Step Away From the Google Doc
Fostering True Collaboration
by TAI Professor Amber Benson
Today, Jeff Bridges will deliver the final talk in the SMU Tate Distinguished Lecture series. Most college students know Jeff Bridges for his role as The Dude in the cult movie The Big Lebowski. Your film professors would probably remind you that he is also a seven-time Academy Award nominee, with a win in 2010 for his starring role as a down-on-his-luck musician in Crazy Heart.
But my first memory of Jeff Bridges was seeing him in a quirky science fiction movie called TRON. In it, Jeff Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, a computer hacker that gets digitized–by a laser, no less–and trapped inside a mainframe computer. While there, he partners with other programs to break free and keep himself from de-rezzing (or dying). The special effects, which look like a bad 80s nightclub to a modern-day viewer, were groundbreaking. Although Disney updated the franchise (and Bridges reprised his role) in 2010, it’s worth checking out the original.
Or you could just visit one of my classes. Because I think the ghosts of TRON haunts the halls of Umphrey Lee.
Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Whenever I encourage my students to work in groups, I watch as they circle up their desks, fire up their laptops and then go radio silent. They are sitting right next to one another, yet they are miles apart. And I know exactly what’s going on.
They are trapped in a Google Doc.
As a professor of digital advertising, I encourage my students to use technology to their advantage. I just wonder if that confab of multi-colored cursors in your browser is helping you achieve your goals. Sure, you are creating a document together, but are you actually creating value?
Value creation is at the heart of the advertising industry. As advertisers we create that value by turning insights into ideas. And to do that, we need to bring various perspectives to bear on the challenges our clients give us. And that requires more than mere collaboration. It requires dialogue.
The word dialogue has Greek origins, its roots are “dia,” which means “through” and “logos” which means “speech.” Dialogue literally means to “pass through speech.” It is the literal exchange of words that propels ideas forward.
Imagine that I give you a small piece of moldable clay and tell you to create a bust of Abraham Lincoln. You could try to do it yourself. You could make your best attempt and then give it to someone else to revise or edit. In the end, you might achieve your goal, but a linear, sequential process leaves little room for inspiration or optimization.
Alternatively, by working collaboratively, gathering team members and talking through the challenge, you are far more likely to achieve your goal and to do it in a shorter amount of time. Why? Like atoms bouncing off of one another, insights create energy when they are combined. And once you hit on the perfect combination, that clarity provides momentum. When everyone fully “gets” the concept, then you delegate tasks without losing cohesion.
At one point in TRON, Kevin Flynn says, “On the other side of the screen, it all looks so easy.” Collaboration software, such as Google Docs and Slack, can be useful tools in coordinating team member contributions, but they cannot think for you. And that focus on finishing the assignment rather than solving the problem is “de-rezzing” your grades.
So, next time you get a group assignment, step away from the Google doc and toward a white board. Grab a pack of Post-Its and a Sharpie. Visualize your data. Start a dialogue.
Escape the machine.