Collaboration is Today’s Steam Engine

Published in Accelerate Magazine, 2016

If you transported a typical American man from the year 1900 into the 1950’s, he’d be amazed by the changes brought on by the industrial revolution.  Cars, highways, skyscrapers and airplanes flying overhead, electricity and its children—washing machines, refrigerators, televisions and TV dinners—would astound him.

Now take a man from the 1950’s and transport him into the 2000’s.  This man wouldn’t have nearly the same hurdles to overcome in terms of navigating the physical landscape; he could take a car or train home and, with coaching, he could soon enjoy reruns of I Love Lucy on an iPad. But the real differences in our lives today would probably give him great pause because our very culture has changed.  

As Richard Florida points out in his book, The Rise of the Creative Class, our time-traveler from the 1900’s would find normalcy in the 1950’s culture of business suit-wearing white men working in America, getting married young, starting families and working consistent hours until they’re ready to retire.  

The second time-traveler would eventually realize that the game of life has changed in subtler, but shockingly significant ways.  Men and women of all races and ages now embrace their careers, work together within flexible hours and environments, and choose to start families later in life, or not at all. Commerce is global and businesses can now offshore just about everything from bookkeeping to design and order-fulfillment, and people work in comfortable clothes from coffee shops, yet serve clients around the globe.  

Eventually our time traveler would notice a giant, yet somewhat elusive shift in our business world: this creative society embraces a “collective” working environment based on collaboration and innovation.

In the past, corporations grew through mergers and acquisitions and smaller entities didn’t share, they assimilated.  Seemingly endless natural and human resources were devoured and size mattered. As Alexandra Samuel reports for Harvard Business Review, “we’re now doing less consuming and more producing in our collaborative economy.”

Startups like Airbnb and Etsy offer platforms for individuals to share back-office benefits formerly enjoyed only by large corporations. Upwork is a one-stop shop for freelancing “anything that can be done on a computer,” and Fiverr is a clearinghouse of freelancers who will deliver services ranging from useful to quirky for $5.

Here in Hawai‘i, ProtoHub, Box Jelly, and ROC (Real Office Centers) provide communal workspace and big office niceties like conference rooms, kitchens, and social mixers to sole proprietors and small businesses.  The ARTS at Marks Garage offers community, space, and amenities for several arts-related organizations.  Hawai‘i TechWorks brings tech and design professionals together.  And The Cut Collective is a productive gathering of Hawai‘i’s clothing designers.  All of these organizations offer things formally unheard of in business—support and collaboration—not for the finance or glory of one single entity, but with an eye on growth and betterment of our industries, economy and society.

He may be shocked and doubtful initially, but our time traveler would eventually have to agree this cultural shift works.  Our figurative steam engine accomplishment of today is collaboration.


Published in Accelerate Magazine, 2016

The term “multitask” originally appeared in 1965, in an IBM paper describing the capabilities of the System/360.  Ever since then scientists have been asking the question: can humans effectively multitask?  

The short answer is: no.

The long answer is: you can do two things at once, but your attention to one or both of them will suffer if you try.  

The scary answer is: you’re actually harming yourself if you try multitasking on a regular basis.

Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D and author of the book Make Your Brain Smarter: Increase Your Creativity, energy and Focus says that “multitasking is brain drain that exhausts the mind, zaps cognitive resources and, if left unchecked, condemns us to early mental decline and decreased sharpness.  Chronic multitaskers also have increased levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, which can damage the memory region of the brain.”

Multitasking is actually a myth.  Our brains don’t focus on two or more things at once.  Instead, when we’re working on a budget while reading incoming email, listening to a podcast and keeping an eye on a co-worker’s progress, our brains are constantly switching from one activity to another.  That switching is responsible for chemical reactions that are detrimental to your proficiency, efficiency and health.

The next time you’re working on your computer with a plethora of windows open and your phone nearby, remember this Michigan State University study:  300 students were given a computer test with interruptions in the form of pop-ups that required the students to enter a code.  Some of the interruptions lasted 2.8 seconds, and some lasted 4.4 seconds.  The students made double the errors when they returned to the test after the 2.8-second interruption and quadruple the errors after the 4.4-second interruptions.

Quickly switching from one activity to another also programs your brain to have a short attention span.  Leo Babauta, author of focus, A simplicity manifesto in the Age of Distraction says “This is why it’s so hard to learn to focus on one thing at a time again.”

So, why do we keep doing it?  There’s a soon to be outdated perception of prestige surrounding the person with the plethora of windows open.  Also each of those beeps and whistle notifications from our phones and computers cause our brains to release an addicting jolt of dopamine.  When you switch back to your original task, your brain pings the “newness” alarm and the dopamine releases again, feeding our desire for more and perpetuating the brain-draining cycle.  

Switching your brain from one task to another also burns glucose, and depleted glucose levels cause us to get tired and experience brain fog.  If you feed that lethargic brain fog with what it craves – glucose in the form of sweets and starches – you’re giving yourself another cyclical reward (and possibly several unwanted pounds).

Kevin Lee of Fast Company suggests that we break the multitasking habit and focus on one activity at a time, with as few distractions and interruptions as possible.  Practice minimalism by making a to-do list first, then silence your phone, close your email, open one window at a time and focus on a rhythm for your work, rather than allowing random, real-time alerts.  Work for 25 minutes, and then take a 5-minute break to rest your mind.

If you want to take it one step further and really up your game, take some time to reflect on the work you’ve done.  Business psychologists from Harvard, UNC and HEC Paris recently published the results of a series of productivity experiments finding that people who take time to reflect on their activities perform significantly better on subsequent challenges.

Now go do one amazing thing!