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Business - Written by on Monday, June 15, 2009 18:05 - 22 Comments

Naumi Haque
Diminishing returns of collaboration

While generally a believer in how collaboration can lead to better insights and greater efficiency, I continually see examples of where it is neither effective, nor terribly efficient – and in the worst cases totally counter-productive. I work in a highly collaborative environment and study many others, and my experiences have led me to two areas where problems typically emerge:

  1. At an individual level people suffer from cognitive overload. As people get busy and collaborate across a multitude of projects, the brain gets distracted, and the quality of the output suffers. In short, one person can only do so much.
  2. At a project level where you run into a situation of ‘too many cooks spoiling the broth.’ In short, only so many people can do one thing.

If you put the two of these together, the worst-case scenario is that in an individual could join a project as the Nth person who ‘spoils the broth,’ while the time they dedicate towards doing so distracts them from their other work – which, continuing the cooking metaphor, leads them to burn the toast as well.

The problem is, it’s very difficult to apply a scientific approach to measure exactly how many people per project, and conversely how many projects per person is optimal. The most well-known study around this is Dunbar’s Number, which sets “a theoretical cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships” at 150. In terms of collaborative overhead, Dunbar speculates that “as much as 42% of the group’s time would have to be devoted to social grooming.” Now that might be acceptable for the hunter-gatherer societies described in Dunbar’s anthropological study, but I would imagine this amount of “grooming” time would be extremely unproductive in an enterprise context.

In his book Collaboration, released this month, Morten Hansen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and INSEAD, identifies two costs related to enterprise collaboration. The first is the opportunity cost collaborating (i.e. the opportunities individuals could have been pursuing had they not been collaborating), the second is the cost associated with fostering co-operation. In both cases, as the number of projects or the number of individuals grow, so too does the potential for diminishing returns.

At the project level, I feel as though most people have general understanding that there is a certain point at which there are simply too many stakeholders and collaboration breaks down.


However, at an individual level, I think we are less cognizant of – or less willing to admit – our own limitations. I’ve seen many cases where an enthusiastic and eager collaborator was clearly overburdened and well past the point of optimal effectiveness. Incidentally, my personal hypothesis is that this point of optimal effectiveness is a fairly small number of projects per person. My main “proof” for this is anecdotal, but I notice that the busier one is, the more likely they are to quickly skim a topic and provide feedback in short (sometimes valuable) chip-shots without contributing to a better in-depth understanding of the topic space. Worse, in some instances perceived value comes from dissenting, so instead of constructive feedback, you get wildly varying opinions with no one working towards a coherent solution.


On the subject of cognitive overload, a recent Deloitte report notes, “Even a Sunday newspaper contains more information than the average 17th century citizen encountered in a lifetime. Add to that the stress of decision-making amidst uncertainty, corporate change, and a tidal wave of tasks. Never before in history have workers been asked to absorb and make sense of so many data points.” One more sensational study even suggests that information overload is more damaging to the brain than smoking pot. I think we can certainly make an argument that where collaboration is most likely to break down is at the individual level.

This brings up another point: What about the virtues of solitude? Are we losing our capacity for individual decision-making? Moreover, who’s actually doing the deep thinking needed to solve complex problems? We talk about the multitasking Net Gen brain that is not actually doing multiple things at once, but rather switching more efficiently. Does constant switching allow for deep analytic thought?

So what is the solution? Overall, I’m wondering if there’s a Dunbar Number for the optimal number of simultaneous projects per person (small and large). How is this number affected when you take into account broader ecosystem participation and places where quick feedback from multiple participants is actually desired over in-depth participation?

As a start, I think collaborative technologies can help by streamlining different types of feedback. So, for example, a project can have 1,000 collaborators if they are providing feedback via a prediction market. Conversely, if only three people are collaborating on a document, perhaps a wiki is most effective.

One possible model for managing cognitive overload is letting individuals self govern – i.e. everyone decide where they can add the most value. Of course, this also raises many issues, including: people, especially in high-performance cultures, tend to overextend themselves; people tend to pick project that interest them, but that may not add the most value to the organization; and people tend to be social and so will gravitate towards the same projects, thus contributing to project inefficiency.

In order for this to work, you would have to architect a system that would allow people to allocate their own time in a structured way (similar to the Freiburg budget example). I’m envisioning a system where resources are finite but can dynamically allocated; where employees are guided by decisioning logic that identifies the projects that provide the most value to the organization; and where limits are set that prevent projects from being staffed by too many people and that stop people from taking on too many projects.


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Web Media Daily – Monday June 15, 2009 | Reinventing Yourself...
Jun 15, 2009 18:26

[...] Diminishing Returns of Collaboration [...]

Jun 15, 2009 21:03

These are some really interesting thoughts on collaboration – I really enjoyed pondering your arguments. These issues are very pertinent and present themselves often in the world we live in. I recently came across “Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything” and am incredibly intrigued to find out more about the studies done about this topic. I’m very pleased to find it as an audio book at http://www.audiobooks.net as I really battle to find time to sit down and read.

Haque discusses the limits of collaboration « PublicOrgTheory
Jun 16, 2009 4:12

[...] am in general agreement with Naumi Haque’s observation about the limits of collaboration: While generally a believer in how collaboration can lead to better insights and greater [...]

Ben Ziegler
Jun 16, 2009 13:16

Naumi, this is an interesting article offering some good perspectives and questions!

I agree with your ideas around creating structures that enable self-regulation and/or allow us to dynamically allocate our time. And, I know that the design of those structures will likely provide the boundaries for our personal choices (e.g., around time allocation decisions).

So, a really big question for me is around corporate vision and culture – what does the organization value as “productive” time? For example; if an organization places minimal value on time spent “grooming” relationships, how will that play out in the (structured) choices available to the individual who places a higher value on time spent building interpersonal relationships prior to committing “hard” time to a project?

Seems like a call for incredibly flexible (“living”) structures, consistent with the organization/corporate vision. One tall order!

Bill Barberg
Jun 16, 2009 23:30

The value and productivity of collaboration is certainly an important topic, as many different issues are difficult to solve without effective collaboration, but the reality is that collaboration is much harder than most people realize.

When most people think of tools for collaboration, they think of tools that allow collaboration, but not necessarily those that support the effective management of that collaboration. The former can be helpful, but people can easily get overwhelmed.

Our firm specializes in strategic management, and while the term is probably not the best from a general marketing perspective, we sometimes describe the approach as “Strategy-Aligned Mass Collaboration” and it includes the use of stategic management tools that most people don’t even know exist. One key concept that we advocate for successful mass collaboration is “zoomability.” If you see successful examples of mass collaboration, there is usually a natural zoomability. In Wikipedia, for example, you can zoom in to the topic of poodle dogs and you will see detailed work by people passionate about poodle dogs. You can also zoom into the topic of Mozilla Firefox and find details worked on by totally different people. The whole Wikipedia experience is made valuable by many different people working on “zoomed in” parts of the whole. Most collaborative projects are not naturally “zoomable” and most few organizations use tools that support zoomability. We have leveraged leading edge strategic management theory and new technologies to add zoomability to many different business and social challenges that require collaboration–from deploying electronic medical records in an academic medical center to helping a state work to end homelessness. If you would like to see some of our white papers and Webinars, contact me at bill.barberg@insightformation.com


Bill Barberg

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » Dunbar, Gladwell, Collaboration and Twitter
Jun 18, 2009 11:05

[...] couple of days ago Naumi had an excellent post on the diminishing returns of collaboration. He highlighted two areas where problems typically emerge – at an individual level (one person can [...]

Jun 20, 2009 10:27

A number of things that I wonder about when reading this

1) on the most important potential challenge of all, climate change, humans are doing very little. Self interest is way ahead of collaboration. I would be interested to hear how “zooming” can help than one

2) in soccer, the coach normally says “let the ball do the work”. So it is with social networks. Of course, no human can sustain endless relationships, though Bill Clinton had a lot of America turned on at one stage. What humans do is identify champions in other areas, who are then their way of influencing that group or way of life or neighbourhood. Then 150 champions does make a difference as that keeps on rolling, and multiplying.

3)Is not collaboration software also limited in its ability to generate value by the “blockers” and “can’t doers” in an organisation ? They can make projects go off the rails by not supporting, or actively ruining attempts to change.

4) the Freiburg way sounds good although the likelihood of most macho Western-style politicians doing this is zero

Bob Watkins
Jun 22, 2009 19:01

I think Dunbar’s number was most famously used by Gore & Associates to limit the size of their plants. The story I remember reading was that they only built parking spaces for 150. When people started parking in the dirt, they knew it was time to open an additional facility.

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » CREATIVITY: a collaborative effort as opposed to an individual feat? Learning from Pixar…
Jun 23, 2009 11:00

[...] with the recent discussion on Dunbar’s number and constraints in the size of collaborative teams, I wonder how Disney Pixar has coordinated its [...]

Naumi Haque
Jun 24, 2009 10:40

Thanks all for the comments. I think a particularly salient point was raised by Ben and Bill regarding the alignment of collaboration with corporate strategy/vision to really help structure the boundaries with which flexible resources can be allocated. This is absolutely a must.

Related to Dunbar’s Number, I just read an article in BusinessWeek from last month’s issue (Learning and Profiting from Online Collaboration http://www.businessweek.com/magazine/content/09_22/b4133032573293.htm). Seems as though Zuckerberg’s Number is closer to 40:

“An average Facebook user with 500 friends actively follows the news on only 40 of them, communicates with 20, and keeps in close touch with about 10. Those with smaller networks follow even fewer.”

Colby Thames
Jun 27, 2009 12:14

Naumi….I also think that there is an issue with ‘getting to the answer’, ie, when do you know you are finished? With structured processes, you get a tidy input-step-output format that can be executed to completion. WIth collaborative processes, you get an input-step-input-step-input…etc format. I think binding collaboration to a specific process with a defined output will help the benefit side of the equation…let me know if this makes sense.

Grown Up Digital » Creativity: a collaborative effort as opposed to an individual feat? Learning from Pixar…
Jul 1, 2009 8:51

[...] with the recent discussion on Dunbar’s number and constraints in the size of collaborative teams, I wonder how Disney Pixar has coordinated its [...]

Brett Hummel
Jul 2, 2009 2:41

I was really interested in the part where you mention how Net Geners have the ability to switch between tasks or projects quicker than other generations. I have seen research demonstrating that Millennial brains light up in different regions compared to older generations when using the internet. Do you think that different generations can handle different amounts of collaboration or do Millennials perform the same as their older counterparts?

Diminishing Returns of Collaboration « Fredzimny’s CCCCC Blog
Jul 6, 2009 15:02

[...] Diminishing Returns of Collaboration Posted on July 6, 2009 by fredzimny http://www.wikinomics.com/blog/index.php/2009/06/15/diminishing-returns-of-collaboration [...]

FXPAL Blog » Blog Archive » The social cost of collaboration
Jul 8, 2009 10:06

[...] to @davefauth I came across an interesting blog post by Naumi Haque on the diminishing returns of collaboration. The basis of his thesis is that as the number of explicit collaborators in a project increases [...]

Adam Clarke
Jul 9, 2009 13:01

I believe that there is a high-definition between COLLABORATION and ABILITY.

We run a number of collaborative projects. The main ethos we run across all is that no individual is a ‘Jack of all trades’. In this, everyone collaborates but individuals provide better insight and problem solving (and, in turn, reap rewards) where they focus on key projects (and issues within projects) keenly matched to their skillset and ambitions.

It is a tricky balance and your post is extremely relevant. Too many cook will always spoil the broth. Likewise, your answer can come straight out of leftfield from a consumer-gen perspective.

Regards Bretts comment – totally agreed. We too have looked into the physics of this. Largely, indicators point to the fact that our brains are optimised for networked and ‘stormed’ processes and by harnessing this structure we are able to work more effectively and efficiently. When applied to the web, this cross-network and ‘click through digestion’ is much akin to the way our subconscious mind works. The problem then is perhaps in how preNetGens have been conditioned to think more laterally – a very counter productive training that goes against natural modes of thinking.

In essence, the NetGen have no negative training to overcome before adoption.

Naumi Haque
Jul 10, 2009 23:59

Adam/Brett, adressing the issue of the Net Gen brain – we have some research from a few years ago that shows that Net Gen brains are actually “wired” differently than previous generations. The Internet and video games have made them more efficient at switching between tasks. We traditionally think of this as “multitasking,” although it’s a slight misnomer, since their brains aren’t actually doing multiple tasks simultaneously.

So there were two questions: 1) Can they handle more collaboration? I would say, probably yes, in terms of number of projects per person. 2) Do they perform the same? Well, depends on how you measure performance. If you need someone to really dig into something and not get distracted, maybe they won’t do that as well, but maybe yes – Perhaps the Net Gen brain, in its more efficient switching, is able to allocate brain power (concentration) more effectively and will do just as good a job, even if they are instant messaging and watching YouTube throughout. Of course, regardless of their brain, Net Gen is junior. They lack experience, which may give them less to draw on in terms of providing value to the collaboration.

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » The collaboration box score
Aug 4, 2009 22:31

[...] [...]

Wikinomics» Blog Archive » Mad Men and the Executive Assistant 2.0
Sep 8, 2009 10:58

[...] [...]

Chris Jones
Dec 19, 2009 11:57

Outstanding assessment, Naumi. As a passionate collaborator, I’ve been spread too thin more than once. Managing priorities is always important, but with the deluge of insights and places to connect leading to cognitive overload (as you describe it), maintaining time for down time and reflection are critical.

The ultimate solution to collaboration overload? Choose your battles.

I say pick one focus (project, ecosystem, research topic, community) as your primary, perhaps one or two more as secondary, and allow ‘all others’ to get your attention on a passive ‘as available’ basis. That structure can change from time to time. But I find it introduces some sanity.

My favorite tool is the time-box. A time to collaborate. But even more time offline spent with family and friends and significant others, focusing on the most important relationships in your life.

Balance needs to remain in view.

In the end, nothing is more effective for that than finding the “off” switch.

Joshua Davidson
Jan 18, 2010 8:29

Thank you for a very interesting piece. Collaboration is clearly the key to accomplishing more but we could certainly do more to work out personal limitations before our failures occur on projects we care about.

More information to process, but thoroughly worth it!

Rodney Brim
Aug 27, 2010 12:35

I liked the development of the intersection between numbers of projects and effectiveness of collaboration. I think the real key is what’s the value component to the collaboration activity. I’ve worked with some people, who by virture of their experience and critical thinking capabilities, we’re able to be effective and a significant value add on multiple projects, and others, who actually impeded the process when invited to collaborative events. Bottom line, although there is some maximum number for all of us, it varies widely, and perhaps the bigger issue is ability to generate value add.

Rodney Brim
blog: http://www.performancesolutionstech.com

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