The notion of how we collaborate has been one that whilst often discussed has never really been nailed down. Game theory offers up the basic tit-for-tat principle whereby we collaborate until the other party proves themselves untrustworthy, at which point collaboration breaks down.
A new Harvard paper delves into this issue in more detail. Author Nicholas Christakis has form in this area as he’s the author of Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks. His latest research required participants to play a collaboration-testing game over the Internet. The obvious benefit of this approach is that it attracted a much larger sample than is traditionally the case for laboratory research. Courtesy of Amazon’s Mechanical Turk over 750 volunteers were signed up for the experiment.
Participants in the game were allocated points. During each round of the game they can donate points to their neighbors if they wish, with each donation matched by the ‘game’. Obviously if everyone donates equally then each player gets significantly richer as a result. As game theory suggests however, should a participant defect and not donate, they stand to gain significantly from the donations of others without giving up any of their own points, at least in the short term before people cotton on and stop playing their game.
The mechanics of the game saw it split into three distinct rule sets. The first saw players interacting with the same people all the time, therefore their historical behavior was known to the others. The second variation meanwhile players were randomly reshuffled at the end of each round, whilst the final variation 1/3 of the players were shuffled.
In each of the variations one player from each pair was reminded how the other had acted in the previous round, but only in the third variation could they act on this information and decide whether to play with their partner or ask for a new one. To add spice to the game, at the end all of the points people have attained were converted into actual money. This was done to ensure that participants played the game as realistically as possible.
In all versions of the game approximately 60% of players co-operated to begin with. In the first two variants however this dropped significantly once the impact of free loaders began to hit home. Tit-for-tat was being played out and after a few rounds collaboration was massively hit, down to around 15% on average.
Obviously the first two variants however gave players no choice over their partner, but in the third they could act upon previous behaviour. In this version of the game collaboration remained stable throughout the game as players simply chose not to participate with the free loaders. This simple feedback mechanism enabled the community to become smarter and for collaboration to survive.
The research found that not only were collaborators wealthier at the end of the game, they had also gained significantly more connections than the free loaders. Perhaps not surprising in itself, but one ray of light emerged when the free loaders, as a result of being shunned, began to change their behavior to a more collaborative approach.
Furthermore, as they were shunned, the defectors began to change their behavior. A defector’s likelihood of switching to co-operation increased with the number of players who had broken links with him in the previous round. Unlike straightforward tit-for-tat, social retaliation was having a marked effect.
So what lessons can we take from this for real world collaboration?
The research clearly shows that it pays to be generous. It wasn’t merely the selfish that were punished in future rounds but also the stingy. So here are a few principles that you should try to encourage in your organisation if you wish to encourage a collaborative approach amongst employees and other stakeholders.
Principles of collaboration
- Participation – You want to encourage participation from across your organization. As we’ve seen from the experiment, this could involve you removing, or at least educating, people that don’t act collaboratively.
- Collective – As collaboration will involve taken relatively narrow perspectives and making them broad, you will need to help the group reach a consensus and then take action collectively on the decisions they make.
- Transparency – Feedback and trust are essential elements of collaboration. Being transparent with information is crucial if that is to be achieved. Make sure that all debates are had in the open and that the entire group has access to the latest information.
- Independence – James Surowiecki emphasized the importance of independent thought in his book Wisdom of Crowds, so you’ll need to ensure that group-think does not emerge and that people are thinking for themselves.
- Persistence – You will need to be persistent in your application of these principles, to ensure that all content is kept within the community and easily accessible to all members.
- Emergence – Remember that the point of mass collaboration is to achieve great results, so ensure you focus on the end goal rather than worrying about how that is achieved. You will need your collaborative community to set their own goals and objectives.
Image: Principles of Collaboration – StockFesh Networking