Collaboration overload

globe connected with lightA recent Harvard business review article confirms our own findings about too much collaboration in large organizations. It claims that over the last 20 years the time spent by people in collaborative activities has increased by 50% or more – meetings, calls, emails etc can take up round 80% of the week for many employees – leaving little time for other work.

I had the opportunity to work with one of the authors, Rob Cross, at a conference for a joint client last year and our work meshes together very well. His empirical approach identifies some fascinating patterns in networks and flows of work, our practical tools help identify simpler ways to get things done.

In this article Rob and the other authors identify that the collaborative load falls most heavily on a small number of high performers. In most cases 20 to 35% of value added collaborations came from only 3 to 5% of employees.
We all know that’s true. The skilled and helpful person who really delivers gets invited to be on more teams and involved in more projects. As their reputation grows they are the first person that you think of for this important new activity. This can easily turn into a vicious circle, these people are so busy they become bottlenecks.

Worryingly, the study finds that these people who are seen as the best sources of information and in highest demand as collaborators have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores which can lead to them leaving or becoming apathetic or less effective.

The solutions they propose are:

• to make sure we distribute collaborative work and decision rights more equitably across the organization to prevent these bottlenecks

• to give the most active collaborators skills and tools to prioritize and filter requests for collaboration and focus on areas they find energizing rather than exhausting

• to encourage people seeking help to be more discriminating, for example by cancelling recurring meetings unless there is a specific need.

The study also shows that only half of these top collaborative contributors are recognized by their organizations as top performers. In some cases individuals are overloaded, in others their organization only recognizes individual achievement despite talking about the need for collaboration.

To these good tips we would also add the importance of systematically removing poor quality collaboration – clarifying decision rights, cutting out topics of individual or small group interest from larger collective meetings, finding simpler ways to share information that don’t require synchronous working etc.

But fundamental to all of this is our attitude to collaboration – we are conditioned to think that teamwork is the answer to everything but in fact, as the study demonstrates, collaboration does create an additional load in terms of time, energy and presence (whether physical or virtual). As organizations become more complex and more connected we have to be careful that we only use this more pattern of work when the benefits outweigh the costs.

A lot of work can be performed by empowered individuals or by groups of individuals coordinated by a common leader but who don’t need to collaborate intensively all the time. Failing this, small teams are nearly always better than large teams. Always think about the simplest form of collaboration that you can use to achieve your objectives.

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Collaboration overload

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