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January 19, 2012 3:05 PM   Subscribe

If collaboration doesn't produce the best results (SLNYT), why do we keep trying to force people to work collaboratively? Previously
posted by stinker (46 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite

 
I'm don't think that collaboration is inherently negative. As the article suggests when it points to the story of Jobs and Woz, collaboration of a certain kind can produce better results than may have happened had the solitary genius(es) not shared their ideas with others.

Sitting around a boardroom table and trying to innovate by committee is almost always doomed to fail, but solitary geniuses aren't innovating for shit if they aren't, as the article says, "extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas."
posted by asnider at 3:20 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


As a teacher, I know there's also plenty of studies that show that people learn better when they study together. That's plenty of reason to try to get people working together on one level or another...
posted by kaibutsu at 3:23 PM on January 19, 2012


I was talking with a fellow researcher last night, and he told me about the new science building at the University of Amsterdam. Apparently, in order to encourage collaboration, it has a mostly open plan, doors don't lock, etc, etc. The end result? No one talks, because when you talk to someone, you disturb everyone.

Perhaps the architect should have collaborated with a social scientist. Then maybe they would have seen that coming...
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:27 PM on January 19, 2012 [20 favorites]


I don't really understand how it's not obvious to everyone that for some purposes, isolated individual activity is most productive, and for other purposes, collaboration is most productive, regardless of whether the people involved are extroverts or introverts.

It occurs to me that those who are inclined to a one-size-fits-all, either isolation or collaboration, are strongly introverted or strongly extroverted and think that all activities should be in their preferred mode.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:31 PM on January 19, 2012 [24 favorites]


As a teacher, I know there's also plenty of studies that show that people learn better when they study together.

Can we necessarily draw a parallel between learning better and "working better" or "innovating better," though? I've often found, in my experiences as a student, that I do tend to learn better in a group setting, but when I have to "do group work" the end result tends to be something that none of us are completely happy with.

Then again, maybe that's training for life: you've got to compromise in order to work with other humans.
posted by asnider at 3:32 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't really understand how it's not obvious to everyone that for some purposes, isolated individual activity is most productive, and for other purposes, collaboration is most productive, regardless of whether the people involved are extroverts or introverts.

Amen. Neither strategy is best for all outcomes, and both strategies can be best when a specific outcome is desired. We need both tools in the toolbox.

It makes me sick to see this study circulating as "OMG! New wisdom from science!" from quarters who are vested in promoting individualism and hostile on mere principle to collective enterprise and productive collaboration. It should, indeed, be obvious that there are some outcomes which are not achievable without collaboration, and some which are not achievable with it, and a continuum in between. Even in a highly specialized field, any corporation or instution is itself a collaboration. A hospital is a collaboration. So is a university. So is a bank. Yes, we need to honor the skills and vision of the solitary mind. But we also need to recognize that without collaboration, usually that vision can't become reality. It's not either/or, even if it helps sell your book. Come on now.
posted by Miko at 3:37 PM on January 19, 2012 [9 favorites]


It's about blame, that's why. People are afraid to invest in a single individual, because "if he or she is wrong" then the investment is wasted. To an extent, that's an appropriate approach. There are numerous instances of renown geniuses who have inexplicably stupid ideas on certain subjects. It's just that those failures are usually somewhat forgotten.

As for committee or group think, design is one example where an individual will outperform the group. The individual has the advantage of being absolutely familiar with the central idea, concept or theme, and will build the design around that theme. A group of people has a bunch of ideas about the central theme, some of which may very wildly. Not to mention than groups often have political dynamics - some members of the group will intentionally sabotage a project in order to damage a rival and further their own gains.

Where groups shine is when a project is about comprehensive functionality or wide-appeal issues. Neighborhood and town planning benefits from group input, for example, if the group is well advised. It's not the kind of thing that a single mind is really good at, simply because it is easy to overlook or dismiss essential elements. Also, in those cases it's not so important that the elements conform to a single unifying theme so much as they just don't get forgotten.

An interesting thing might be to compare a novel to a movie. One person usually writes a novel. It can be good or bad. It takes many to execute a movie; where movies go bad is when too many people have input in the central idea, clouding the final output. It's easy to see the meandering, ambivalent and contradictory contributions that result from this, and this is why independent movies often have so much stronger storylines and theme development.

So really, it's not groups themselves that are bad or mediocre; it's the implementation of group work policies, the definition of the group's mission, that are critical to whether or not an effort is successful.
posted by Xoebe at 3:42 PM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


But we also need to recognize that without collaboration, usually that vision can't become reality.

I don't think anyone is suggesting that no collaboration happen. But in certain places (*ahem* University administration) collaboration is a sort of fad. The kind of "collaboration is a panacea" thinking is counterproductive. Collaborations happen organically. That's why we have conferences.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:46 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


As for committee or group think, design is one example where an individual will outperform the group.

In museum exhibition design this definitely isn't the case. The designer often has some really strong ideas to get things started, but often gets fixed on certain ideas that simply don't work for a thematic, political, accessibility, or functionality reason. The group is necessary to establish a push-pull with the main designer and integrate ideas from interpretation, object handling and conservation, and audience requirements. A show developed with a single designer will just about always be a far weaker and more flawed product than a show developed with a fully built-out interpretive team.
posted by Miko at 3:49 PM on January 19, 2012


Collaborations happen organically.

Sometimes they happen strategically. "We need a partner with strong arts credibility who can help us link to the 50-70 year old audience." "Great. Let's sit down and talk to the Symphony."
posted by Miko at 3:51 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I worked in a totally open plan workspace a few years ago. No cubes, just rows of tables in big rooms. It was all very cutely designed in a Ikea showroom sort of way and they were very proud of how their layout enhanced collaboration and cross-team pollination or some crap like that. It totally drove me nuts, I truly dreaded going to work every day. I'd sit at my little desk while I could hear five different conversations going on and see people walk past me all day and get splitting headaches vainly trying to filter all that out and get some work done. I waited three months to make sure that the co-worker who referred me got her referral bonus and bugged out of there for a job in a cube where at least I had some protection from distractions.
posted by octothorpe at 3:52 PM on January 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


One might ask "If working alone doesn't produce the best results, why do we force people to work alone?"

Or, more to the point, "if working in a manner that doesn't suit the context of that particular project results in failure, why do we force people to work in a manner that doesn't suit the context of that particular project?"

The answer to this, and the original, question is the same.

Middle to upper management. That's why.
posted by Joey Michaels at 4:04 PM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


Very timely article; I was mulling over this problem of workplace privacy just yesterday. For example I have a cubicle, and from personal experience it incurs a level of psychic harm and creative disadvantage. And meanwhile my institution doesn't have the money to pay for a more humane and productive working environment; and of course people like me have no say since my peers are fine sitting in theirs days on end, and therefore I should be more like them.
posted by polymodus at 4:09 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Even in a highly specialized field, any corporation or instution is itself a collaboration

Tell that to nurses, janitors, secretaries, salesmen, technicians, graduate students, or anyone who has had to adapt, sometimes painfully, to the system. A hierarchical system is not representative of collaboration. It is voluntary subjugation, because working under is not the same as working with.
posted by polymodus at 4:16 PM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


We get pushed to do collaboration because it's an easy way to manage by scapegoating, whether within the collaborative group or through pressure outside of the group. You also don't have to bother with individual recognition - you can just ascribe all the output to 'the team'. Money saving and management effort saving all in one!
posted by winna at 4:38 PM on January 19, 2012 [6 favorites]


where i go to school doing everything in groups is increasingly the norm. While this isn't necessarily bad -- there are lots of things that can only really be done well with a group -- more and more work that really requires individual study and thought is becoming group work. Because apparently doing everything in groups is how industry does it (that is the rationale given).

This just reminds me of when i was in middle school and doing everything non-traditionally was the fad. This led to me nearly failing math because i didn't get the assorted manipulatives that were supposed to teach me algebra, even though I already knew algebra (my parents taught me at home in horrible and flawed traditional way that they learned).

In the group activity case many of my peers aren't learning to think about this stuff for themselves. Purely because there are members of their group who get "it" faster, and so the group moves on and they never quite catch up.
posted by selenized at 4:40 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


I found that painful to read and rather axe-grindy. Sure it is the case that one-size fits all solutions are not. But neither is the lone inventor the cause of innovation. Innovation by definition requires the adoption of your invention by a broad audience.

Teams can accomplish things that no individual can alone. Individuals contribute the most to teams when they can hold their personal center and do their part in a way that aligns with their own terms, cares and values. The challenge is to build a team to work towards a shared goal that comes out of the genuine cares of every individual.

There is no universal allocation of resources, space or group structure that will achieve this for every team or individual. But, I can also say that I've seen at least as much wasted effort coming from lack of communication on teams as I have disruption from interruptions in my professional career. As with all things, the key is balance.
posted by meinvt at 4:46 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


collaboration doesn't produce the best results

True. But you know what else doesn't produce "the best results?" Working alone, and working hierarchically, and... working in general, really. The success of anything depends on context, and will always be relative.

What if I said, "Sleep doesn't produce the best results?" Well, when I'm tired and in bed, it produces great results. When I'm driving a truck, not so much.

Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.

Yes, ok, sure but... how many people want to create something and then never share it? At some point we give our work over to the world. The creation process doesn't end there, it just shifts.

What a strange and vaguely axe-grindey article.
posted by Mike Smith at 4:47 PM on January 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


See, if meinvt and I had collaborated, we wouldn't have both used the phrase "axe-grindey." Or at least we would have agreed on how to spell it.
posted by Mike Smith at 4:48 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


What a strange and vaguely axe-grindey article.

The author is focusing on creativity, it is quite clearly inferred from her various examples. Your counterexamples basically reduce to "one man cannot build the pyramids", which is true, but again, not the type of problem she is focusing on.
posted by polymodus at 4:57 PM on January 19, 2012


No, I get it, I just disagree with the overall conclusion, and the disagreement is based on my own personal experience in creative work.

Collaboration is great, except when it isn't. The lone visionary is enough, except when s/he isn't. The author's own example of Wozniak kind of underlines this by contradicting itself: the outsider genius needed to meet other outsider geniuses to really flourish.
posted by Mike Smith at 5:04 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


I don't really understand how it's not obvious to everyone that for some purposes, isolated individual activity is most productive, and for other purposes, collaboration is most productive, regardless of whether the people involved are extroverts or introverts.

This. I write programs best alone. But I solve math puzzles best with a partner. Even if the other person never talks, in both places.
posted by DU at 5:10 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Collaboration stifles creativity? Let me introduce you to Lennon & McCartney, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Leiber & Stoller, Bacharach & David, Holland, Dozier & Holland...
posted by rocket88 at 5:35 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


One aspect of the issue that the author doesn't mention is the constant tension between collaboration and competition in the modern work place. For many establishing a reputation as a competent individual performer supersedes any mission that may achievable under collaboration. For managers being able to know when effectively motivate both individual and team/group performance is becoming an essential skill.
posted by Xurando at 5:36 PM on January 19, 2012 [5 favorites]


To build on Xurando's comment, throwing a group of people together and telling them to work on something doesn't automatically generate collaboration. I've found that working collaboratively with others requires some skills that are learned, not innate, as well as some common understanding or agreement among the collaborators about the structure of their interactions. If you take that away, but add in consequences in terms of job reviews or classroom grades/marks or something, that's not going to work so well for many people. Even with a common understanding between participants, there are more productive and less productive ways to work together. An example from the educational sphere, at least: consider a group of students getting together to discuss homework. If they all do their homework at home, then just check answers with each other, they don't learn anything extra from that interaction, and may in fact have gotten the "right answer" through a wrong or not great method. If they split the problems up and delegate some share to each group member, just copying from each other at the end, again, they don't necessarily learn anything extra (and may in fact learn less). On the other hand, if each student attempts all of the problems on their own and has to think about them individually, but then comes to the group and they discuss and share their methods for solving all of the problems, the students probably will learn something extra from seeing how other students think about the problems on top of having thought about the problem for themselves. ('Course, that takes more time, so getting students to follow this method, with declining teaching resources, is the hard part. And I can't imagine your average corporate setting wanting to spend this sort of extra time to get a really good result instead of just a good enough result.)

(And of course, as everyone else has been saying, different people have different needs: some people are more comfortable thinking for a bit on their own and then coming to the group, while others can be more productive thinking out loud with an audience as it were; and which end of the spectrum someone falls into can vary with the task or context.)
posted by eviemath at 5:56 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


If collaboration doesn't produce the best results, why do we keep trying to force people to work collaboratively?

Ah, a prime example of "begging the question." So rare to see it in the wild, these days.
posted by malocchio at 6:06 PM on January 19, 2012


Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption.

The research is not very nuanced.
posted by entropone at 6:23 PM on January 19, 2012


I was talking with a fellow researcher last night, and he told me about the new science building at the University of Amsterdam. Apparently, in order to encourage collaboration, it has a mostly open plan, doors don't lock, etc, etc. The end result? No one talks, because when you talk to someone, you disturb everyone.

Exactly the same in my old workplace (also in science). Within a few weeks of the partitions coming down, everybody just went out and got kick-ass noise-cancelling headphones.
posted by kersplunk at 6:29 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


People are basically right that there's no single right answer to this question and the NYT article is weird and grindy. But here are two anecdotes.

1. I have been a research mathematician for about 12 years now. For the first five years or so I worked almost entirely by myself. For the last 7 I have worked almost entirely collaboratively, with a bunch of different groups. The research I'm doing is much better now, and I enjoy it more, too. That said, mathematical collaboration is always an alternation between energetic conversation and alone time.

2. I have, in my life, given group assignments in place of midterms in first-year calculus and linear algebra courses. The students hate this. Based on the comments here I'll bet a lot of you would hate it too. The students hated it so much that I stopped doing it.

But the work they turned in was miles better than any other work I've gotten in a first-year calculus course.
posted by escabeche at 7:11 PM on January 19, 2012 [4 favorites]


I had a job a while back that was a pretty solitary thing (editing), and the office plan was very open. But it worked, in that place: when you needed to talk to someone about something, you got up and went over to them and you talked quietly and then you went back to your desk.

And just last week, in my current job, I got to move from a cube with high walls to an office (CAN I GET A HALLELUJAH), and though my office is in the basement and has no window, I couldn't be more relieved. I really like my now-former cubeland colleagues, but their particular method of collaboration involves shouting to each other. And for some reason that drove me crazy...
posted by rtha at 7:13 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Collaboration, when organic and natural, as well as generated internally, works on synergy and is a wonderful thing. Externally imposed group-think and forcing everyone into a box makes for a lousy situation for each individual and a mediocre outcome.
posted by BlueHorse at 7:30 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


At work, we all talk about the phenomenon of being "hit by a bus." We crosstrain, segment projects carefully, and make sure that everyone on our team is capable of picking up someone eldest task - should they ever get "hit by a bus." Each of us is a specialist, but we have a generalists understanding of our groups tasks, methodologies, and organizational structure. As a result, we cope pretty well with sick days, we each can run through a presentation on someone else's work. We can ramp up work on projects in short order if need be, and we produce a consistently high quality of work. We strategically finish projects to maximize our profile, and we are actively aware of what the business will be asking for next.

When I say "hit by a bus", ofcourse I really mean give our two weeks notice. Sooner or later, one of us will move on. Collaboration for our roles also helps us ensure any transitions are smooth.
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:48 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


Collaboration is like multitasking. Baring some other constraint (such as information or materials not being ready) multitasking for the sake of multitasking - that is, deliberately designing your system such that you make incremental steps on many different things when you could just take one thing on to completion, is a loosing proposition.

Similarly, collaborating for the sake of being able to say, "we all doed it!", when any one team member could have gone of and done the thing, is not really a winning strategy. Where it really comes in handy, though, is bringing newer people up to speed and forcing people to really think through their problems as they try to explain them. A room full of people who already agree (or will buy into whatever the boss says) is not a collaboration, nor is a group where the person who has final say has already made up his mind.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:03 PM on January 19, 2012 [3 favorites]


why do we keep trying to force people to work collaboratively?

To paraphrase Bloom County: 'I dunno. Maybe the proliferation of narrow, suffocating zealotry masquerading as parentingmanagement in this country.'

The few times our newly-formed IT team did brainstorming sessions it felt forced and awkward, esp. since we had so many diverse roles. But there was something else - a sense that the main reason we were there was to do what our manager should - provide future direction. Sure enough, the majority of changes to our roles after this were pulled almost verbatim from the white boards we had filled.

I suspect that this 'using collaboration in lieu of leadership' happens frequently in other places with pointy-haired bosses.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:13 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


As for committee or group think, design is one example where an individual will outperform the group.

Well as in most things, yes and no. Often designers design for other designers rather than the poor zhlubs wot have to use the end result. For computer programs and Web sites, often a bit of collaboration is good, but I think it is also the type of collaboration.

In designing a site, you might have the UI guy, who doesn't know beans about complementary colors, but knows human psychology. He or she writes memos in Comic sans, but he knows also that your really edgy icons or your outside the box forms will have Mr. & Mrs. Smith scratching heads and going to another site because UI guy did a fair amount of usability testing in similar situations.

So collaboration amongst like individuals with similar frames of knowledge and chops is often a plus. The bad collaboration, the ones that corporate like so much is when, say ,the designer, programmer, coder, and a few 'stakeholders" are forced to collaborate to build the corporate Web site. There is a reason that saying something looked like it was designed by a committee is not a compliment.
posted by xetere at 9:42 PM on January 19, 2012


At work, we all talk about the phenomenon of being "hit by a bus."
You mean Bus Factor.
posted by stp123 at 10:06 PM on January 19, 2012 [2 favorites]


Collaboration is great, except when it isn't. The lone visionary is enough, except when s/he isn't. The author's own example of Wozniak kind of underlines this by contradicting itself: the outsider genius needed to meet other outsider geniuses to really flourish.

The author explicitly says: The story of Apple’s origin speaks to the power of collaboration / and in the next paragraph: But it’s also a story of solo spirit.

There's no contradiction here. People are failing to read the article carefully enough and dismissing what the author has to say.
posted by polymodus at 11:30 PM on January 19, 2012 [1 favorite]


In one organisation where I worked it seemed to me that the top management was of only averageish intelligence and was tacitly aware that there were many people in the organisation who were brighter and more able than them. Insisting on collaborative working seemed to be a way of masking this and alleviating their general discomfort with the situation.

Top management was also very keen on sport (perhaps because it is an area where unintellectual people traditionally thrive), so there were lots of sporty team metaphors used to give a kind of moral force to the idea of collaboration.

It really seemed at times that the aim was more or less openly to slow down the best people and dilute their influence, on grounds of fairness and comradeliness - implicitly held to be more important than success for the organisation.

Highly subjective and I'm not saying this is universal or the whole story or anything like that - but you might recognise the syndrome.
posted by Segundus at 1:37 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


In business, I found that part of the reason behind ineffective group sessions to discuss conceptual things like strategy was that the people involved were too busy to set aside time to do their thinking beforehand. The only way to create availability to work on it was to set up a meeting. This always ends up working poorly because no one comes prepared.
posted by snofoam at 3:19 AM on January 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


From a design and creativity perspective, both individual genius and collaborative thinking -- ideally DIVERSE collaborative thinking -- are required. They're different stages of the process.

To use another Apple example, the iPod was not designed by committee. Not initially, anyway. No one forced a group of Apple geeks to sit in a conference room and innovate, dammit. Someone had this brilliant idea for a world-changing device. But why did it actually end up changing the world? Because a group of designers took that idea and made it work for everyone. A solitary genius has one way of doing things; a group of 10 or 20 people have lots of different ways of interacting with the world, and working together can put all those perspectives into the design. That's why the iPod was so easy and largely pleasant to use for men, women, adults, kids, grandparents, gadget geeks, technologically illiterate people, music fans, music tolerators, Windows users, Mac OS users, and so on and so on.

20 people in a room won't invent the revolutionary idea, but one person in a room can't develop the marketable product.

Or to use an example more like my current work, where we design fewer world-changing things but design lots of elegant solutions for use in extremely harsh environments, 20 people in a room won't come up with the brilliant design, but my experience has been that the one guy who does is usually incapable of designing it to actually be manufacturable or serviceable without collaborating with other engineers.
posted by olinerd at 4:59 AM on January 20, 2012


Someone had this brilliant idea for a world-changing device.

Really? Who?
posted by escabeche at 6:14 AM on January 20, 2012


I've been thinking about this, as theater is very collaborative by its very nature. But I'm wondering if the reason why it works is because each of the collaborators has a very, very specifically-defined role in that collaboration from the start -- meaning, it is not the costume designer's job to develop a lighting plan, for instance.

Mind you, each designer and actor and what-not can chime in with ideas about the other areas, but those ideas tend to be about how those areas will impact THEIR area -- for instance, the costume designer could comment on the lighting designer's proposal to say that "using a blacklight is gonna make those sateen costumes you wanted look REALLY weird", or the actors or stage manager could tell the costume designer "using hook-and-eye fasteners to fasten that costume piece is going to make it a little too difficult to manage during that quick change in Act 2 - would velcro work?" But you'd rarely have an actor tell the costume designer something like "I don't think the dress you've got me in looks enough like an 18th-century ball gown, so change it" or anything like that. (Well, sometimes you would, but such a person would be rapidly tagged with the epithet "diva".)

I wonder if knowing one's own role in a team like that helps the team find its footing as a group a little better, and that what hampers so many other collaborations is that people are a bit at sea as to what piece of the puzzle they're actually contributing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:33 AM on January 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


Corporate workplaces are not set up to encourage the best results, they are set up to maintain hierarchy. When innovation happens in a corporate context, it's most often either by accident or by individuals or small groups deciding to do something on their own time or in a way that's not what they were told to do. Which is why innovation is so hard to reproduce, and also why moving workers around like chess pieces or putting fancy new wheels in their hamster cages doesn't do much.

/bitter
posted by emjaybee at 7:13 AM on January 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Collaboration stifles creativity? Let me introduce you to Lennon & McCartney,

Yes, but if a team gets too big, the extra value from teamwork can go down. That's why Flying and What Goes On aren't necessarily the best Beatles songs.
posted by jonp72 at 7:55 AM on January 20, 2012


Teamwork is one thing, but having to manage 3-4-5-however many people is a pain in the ass.

I, for one, am really tired of Learning From My Group activities. Most of the time it boiled down to "why am I forced to waste a half hour of class lecture time chatting with three other people who know even less than I do on this topic?" Mostly I find that Group Learning devolves into Random Chatting very quickly if the teacher doesn't keep it very short, like 5 minutes. Left to my own devices, I never did study groups for the same reason. And that's assuming you're in a group where everyone gets along, mind you.

Thank god in my adulthood nobody has made me do group crap at work. Not surprisingly, shit gets done when you stick 1-2 people on it and leave them alone rather than force them to "collaborate." However, they still make me play Group Learning at classes I take for work frequently and it frequently feels like a giant waste of time. Especially when the lecturer then is all, "I had 15 more things to talk about, but we're out of time..."
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:03 PM on January 20, 2012


"Mostly I find that Group Learning devolves into Random Chatting very quickly if the teacher doesn't keep it very short, like 5 minutes."

That says more about you and the people in your group than it does about the efficacy of group learning.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 7:41 AM on January 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


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