Too many cooks in your kitchen? 5 ideas for better collaboration

Have you ever sat in an overcrowded conference room and had that old expression, “Too many cooks in the kitchen,” come to mind? Modern business is defined by increasing amounts of collaboration, a reality encouraged by open floorplan offices, mixed teams of onsite and remote workers, and participation in multiple projects with multiple teams. To name a few.

Yet in many ways, we each have a different view of just what “collaboration” is. And not always a positive view. Collaboration researchers noted that “Teamwork all too often feels inefficient (search and coordination costs eat up time), risky (can I trust others to deliver for my client?), low value (our own area of expertise always seems most critical), and political (a sneaky way of self-promoting to other areas of one’s firm).”

Below we’re sharing research and advice for collaborating in general, and for setting up effective meetings specifically: 

  1. Keep the group small. While Dunbar estimated that the limit for stable social relationships we can maintain is 150, the optimal team size is much smaller. There’s no one magic number, but research into optimizing small group size suggests that collaborative groups work best when they have around 5 members. Adding additional members above 5 can improve output but at the cost of adding management overhead. Another study of team size found that smaller groups “participated more actively on their team, were more committed to their team, were more aware of the goals of the team, had greater awareness of other team members, and were in teams with higher levels of rapport.”
  2. Make sure goals are clear. Limiting the number of people in the group forces us to choose the best people for the job, and choosing the best people means considering exactly what the goals and objectives are. Having people sit in on meetings that are irrelevant to them or outside of their skillset wastes time; letting people know what the point of the meeting is and what their role is within it helps keep the group on track and focused. 
  3. Don’t forget alone time. When a group’s goals are clear and members’ roles are spelled out, individuals can branch off for independent work. Schedule time to spend together and leave all communication until such time—people are less likely to enter a state of flow if they're getting distracted too often. 
  4. Ideas first, critiques later. To reduce the likelihood of people focusing on the first piece of information presented or feeding into the predispositions of others, have people form their own hypothesis and ideas before any sharing occurs. During meetings, have people write things down as opposed to calling out or raising hands, so that they won't be influenced by what others do and say. 
  5. Challenging work encourages flow. Professionals generally work better when their goals are just within their abilities. Like Goldilocks, not too hard, not too easy. Walking this fine line also allows us to enter the highly creative, productive state of mind known as “flow.” Flow is not solely an individual phenomenon, but possible in groups as well. The state of flow is characterized by intense focus and the blurring of time, and it occurs when a challenge is not too easy to become boring and not too difficult to be impossible. This is more easily achieved when the right members are paired to the right projects, and when the group is small and cohesive enough to trade ideas and provide feedback while staying focused and on track. 

Keep these 5 ideas in mind before scheduling your next meeting and watch your team’s productivity soar.