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Getting Hired

The Collaboration Paradox: Why Working Together Often Yields Weaker Results

On a midsummer afternoon in 1957, a church fundraiser altered the course of music history. It was just after 4:00 when a group of teenagers […]

On a midsummer afternoon in 1957, a church fundraiser altered the course of music history. It was just after 4:00 when a group of teenagers took the stage. Rumor has it the boys were so anxious about playing in front of their neighbors, they downed a few beers before launching their set. 

This may explain why several songs into the performance, their lead singer forgot his lyrics, struggled to improvise, and somehow mangled, “Come little darlin’, come and go with me,” into, “Down, down, down, down to the penitentiary.”

Most of the audience was oblivious to the flub. But not everyone. One listener was watching intently, impressed by the band’s antics. His name was Paul McCartney. And he’d just had his first glimpse of John Lennon.

Half a century later, Lennon and McCartney’s collaborative works are credited with launching a new era in music history—one in which it became acceptable to combine genres, play a sitar alongside a violin, and use technology as an instrument. We know the Beatles were creative, but how they got that way remains something of a mystery. So just what were they doing right?

The Secret Formula

Marriage therapists have an equation they use to evaluate relationships.

In a functional marriage, the arithmetic is simple. One plus one equals two. Each partner has their individual strengths and together, the pair is reasonably compatible. In unhealthy marriages, the math turns funny. Here, one plus one equals one, and typically, it’s because one partner is holding the other back.

Successful marriages are different. Chances are you’ve seen one, or perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to experience it yourself. The husband is a talented chef, the wife a masterful gardener. He tutors the kids in grammar, she teaches them how to defuse arguments. He is a visionary, she is an organizer. Together, they are more than the sum of their parts, and it’s here that the arithmetic turns exponential.

For them, one plus one equals three.

The Beatles illustrate what can happen when you group the right people together. The band’s achievements also lend credence to a belief that’s practically gained universal support within the business community: the idea that collaborations fuel success. The conviction that we all benefit from working in teams, and that more often than not, one plus one does equal three.

But what if we’ve misunderstood the lessons of McCartney and Lennon? What if The Beatles’s productivity teaches us something entirely different about how collaborations work? What if we’ve been doing it all wrong?

Successful marriages are different. For them, one plus one equals three.

Why Workplace Collaborations Often Fail

On paper, collaborations have a lot to offer. By putting our heads together with others, we’re attacking a challenge with greater intellectual firepower. The more perspectives we bring to the table, the more likely we are to eliminate blind spots, unearth creative solutions, and minimize mistakes.

The logic seems irrefutable. So it’s surprising that studies on collaborations have yielded mixed results. First, brainstorming was shown to undermine creativity. A closer look at the literature reveals that brainstorming is hardly the sole culprit. At times, it’s the collaboration itself that diminishes the quality of our work.

Take a look at some of the findings:

  • Collaborations breed false confidence. A study in Psychological Science found that when we work with others to reach a decision, we become overly confident in the accuracy of our collective thinking. The confidence boost we gain from working in teams can feel exhilarating in the short term. But it also clouds our judgment. We become dismissive of outside information which prevents us from making the best choices. 
  • Collaborations introduce pressures to conform. Within many team collaborations, we face an impossible decision: choosing between the quality of our work and the quality of our workplace relationships. Studies show that group members tend to conform toward the majority view, even in cases when they know the majority view is wrong.
  • Collaborations promote laziness. Ever been to a meeting where you’re the only one prepared? Then you’ve probably experienced social loafing—people’s tendency to invest less effort when they’re part of a team. When others are present, it’s easy for everyone to assume someone else will take the lead.

The Price of Partnership

But there’s a bigger problem with workplace collaborations. One that is the corporate equivalent of high blood pressure—a silent killer that often goes undetected. Attached to every meeting, conference call and mass email you’re exposed to is an invisible price tag. Economists call it opportunity cost, and it refers to all the tasks you’re not getting done while you’re busy “collaborating.”

In many organizations, the higher up you are in the hierarchy, the more often you’re called upon to collaborate. Intellectually, it’s a progressive tax.

So, why are we so enamored with an approach that often fails? Partly it’s habit and partly it’s organizational expectations. Of course, there’s also more emotional risk in presenting ideas alone, and political ramifications to leaving others out.

Attached to every meeting, conference call and mass email you’re exposed to is an invisible price tag. 

But there’s something else that makes collaboration’s questionable yield so difficult to spot.

Collaborations seem more productive than they are, in part, because of the way our minds experience them. It’s easy to feel productive when we’re part of a group, listening to other’s ideas and contributing our feedback. Especially when compared to the alternative: sitting at our desks, staring down a blank screen. It’s too bad the progress is often illusory.

Which raises an interesting question. If the research says collaborations often undermine performance, why did it work so well for The Beatles?

The Art of Successful Collaborations

Paul McCartney and John Lennon were not psychologists. But their approach to collaboration highlights many of the recommendations experts are now offering organizations for making groups more effective.

Find teammates who do something you can’t.

McCartney excelled at melody, Lennon at lyrics. His songs were uplifting, Lennon’s had an edge. McCartney was left-handed and, importantly, Lennon was not. Playing together, they each benefited from seeing a song’s chord progression reflected back at them, making it easier to improvise notes that fit the scale.

The lesson: Collaborations are most effective when teammates complement rather than replicate one another’s abilities. Skill duplication leads to power struggles.

Differentiate between roles.

Social loafing isn’t inevitable. It happens when responsibilities are ambiguous and collaborators aren’t clear on where their role ends and another’s begins. When McCartney and Lennon collaborated, it was clear who served as the lead songwriter and who was there to offer suggestions.

The lesson: Delineating responsibilities at the start of a project gives everyone at the table direction and a sense of ownership.

Insist on homework.

McCartney and Lennon are thought of as a songwriting team, but the truth is they conceived of their songs alone. They collaborated after they had gotten a piece as far as they could, and were ready for suggestions. Most of the heavy creative lifting happens when we’re by ourselves, working on our own. We’re in a better position to evaluate the merits of an idea after we’ve given a topic some thought, not when encountering it for the first time.

The lesson: Use meeting time to exchange ideas, not generate them.


It would be foolish to suggest that collaborations are always a detriment. Without them, we wouldn’t have Apple, Google or Microsoft, not to mention airplanes or the discovery of DNA. They’re just not the panacea we’ve been led to believe.

Can one plus one still equal three? Potentially, yes. But getting there requires a new kind of thinking. One that recognizes the pitfalls of collaborations and welcomes a sobering perspective that most workplaces like to avoid: It’s only by acknowledging our (individual) weaknesses that we can discover our (shared) strengths.

How about you?

How have you seen collaboration go awry? 

Comments (39)
  • Pless

    Love this article, will use this in the classroom since we are should be teaching “employability” skills.

  • Cesar Idrobo

    We have a saying in Colombia: “too many chefs in the kitchen make the soup go sour.”

  • birdie

    great read

  • Mike Saporito

    Thanks, Ron. Very useful takeaways: insist on role clarity, play to strengths, and prep in advance to be efficient, ect.

  • Justsayin'

    Or to apply what’s been presented…here would be a good example of collaboration with two people bringing different strengths to the table – a writer who puts together an interesting article, and a copy editor who catches the misused homonym “rolls” and substitutes the correct “roles” before putting it out there. Everybody wins.

  • othervoices

    Thanks Ron. But have to point out there are different kinds of collaboration. Lennon and McCartney was a creative collaboration not simply two people working together in a team.

  • gingybear

    Here’s my collaborative feedback as a reader to a writer: typo on this point, “Differentiate between rolls.”

    Overall great article!

  • Dustin Neal

    Right on point. I’ve sat through creative meetings to generate ideas and they seldom come up with the solution. Then the pressure to make something happen sets in and conformity follows. When the work is done you always feel you could have done better.

  • Steiner on Failure

    Ron, I’d been talking about what I have come to call “the fallacy of teams” or “the fallacy of teamwork” for years.

    Spent several years teaching business students at MBAs marketing and strategy courses and always found myself the sole fighter in the anti-team corner.

    “Teams” have been a buzzword for way too long.
    It’s time for a significant change.

  • Rob gratton

    I agree with the points raised. Collaboration as a process requires a very specific package of skills and attributes. We can not expect that people thrown together have these as such we can expect them to effectively collaborate. Collaboration is human nature but the process must be learnt. I champion the development of Collaborative skills and

  • R.gratton

    attributes amongst Secondary school children. Through Collaborative Group Learning students learn how to collaborative. This work, implemented over 5 years in a number of contexts, is reaping a wealth of rewards for individuals, the group and the communities they are part of. I am happy to share my research with all who are interested. R.Gratton, Assistant Principal UCL Academy London, Doctoral student IOE.

    • Kerry Dirks

      R.gratton … would love to understand more about your research in this area !
      kerdirks @ yahoo dot com

    • Ludvik Herrera

      Good day R.Gratton. I’d like to read your research. Please let me know ludvik.herrera @ gmail dot com

    • Elina

      Yeah, me too. Is there a article about this at some blog or a book?

  • John Crawford

    The other, often overlooked lesson the Beatles can
    teach us is the power of practice. Malcom Gladwell’s 10,000 Hours to Mastery
    certainly applies here. When the young
    Beatles left Liverpool to go to Hamburg and played 3 shows a day, 7 days a week
    for a year – they came back a different band. While their individual creative
    talents no doubt gave them foundational advantage – it was ‘chemistry’, learning
    about each other and combining their skills that provided the platform. Their
    collective musical genius flowed from that. Had they not fused their talents,
    we may never have had the privilege of knowing their extensive song catalog. Ironically, it was their group ‘artistic
    differences’ and the decay of that chemistry that led to their eventual split
    and individual pursuits. In the end, they were also smart enough to know they
    could never recapture the magic of their group collaboration (ie: ‘Reunion Tour’)
    and to – ‘Let it Be’.

  • Okiemute Omuta

    Nice piece here. This shows that we’re pretty much on the right track at the company where I work, and provides a clearer answer to an issue on external collaboration which we discussed over just a few hours ago.

  • Arjan

    Great writeup. My little addition on this area: Avoid saying “but…” when you try to add something to the group, and instead force yourself (and others) to start your feedback with “yes, and…”

    • Ben Judy

      But… (see what I did there? 😉 doesn’t this indicate exactly the kind of conformity warned against in the article?
      If I say “yes, and…” to something I disagree with, the “yes” part is what will be heard loudest. I do myself and everyone else a disservice if I voice agreement with something I don’t agree with. I feel like being direct and honest about my opinion should be okay, otherwise why am I there?
      Furthermore, saying “yes” to everything makes “yes” meaningless and makes me untrustworthy. On the other hand, saying, “No, I don’t agree,” doesn’t have to instigate a fight. Done well, disagreement clarifies things and drives the team toward making a thoughtful decision.

      • Arjan

        Let me clarify. When thinking from a “yes, and” point of view, you are willing to build on each other’s ideas. When inclined to go “but” it will mostly be about a clash of egos. A factor often overlooked in collabs – the drive to “be right”. My tip was not about disagreeing to disagreements. It’s about trying to keep egos out of the way and build on each other’s efforts. “Yes and” is no way meant to be about agreeing, it’s about acknowledging what is said or added into the group and see if you can build towards a new solution from there. That’s what you are collaborating for: to build on each other’s strengths, not to try to conform or not conform.

      • Ben Judy

        I’m familiar with the “Yes, and…” approach, mostly as an improv comedy technique. I agree it can work well with people who want to play along nicely, and are not operating on fear or to build/protect their own ego.
        However, in the cutthroat, highly politicized world many of us (unfortunately) work in, what you say can and will be used against you.
        In my experience, the egotistical person doesn’t change their stripes in the face of politeness. They smell blood in the water and go in full-on attack mode. They are essentially fear-driven bullies. Saying “yes, and” to them simply doesn’t work. Just my opinion. YMMV.
        I find it better to be direct, honest, and fully forthcoming with my opinions. If I like it, I say “yes!” If I don’t like something, I politely but firmly let people know where I stand. Doing this in a non-confrontational way requires tact and empathy, but I think it is the best way.

      • Arjan

        I’m not talking about politeness. You still don’t seem to get what I try to say. But no worries, if it doesn’t work for you then don’t use it. It’s a free world mate. (And it sounds to me like you’re not in the right world for you to begin with, calling it cut-throat and all.)
        And egotistical people should be avoided at all cost in any type of collaboration. They’re no use and a nuisance.

  • Elina

    Also, in the nobel winner Daniel Kahneman’s book, he points that people tend to conform when they put ideas in collaboration. It’s much more interesting to ask each one’s Idea on beforehand so the meeting don’t turn into a fight for the better speakachive ones or the first idea (that usually makes the best impressions but instead our brains judge as a good one).

  • Andreas Ursin Hellebust

    Excellent article – I’ve often wondered why brainstorming sessions were not as succesfull as hoped. I am looking forward to read more 🙂

  • Nib

    “Non of us are as dumb as all of us.” –

  • LostInTheBurbs

    One more thing that helps collaboration is taking time to define what you mean by “collaboration” as well as other terms used across teams, such as “review” or “socializing” an idea. The process can derail if a blended group of people has different ideas about what is expected. This is especially prudent when siloed work environments try to change their culture through collaboration. Doing a little extra work to manage expectations pays off. In essence…words matter.

  • BigRedDragon

    Tellingly, all great novels and plays are not collaborations.

    • Lisa May

      Perhaps great plays were not written collaboratively, but performances of those plays are absolutely a collaborative effort. And the quality of that collaboration will make or break what you see on stage.

  • ArthurTHimmelman

    In my work with collaborations (over the past 20 years), I use a definition of collaboration as follows: exchanging information, altering activities, sharing resources, and enhancing the capacity of another for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose. Each phrase represents a way of working together: networking, coordinating, cooperating, and collaborating. In collaborations it is the willingness and desire to enhance each other’s capacities – each wants the other to be the best that they can be – to achieve a common purpose that makes it, potentially, the most beneficial way of working together.

  • Matt Lantz

    One thing to bear in mind is that the collaboration that led to both Apple, Microsoft and Google came from individuals with different skill sets and each person in each team had their roles relatively defined. This allowed them to remain focused. Could you imagine if Gates and Jobs had attempted to build a company? It would fail epically! Collaboration is only successful when each person can feel like they serve a purpose, the minute a person’s ego is destroyed because they’re no longer the person in charge of that thing their contributions to the project / company dwindle. That is the reality.

  • RichardPatrock

    Thanks for this piece. I’ve been in strong and destructive collaborations and your examples show me a way out of the more deficient ones.

  • Etela Ivkovic

    I’ve been paying a high opportunity cost and have certainly experienced all the points you mentioned here. I do believe that collaboration can work, and is necessary, for example if you have a client and you need to collaborate with other in-house and external teams. I will be thinking of the recommendations you listed.

  • Brad Bass

    I will pass this along to all of my students. We often have to collaborate with others, and it is interesting to see why sometimes they work and other collaborations fail.

  • Navid Sakhai

    Brilliant, It was simply brilliant!

    There is so much more to it but it opens up a new perspective to our collaboration dilemmas. As Einstein once said; “Once we accept our limits, we go beyond them.”

    Thank you for this piece.
    Be Victorious!

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