A depiction of the supposedly evil activity known as baton-passing


We work in a highly collaborative industry. And collaboration is universally held to be a good thing.

In fact the very worst thing you can say about an agency is that they work 'in silos'.

But hey, long-term readers will know that I get a kick out of questioning received wisdom. 
 
So - just as a thought experiment - let's ponder for a moment, what would our industry be like without any collaboration? 

I guess it would take the form of 'baton-passing', which means that one person hands their portion of a job over to the next person in the chain, with no time spent working on it together.

Currently, baton-passing is thought to be pure evil, akin to harming children or animals. And all we ever hear around collaboration is unequivocally positive. It is said to lead to more and better ideas, as different disciplines spark off each other. And it is said to lead to ideas that are 'more right', as each discipline reins in the excesses of the others.

But is collaboration really the dog's nuts?

The main argument against collaboration is cost. An example - a particular agency where I once worked was radically collaborative. Often we would have multi-hour meetings in which ten or so of the agency's most senior staff were sat in a room together. Result: we didn't make money. The benefits of collaboration must outweigh the increased cost, otherwise it's pointless. Are you sure that's the case in your agency? Have you stopped to think how much those multi-person meetings are costing?

The other argument against collaboration is that it dilutes expertise. Example: Person A is an expert at what they do, having logged more than 10,000 hours in their field. Under the collaborative system, they are encouraged not to completely finish a piece of work, but instead to leave it, say, two-thirds finished. They then go into a meeting with Persons B, C, D and E to finish it collaboratively. But whereas Person A is a highly regarded specialist in his field... B,C,D and E are well-meaning amateurs. Would it not be better to just get A to do the job by himself, and then pass it over?

Third and final point: one of the basic principles of economics is that division of labour is more efficient. This is from Adam Smith, people - the guy on the twenty pound note.

In the first chapter of The Wealth of Nations (1776), Adam Smith explains that traditional pin makers in a home workshop could produce only a few dozen pins a day. However, when organised in a factory, with each worker performing a limited operation and then passing their part of the pin onto the next worker, they could produce thousands a day. The pins were higher quality too, as once each worker became specialised in their own part of the process, their dexterity at it improved. Their tendency to innovate rose also.

Now obviously, we're not making pins here. But do some of Adam Smith's points still stand? Would an agency work better if it fully entrusted each step of the process to the specialists, rather than (for example) having meetings where suits help create strategy, or planners critique work?

Sure, we'd lose something if we abolished collaboration. But my provocation is, would we gain more?
 

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