Productive Collaboration vs. Unproductive Collaboration

Productive Collaboration vs. Unproductive Collaboration
Zachary Fruhling August 5, 2019

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Collaboration is often touted as an inherent virtue in the modern world, whether in business, education, product development, or product design (instructional design or otherwise). It is important, however, to distinguish between productive collaboration and unproductive collaboration (or, even worse, counterproductive collaboration).

Unquestionably collaboration has many benefits, such as inclusiveness, the sharing of a plurality of ideas, avoiding tunnel vision, and so on. However, even well-intentioned collaboration can easily slip into being unproductive or counterproductive.

One of the most common causes of unproductive collaboration is over-inclusiveness, or “too many cooks in the kitchen.” With too many voices in the chorus, time that could be spent on-task with product development or design is instead spent moderating the plurality of differing opinions and perspectives. While this can be valuable for generating ideas in a large group brainstorming session or in a product development summit, a large plurality of voices and perspectives can become counterproductive when actual work begins on a project.

One of the simplest things you can do to ensure that collaboration is productive is to include the minimum number of participants as absolutely necessary, whether during the ideation phase of a project or during actual implementation and development. In my decade-plus of experience in educational technology product development, educational content development/authoring, and instructional design, the most fruitful and productive collaborations have occurred within very small teams and partnerships. For example:

  • Working directly with software engineers to develop interactive learning tools
  • Working with media designers to develop pedagogically valuable graphics, illustrations, and animations
  • Working with a fellow subject matter expert in authoring online course materials
  • Working directly with course writers throughout the course authoring process

In each instance, the collaboration was productive because outside voices, influences, and opinions were kept away from the actual development process, so those with the right experience, expertise, and skill sets could focus on their collaborative and creative work with a minimum of distractions or conflicting perspectives. Within the scope of these small partnerships and teams, there was a large degree of collaboration and unity of purpose, but being able to focus on the task at hand was a matter of keeping away outside influences from even well-intentioned external stakeholders.

In various forms of agile product development, someone—usually a scrum master or development manager—is tasked with mediating between external stakeholders and the actual development team. This serves two purposes: (1) minimizing external noise so the development team can focus on its creative and collaborative work, and (2) ensuring that clear expectations are provided to the development team. (See Scrum Roles Demystified.)

One of the clearest signs that collaboration is veering into unproductive territory occurs when supposedly collaborative meetings occur in which not all participants walk away from the meeting with one or more concrete action items. This not only helps to ensure forward momentum, but also help to keep team members’ ideas and perspectives grounded in actual work instead of in the abstract.

Trust is a necessary condition of avoiding unproductive collaboration by keeping teams small and focused. External stakeholders, product owners, and management must have trust that a development team will accomplish the development or business goals while taking their needs as stakeholders into account. When this trust is present, the perceived need for a larger number of participants in supposedly collaborative meetings can be reduced or eliminated. Trust between team members is equally important, even on a small team. Trust that each team member will do his or her part on any particular project is also an important part of keeping collaboration efficient, targeted, and focused.

Have you had experiences with particularly productive or particularly unproductive collaboration? If so, share your experiences, positive and negative, in the comments section, along with your own tips and tricks for maintaining productive collaboration without veering into unproductive collaboration.

Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at

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