How do you collaborate without leaving introverts behind?

Last week, I watched The Power of Introverts, an excellent TED Talk by Susan Cain (she also has a book out on the same subject called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking).

In her talk, which has been viewed almost two million times since it was posted last month, Susan makes a compelling case that the open, collaborative world we embrace today is not always set up to harness the best work from introverts.

As we’ve moved toward more open office plans, collaborative processes like design thinking, and into a digital world now dominated by the word “social,” Susan wonders who is looking out for the introverts? Should introverts feel guilty about wanting to do their thinking and working alone? And can introverts do great work in group settings?

I spent more than a decade working in the inherently collaborative world of open source software. I regularly lead brand positioning and strategy projects as open, collaborative, social exercises involving entire communities of people in the process. So Susan’s talk made me ask myself a tough question:

By emphasizing a collaborative, social process am I risking leaving introverts—and their best ideas—behind?

It’s no secret that I am a life-long introvert myself. I am much more comfortable writing or reading a blog post in my living room and discussing it via comments or Twitter than I am sitting and talking about it with someone over coffee or, worse, at a social gathering like a party or a conference.

So I get where Susan is coming from. Deeply.

In her TED Talk, she at one point pleads, “Stop the madness for constant group work.” When she said this, it hit me pretty hard. The first thing that came to my mind was the one gazillion design thinking ideation sessions I’ve either run or participated in over the last 7 or 8 years.

I’ve personally never had much trouble speaking up during ideation/brainstorming sessions. But I also suspect I am a relatively mild introvert compared to others I know. I started to wonder what the hard-core introverts were thinking during these sessions (and if you were one of them, feel free to tell me below in the comments).

Did they feel like they were being talked over by extroverts? Did they feel like they were out of their element, or needed more time to process their thoughts before blurting them out and having them recorded on the wall? Would they have preferred to contemplate on their own instead of thinking socially as part of a group?

Then another thought stuck me: I’ve met a lot of software engineers over the years, and while not all of them are introverts, many of them are. Frankly, I don’t think too many extreme extroverts could stand to sit in their office and stare at a computer screen all day. But for some introverted software developers, this is bliss.

Yet open source software is developed in a collaborative, social process… run in many cases by introverts.

Why does that work?

For me at least, the answer comes down to the difference between virtual and in-person collaboration. Open source software developers do much of their collaborating online. Often this is because they are geographically dispersed around the world. But I’ve also seen developers sitting two feet away from each other communicating via instant messages or email.

Online collaboration has two key advantages over in-person collaboration for introverts:

1) It allows them to avoid stressful in-person social interactions.

2) It allows them to take their time, contemplate, and think deeply before responding.

Over the past two years at New Kind, I’ve personally been doing less and less in-person design thinking ideation sessions, instead hosting more open, collaborative sessions online. Sometimes they are efforts like the hackathons I’ve run for the Management Innovation Exchange that involve hundreds of people collaborating from all around the world. Other times they are client projects where the collaborating happens via Basecamp or another online tool.

I’ve found I enjoy facilitating sessions online much more than in-person sessions, and I think it suits my personality better. Because the collaboration happens asynchronously, I can take my time crafting thoughtful responses and generating ideas. I can wait until I’m in the right frame of mind to participate, and most importantly, I can work with others, yet be alone at the same time.

I suspect some of these same advantages also translate to participants in online group sessions as well. And for this reason, perhaps many introverts are more comfortable in collaborative projects online than in person. Some of the best ideas I’ve seen emerge from online collaborative exercises come from people who usually remain completely silent in meetings.

In many cases, online collaborative projects provide the best of both worlds—you can collaborate and build off the ideas of others, but still take the time to process your thoughts before you add them (and as a special bonus, you don’t have the stress of in-person social interaction).

If you consider yourself an introvert, I’d love to hear about your experiences participating in collaborative projects online vs. in person. Do you agree with Susan Cain’s assessment that collaborative group projects are not designed to get the best out of introverts? Do you find yourself making better contributions and contributing more in online projects? Or are online collaborative groups just as bad for you as in-person sessions, and you’d rather just work completely on your own?

I’d love to hear what you think.

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