To collaborate or not to collaborate - that is the question

Apple's Steve Wosniak told us to work alone. Former Saatchi & Saatchi supremo Peter Cullinane disagrees.

The lone wolf is out. Collaboration is in. You only have to look at the job ads – and the fact that 70% of offices are now open plan – to know the business world is obsessed with collaboration. But does collaboration actually produce innovation? The New York Times, quoting research from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist, suggests people might be more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption and that solitude acts as a catalyst to innovation. Apple co-founder Steve Wosniak agreed, giving followers “some advice that might be hard to take: Work alone… Not on a committee. Not on a team.” So, who is right? Should we return to our garrets, our ivory towers, our anguished scratchings. Or remain in our teams? Idealog asked Peter Cullinane, former chief operating officer of Saatchi & Saatchi Worldwide and now head of communications group Assignment, what he thought. This is what he told us:

There’s nothing like a contrarian view to make life interesting. Steve Wozniak’s ideas on the virtues of working alone and the pitfalls of collaboration are thought provoking; but are they right? The answer, in my view, is yes and no, in equal proportions. Wozniak’s career with Apple was a mix of “genius alone in the turret” and equally, a partnership with Steve Jobs. The two of them collaborated to set up what has become the world’s biggest business. Which was the more important contribution?

As adman Leo Burnett (named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century) said all those years ago, there is always the need for the lonely man, faced with his typewriter or drawing board.  But today, collaboration is central to almost everything we do in every walk of life. And it has to be because we are now all so inter-connected. The butterfly effect is real. The issue is not if we need to collaborate but how. And the key is to collaborate as equals.

In creative businesses, collaboration is a given. We need to bounce ideas, to test and stretch. But new ideas are fragile things and they can be so easily broken when handled without care, insight and experience.

So the golden rule in collaboration is to recognise that not all views are created equal. Personally I hate the idea of people taking various roles including the dreaded “devil’s advocate”. Winston Churchill replied to criticism that a brick wall he had built was crooked with “Any fool can see what’s wrong but can you see what’s right?”

Next, allow time for an idea to form and take shape. Don’t rush to the answer; spend time on the problem. Einstein reportedly said: “If I had an hour to solve a problem I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”

And then take personal responsibility for seeing the idea through to fruition. By all means collaborate but don’t abrogate your responsibility afterwards. Talking of Einstein, does that not prove that genius is a lone pursuit?

Not really. Einstein, like all of us, was surrounded by family, neighbours and colleagues who helped shape his world and thinking. None more so than his friend and colleague, Swiss/Italian engineer Michele Besso.  

It may be instructive to look to nature for the answer. We’re enamoured with the romance of the solitary hunter, the lone wolf. But the fact is a lone wolf is not alone by choice, but because it has been ostracised by the pack. Without his collaboration with Steve Jobs, Wozniak may well have remained an undiscovered genius happily working away in the Homebrew Computer Club. 

So, what’s the answer? It's a case of both. Working alone and working in collaboration both work, but working in collaboration works better and more often in a world that is well and truly wired to be collaborative. Use it. ×