Yesterday I had the strangest ravendous cleaning the house with the lady who helps out my sister. She was washing dishes and I was drying them and placing them in the cupboards. She was sweeping and I was clearing things out of her way. She was wiping dust from the surfaces and I was shifting objects from the dusty areas to the clean ones. We didn’t have to talk to coordinate: I knew what she was doing and how to make her job easier. In the end we congratulated ourselves: in three hours of work we cleaned the entire house, which was considerably messy after the party.

I wondered: why is it that I’ve never experienced this kind of flowing collaboration while designing? Is it because I haven’t tried hard enough? Or is it because the digital medium doesn’t allow us to see the other person’s intentions? Collaboration usually happens in separate rooms, let’s say. If the task is to clean the house, in the digital realm we would claimed responsibility for different areas. She would have washed the dishes and put them on the cupboards, and I would have swept the floors and moved the furniture. This way our activities don’t conflict with each other.

But that’s not true collaboration, that’s division of responsibilities. What is true collaboration then? If any of us would have attempted to clean the house on our own, it would have taken 8 hours perhaps, but through collaboration it took us 3 hours each, 6 in total.

The Mythical Man Month warns against the pitfall of throwing more engineers into a late development project. Getting up to speed, set-ups and collaboration will nulify the added firepower. It’s as if you added turbines to a plane, but the additional turbines are only able to carry their own weight. A plane with a thousand turbines will arrive at the same time as one with only two.

Is this phenomena unique to software development? Or would it also happen in design work? Would it happen in construction work? I’m intrigued. I’ve always enjoyed working alone, but now that I’ve seen it can work out (in pairs, and in cleaning) I want to experiment more with joint work.