Let’s Talk About Collaboration (or maybe not…)

I like to think that I'm an effective collaborator. I work closely with my team on key issues, seeking their input and insight, and I encourage other business owners and managers I coach to do the same. But an article in a recent edition of Harvard Business Review (Collaborative Overload by R Cross, R Rebele & A Grant, HBR Jan-Feb 2016) has provided some good food for thought. 

The author's research over two decades shows that too much collaboration can have some downsides, including: 

  • Those in strong demand for collaboration have less time to focus on their own work, which can negatively impact upon their own performance (in a number of the organisations researched, some people were spending around 80% of their time collaborating with others!) 
  • Beyond a certain point, the most in-demand collaborators tend to experience lower satisfaction/engagement (indeed, the research revealed that those regarded as the best collaborators experienced the lowest levels of engagement and career satisfaction, ultimately leading to higher levels of voluntary turnover) 
  • Collaboration is not always the most effective use of resources (across more than 300 organisations, research revealed that 20% to 35% of the value from collaborations came from only 3% to 5% of employees). 

While the authors are clear to acknowledge the significant benefits of effective collaboration (thank goodness I haven't been completely wrong for 25 years!), their message is clear: it needs to be effective/balanced, we need to ensure that it doesn't become too much of a burden for in-demand collaborators, and effective collaboration needs to be recognised/rewarded. 

The following tips are offered: 

  • Identify those most at risk of "collaborative overload", and take action to ensure that the collaborative load is effectively distributed 
  • Encourage behavioural change: give overburdened collaborators the skills they need to prioritise requests and permission to refer requests to appropriate others, reduce their level of input or, as appropriate, say no altogether. Also clarify broader expectations in regards to collaboration – review and as required "rein in" requests for meetings, copying everyone in on emails, decision making by consensus etc… 
  • Review and as required increase delegations, so appropriately qualified people are free to make the decisions they need to make without unnecessarily referring to others 
  • Leverage collaboration and teamwork technologies/apps (eg. Slack or Basecamp) and physical space to improve the efficiency of collaboration 
  • Recognise and reward effective collaboration – what most organisations are looking for in their "stars" are people who perform well individually yet are also effective (and efficient) collaborators. Only about 20% of people regarded as "stars" in their organisations are poor collaborators – we need both individual performance and effective collaboration, and leaders need to be better at spotting and rewarding those who do both. The authors suggest network analysis, peer recognition programs, reviewing performance metrics (professional sports often maintain statistics of "assists" as well as goals/tries scores, after all), and ensuring performance review and remuneration systems acknowledge the benefits of effective collaboration. 

As the authors conclude, "Collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today's most pressing business challenges. But more isn't always better. Leaders must learn to recognise, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work…

Some good food for thought…. I'd ask what you think, but hey, I'm busy, you're busy…. 

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