18 January 2012

Collaborate? Sure, but how…

The recent New York Times opinion piece,The Rise of the New Groupthink, poses a challenge to the rising trend of increased collaboration in business and schools. Susan Cain reminds us that creativity requires solitude and discusses at length the growing lack of autonomy and privacy in open offices and schools that seem to encourage group learning at all times. We couldn’t agree more that meeting for the sake of meeting and collaborating for the sake of saying you collaborated is not helpful or productive. Ms. Cain does make reference to recent studies that “suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals” and calls for a “more nuanced approach to creativity and learning.” The challenge is in how people can come together, bringing their unique skills and talents to the table in service of solving complex problems without an endless string of meetings.

One answer is to use charrettes to bring together specialists for selected compressed periods of time to develop overall solutions for complex problems that require this multi-disciplinary effort. The time before and after the charrette is used for in-depth individual or team specialty work. Stakeholders with unique information and perspectives can then offer guidance and input that the team of specialists use to integrate into their solutions. Some of this work happens in a large, open environment and some in focused solitude. One key to success is the single-pointed, focused team effort on the problem throughout the process.

NCI recently conducted trainings for the Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA) at the US Department of Defense. One of the case studies involved local communities coping with the termination of a Defense program that resulted in 2000 lost jobs. The OEA staff designed a process that began with the major stakeholders holding a project assessment and organization meeting to co-author a project approach. This was followed by a period of market and economic research to provide the base of information required for decision-making. The creative moment will occur at a three-day charrette where a core design team will create an economic development strategy for the community. Stakeholder review during a charrette is provided through a series of carefully-timed feedback loops, not at a seemingly endless string of meetings. This approach combines the necessary isolated, specialized base data work with the collaborative, creative burst in the form of the charrette to solve the core problem.

The answer to complex problem solving is neither to “Groupthink” everything nor to leave it to the specialists in their cubicles. Both approaches have their time and place and can be used most effectively when strategically combined, such as in a charrette. The NCI Charrette System™ is a way to balance individual work done in isolation with the cross-disciplinary teamwork necessary to solve complex problems.