Avoiding GroupThink – Top Tips for Effective Collaboration

This week, all of us at Standing are taking time out for one of our regular retreats. It’s a great tradition here – a dedicated time for the entire team to get away from the office for the day, update each other on our client work, focus some on our business, and spend quality time on team building and collaboration. In fact, the theme of this retreat is collaboration – one of our Standing core values.

At heart, I’m a collaborator. I love working with others… most of the time. But sometimes, I just need some quiet time to work something out in my own head or get an idea down on paper before sharing it with the team. Everyone needs space sometimes to be a one-man wolf pack, right? But does my need for solitude make me a bad collaborator? Believe it or not, no.

Last month, author Susan Cain offered an interesting take on collaboration in an Op-Ed from the New York Times. Titled “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” Cain laments that in today’s culture, collaboration has become the gold standard of thinking, while solitude and individual work are viewed as negatives. There’s now a kind of a “Collaboration Gone Wild” mentality, where collaboration and brainstorming and groupthink and ideas by consensus are prized above all else. And the lone wolves out there? They are labeled as bad collaborators when, in fact, that alone time can lead to better collaboration.

The best example of this? Apple. Steve Wozniak built his own personal computer ALONE. But when he shared it with his buddy Steve Jobs, Jobs recognized the opportunity to sell this new machine instead of just giving it away, which was Wozniak’s original intent. And a great collaboration was born.

Cain notes that decades of research demonstrate that individuals almost always perform better than groups, and that group performance falls as the group size increases. Maybe that’s why some of the best and most famous collaborations are simply a duo: Jobs and Wozniak, Abbott and Costello, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Burns and Allen, and (my favorite) Spielberg and Williams.

I spent some time recently with my two favorite collaborators, Steven Spielberg and John Williams. (Ok, not in person… but at the St. Louis Symphony’s performance of John Williams’ classics and via the “AFI Master Class” special on TMC.)

Williams has penned the scores to 25 of the 26 feature films Spielberg has directed over the past 40 years. (Bonus question – can you name the one he hasn’t?) Interestingly, Spielberg and Williams did NOT agree on their second – and arguably most famous – collaboration: the introductory theme to “Jaws.” Spielberg imagined the score as a big, bold piece. Williams said no. It needed something brainless and menacing like the shark. Ba-dum…. Ba-dum…. (You can hear it, can’t you?)

What’s the secret to this Hollywood collaboration that has lasted longer than most Hollywood marriages? Williams told the New York Daily News, “One of the primary secrets of a successful collaboration is that no one can be afraid to throw a thought on the table. You have to be confident that even if your initial ideas are far apart, you will work things out.”

So, how can we all be a little more like Spielberg and Williams when we collaborate?


  1. First, you must trust each other. You don’t have to agree with each other… but you must trust.
  2. Remember, not everyone collaborates the same way. Some people enjoy throwing a bunch of ideas out to start the thinking, while others like to hash through half-baked ideas to get them closer to final. So understand and respect how your colleagues like to (and need to) collaborate – especially when they need a little alone time.
  3. All collaboration is not equal. You may have to adapt your collaborative approach based on the task at hand, the team involved, or the outcome you’re hoping for.
  4. Finally, as Cain concludes in her article, embrace a more nuanced approach to collaboration. Don’t force a brainstorm or big meeting when you don’t necessarily need one. Sometimes the best collaborations happen organically.


Who are your favorite collaborators? And what are your tips for productive collaborating?



Answer: “The Color Purple.” Williams didn’t write that score – Quincy Jones did.

  • Chris

    Let’s not forget Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield (Ben and Jerry’s!) and Simon and Garfunkel.

    Another collaboration tip—communication is key.  As legendary Hollywood producer Darryl Zanuck said “If two men on the same job agree all the time, then one is useless. If they disagree all the time, both are useless.”

  • Maureen

    Great post! I would say Lennon and McCartney would be my favorite collaborators. A close second might be peanut butter and jelly! I think having an open mind is one of the keys to successful collaboration.

  • Maggie Brandt

    Your Zanuck quote really rings true, Chris.  I think that too often people mistake teamwork or collaboration for a group of people who always get along and just get things down, whereas in reality you need group members who are ok with some friendly disagreement, who challenge each other with different ideas and who ultimately respect each other enough to take the varied perspectives to heart.

  • Pat

    Great post, Vicki. I think the other component to collaboration is pulling together not only the big-picture folks but also the workerbees. It helps to see things from both perspectives and ultimately weed out ideas that can never fly. My favorite collaborators? Mom and Dad.