretty much what managers are for. They're for interrupting people. They don't really do the work, so they have to make sure everyone else is doing the work, which is an interruption. But what's even worse is the thing that managers do most of all, which is call meetings. And meetings are just toxic, terrible, poisonous things during the day at work. We all know this to be true...
RAZ: Talk to me about meetings.
FRIED: Do I have to?
FRIED: I don't like them, mostly. Meetings have turned into the first resort and that's what I have a problem with. It is valuable to get people around a table face-to-face and hash things out from time to time. But in most businesses, there's an overabundance of meetings. They happens far too often and it becomes the only way to deal with any decision. So we always use them as a last resort and we're always trying to find own time to get back to each other when we're ready to get back to each other, instead of saying we're all ready at the same exact time.
RAZ: OK, Jason. Let's be honest here. Our whole show today has been about collaboration as a positive thing and we see that word, collaboration, and, you know, sort of angels and fairies are sort of floating in our brains. It's a good thing. Is it a good thing always?
FRIED: Well, collaboration is good but we shouldn't mistake it for interruption. When you think about collaboration, you think about people tapping each other on the shoulder and riffing on ideas...
FRIED: ...And bouncing back and forth. But that's...
RAZ: I'm thinking about Lennon and McCartney, you know, sitting in a room, strumming guitars, throwing back lyrics.
FRIED: Yeah, that works too. If you're that lucky to be that great and I bet those folks, way back when, they had a lot of time to themselves to just write lyrics or play guitar and that's where a lot of the ideas ultimately came from.
RAZ: See, I wonder, could you have too much collaboration that it just kills all the great ideas?
FRIED: Yes. There is certainly a point where there's too many ideas, too many thoughts. At that point, people just want to be heard and then you're not really solving these problems anymore. Then you're just sort of playing politics and that doesn't really get anything done.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
FRIED: So I have some suggestions to kind of remedy the situation. We've all heard of, like, casual Friday thing. How about no talk Thursdays? How about just one Thursday, once a month, and cut that day in half and just say the afternoon - I'll make it really easy for you - so just silence. That's it. And what you'll find is that a tremendous amount of work actually gets done when no one talks to each other.
Another thing you can try is switching from face-to-face stuff, having meetings, and replace that with e-mail and instant messaging, and then you can be interrupted when you're available. If you do have a meeting coming up, if you have the power, just cancel it. Just cancel that next meeting. Now I don't mean, like, move it. I mean just erase it from memory. It's gone. And you'll find out that everything will be just fine.
RAZ: Earlier in the show, we talked to Jimmy Wales from Wikipedia and, I mean, that's sort of held up as the ultimate example of online collaboration that created this incredible resource and yet that couldn't have happened without all these people being involved and fixing each other's mistakes and improving each other's work.
FRIED: But think about how Wikipedia came together. Very few people who contribute to Wikipedia know each other. They're not in the same physical location. They contribute to Wikipedia on their own schedule and that, I think, is one of the reasons why it's great. If you had all the Wikipedia authors together in one office...
RAZ: Oh, that would be a nightmare.
FRIED: ...Wikipedia would not be as great.
RAZ: That would not be a pleasant room.
RAZ: It'd be very unpleasant.
FRIED: And we would all suffer because Wikipedia would not be as great.
RAZ: That's Jason Fried. He's the cofounder and president of the software company 37signals. And you can see his full talk at TED.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.