Alert readers will have noticed that my blog-posting schedule slipped last Sunday — I had promised to discuss the Power of Collaboration, but it turned out that one of my current collaborators was visiting from out of town. So instead of writing about collaboration, I actively engaged in some fun and collaborative work!
I have been mostly self-employed for the last 15 years. Working from home has distinct advantages, among them not having to commute, and having the freedom to set my own schedule. The biggest downside I’ve encountered is a lack of collaborators to work with. My experience is that I’m many times more productive when I’m collaborating on some project, so for the last 5 years or so I’ve been actively seeking out collaborations. I’ve been fortunate in the last 3 years to have found a number of excellent collaborators, and have been engaged in some really exciting projects:
1. Monorail iPhone puzzle app — a collaboration with my son Aaron during 2011.
2. Android version of my Target Tiling (Tetris-inspired) puzzle app — working with one of my brother’s former students.
3. Working on a new iPhone puzzle app — as part of a team assembled by an MIT classmate of my son’s.
4. Researching techniques for solving very large search problems — collaborating with my brother, Wayne, who is a CS professor at Westmont College.
The last 3 of these are actively ongoing, and I plan to write more about them in future posts.
The Power of Collaboration
It seems fairly obvious and natural (as a general rule) that 2 or more people working together can accomplish more than any one person working alone. They can share the work and thus accomplish more. But my experience is that the productivity of collaboration is not additive, but is in fact multiplicative. When I’m working with a collaborator, I estimate that I am at minimum 10 times more productive and sometimes even more than that! My intent in this note is to examine how this works, and why it is the case. I will be focusing on 2-person collaborations since that is what I have the most experience with.
Advantages of collaboration
1. Dividing up the work
2. Synergy of knowledge, skills, and ideas
3. Maintaining focus and commitment
4. Avoiding prolonged periods of being stuck on something
Dividing up work
If there is a fixed amount of work to do for a project, then 2 collaborators might be expected to accomplish it in half the time. This assumes that both collaborators are equally capable of doing all of the work themselves with comparable efficiency. If the collaborators are specialized so that each works best on separate sub-tasks, then dividing the work according to these specialties yields a greater than 2-fold increase in productivity. In the most extreme case, imagine that neither collaborator has all the skills needed to do the project / task. Then the time for either one working alone would be infinite! But working together, if their skills together cover what’s needed, they can accomplish the task collaboratively in finite time. That’s quite a speedup!
Synergy of knowledge, skills, and ideas
The knowledge and skills of even a 2-person team can be much greater than that of either individual alone. Beyond dividing tasks according to respective expertise and specialization, the collaborators can share their knowledge and skills with each other so that each becomes individually more productive as well! This seems very similar to the power of community learning environments (such as ESG at MIT), where the shared knowledge within the community enhances the knowledge of each individual community member. There is also synergy of ideas — collaborative brainstorming can be both fun and productive, with each collaborator contributing ideas, and feeding off of (reacting to) the ideas of the other. When it comes to evaluating ideas, having 2 points of view can be beneficial as well.
Maintaining focus and commitment
I have a very great tendency to get distracted (I’m probably ADD or something along those lines). When I’m actively collaborating (in realtime) with someone, I find that I’m much more able to maintain focus and “stay on track”. Even when not in realtime, it is still helpful to have a commitment to one’s collaborator — putting off or avoiding things is letting your partner down.
Getting unstuck more quickly (avoiding staying stuck for prolonged periods).
A very specific and powerful aspect of collaboration is reducing the length of stuck times! When working on a task alone, I often run up against obstacles which stump me (sometimes for prolonged periods). This can occur for many reasons, including lack of a specific skill or piece of knowledge, or simply not being able to immediately solve some challenge. Very often, one’s collaborator can offer a key insight or suggest a useful tool or mechanism that gets me quickly unstuck. Without that outside help, I am much more likely to stay stuck for an extended period. Similarly, my collaborators can often “rescue” me from pursuing a dead end, by helping me recognize earlier on that it’s either hopeless or unproductive.
Some slight disadvantages of collaboration
There are also a few small disadvantages of collaboration, for example:
1. Overhead in scheduling / finding time to work together
2. Having to compromise (sometimes involving lengthy discussions to resolve differences)
But overall I find that the powerful benefits of collaboration far outweigh any disadvantages!
Collaboration “case studies” — exploring more concretely some of my experiences in working with collaborators.