Collaboration is the act of working together. The ability to collaborate with others is one of the most important skills a person can possess. No matter how inventive, creative, or productive you might be, as one person alone, you can achieve only so much.
The skills of collaboration are not unique to humans. Think about a pack of wolves hunting a moose, a colony of beavers building and maintaining a dam, or a group of humpback whales trapping fish in an amazing, innovative bubble net. Collaboration is present almost everywhere in our lives, both past and present, as well as in the world around us. Our natural tendency to work with others is so great that we have developed methods of mass collaboration, aided by technology, that enable us to harness the combined forces of multiple minds distributed across the planet. Projects such as the online encyclopedia Wikipedia are sustained by contributions from people across the globe. Open source software, powering most of the Internet servers across the planet and becoming ever more widely used, is built and maintained in much the same way.
A very simplistic theory of collaboration would conclude that if a team of one person can perform one unit of work within a set period, increasing the size of the team would, theoretically, produce proportionally more work in the same amount of time. In other words, ten people could produce ten units of work. In reality, collaboration involves overhead that results in less work being produced than might be expected. For example, ten people might be able to produce the equivalent of only eight units of work in the time that one person could produce one unit of work. Collaborative overhead increases as the size of a team increases, and at some stage, the law of diminishing returns leads one to conclude that it doesn’t make sense to add any more people to a problem.
One example of overhead is friction, a force that can impede progress. The most obvious concept of friction comes from the laws of physics. As a ball rolls along a flat and level surface, friction causes it to slow down and eventually stop. As a ship moves through water or an aircraft flies through the air, the friction of water or air resistance slows it down. Even a body moving through outer space is subject to small frictional forces.
There are many analogous forms of friction in other domains. In business, when potential purchasers must make decisions between purchasing one product or service over others, friction is anything that slows the ability of the buyer to make a purchasing decision:
- In low-friction markets, such as those that are highly commoditized, buyers can make purchasing decisions with ease. For example, purchasers of gasoline know that stations are everywhere and that each company’s fuel is more or less the same. Prices are clearly advertised, and no hidden fees or other hooks are associated with a purchase.
- In high-friction markets, buyers must spend a lot of time researching and comparing offerings in order to arrive at a decision. A company can win customers by reducing the friction that people experience when considering its offerings.
Perhaps the best description of friction is provided by Carl von Clausewitz, the great military strategist. In his classic treatise On War,  von Clausewitz wrote the following in a chapter entitled “Friction in War”:
Countless minor incidents—the kind you can never really foresee—combine to lower the general level of performance, so that one always falls far short of the intended goal….
Friction is the only concept that more or less corresponds to the factors that distinguish real war from war on paper….
Friction, as we choose to call it, is the force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.
von Clausewitz realized that friction can make execution very difficult, yet we rarely account for friction in our planning.
If friction can cause problems, it seems logical that we should attempt to eliminate it completely. However, while excessive friction is bad, a complete absence of friction can cause other problems. Friction may slow a rolling ball, but without static friction the ball would slide, rather than rolling. Without static friction, objects sitting on a table that’s not perfectly level might slide off.
A friction-free market is known in economics theory as perfect competition. It’s generally accepted that no real market meets all the criteria of a perfectly competitive market, although some markets come close. In a perfectly competitive market, sellers can easily enter or exit the market, which can lead to a potentially infinite number of sellers. Additionally, all products are uniform across suppliers, and all consumers and producers have free access to information about products, including pricing. Buyers don’t favor any seller, and no one seller does better than any other firm. Wharton management professor Olivier Chatain and INSEAD strategy professor Peter Zemsky found that, while stronger firms want to have less friction than weaker firms, they don’t want to eliminate friction altogether. They also found that increased friction decreases rivalry, since sellers don’t need to compete so directly against one another. Consequently, weaker firms can actually benefit from friction, because they have the opportunity to capture buyers in niche markets that don’t interest large sellers.
In a software development project, an excess of process can generate friction. Unnecessary approvals and meetings can frustrate people and slow their progress. On the other hand, a complete absence of such checkpoints may allow people to waste time working on the wrong things, or introducing bugs that require costly fixing efforts.
Opposing points of view can create friction in problem-solving discussions, but a complete absence of such views can lead to groupthink, wherein a team deludes itself into collectively thinking that it has the right solution—even when evidence suggests otherwise.
High performance requires just the right amounts of the right kinds of friction. In order to achieve this goal, you must understand the cause of each form of friction and seek to control it. In some cases, you may need to vary the quantity of a particular form of friction over time.
In contrast to the overhead of collaboration is the principle of synergy, in which the combined efforts of many can be collectively greater than the sum of their individual efforts. This means that if we apply X number of people to a given task, we could theoretically accomplish more than X units of work within the same period of time. The benefit of synergy can partially or completely offset the overhead of collaboration. Synergy is often present when people combine complementary skills. In a jazz piano trio, the bassist provides the foundation of the harmony and sets the groove, the pianist plays a dual role playing both the melody and the rest of the harmony and the drummer delineates the time and reinforces the groove. In a basketball team, each member plays a particular position and fulfills specific functions. The point guard is the team leader and often calls and sets up the plays. The shooting guard makes the long shots and often guards the opposing team’s best player. The small forward scores near the basket and looks for rebounds and steals. The power forward, often the biggest and strongest player on the team, controls the space near the basket and is a key element in defense. The center, who is usually the tallest player, leverages his or her height when scoring, blocking shots, and grabbing rebounds. Synergy is a natural outcome when each member of these teams plays to his or her strengths and successfully combines talents with those of the other ensemble members.
Artistic performers know a lot about synergy. It is present when any ensemble or company of artists gives a great performance. In an orchestra, the combined result of all the musicians and a conductor performing together is greater than the sum of all the individual participants working alone. Think about the powerful impact of a great orchestra performance, and then think what it would be like to hear each individual musician play his or her part in isolation from the rest. Each musician would play the same notes, whether playing individually or simultaneously, but the impact to listeners is much greater when the musicians perform together.
Create synergy and manage forces such as friction and you’ll be well on your way to building a high-performance team.