- Posted by Intersect International
- On April 24, 2016
- Collaboration, Leaders, Talent
Over the past few months Associate Partner, Dr Janice Simpson, has been reading and thinking about collaboration. Read on and discover how you and your organization can navigate the collaboration compass.
“When I worked at Nortel in the late 1990s, CEO John Roth sent out what old-timers still affectionately refer to as “that collaboration email.” Silos were out; collaboration in. No more HR developing policies in a vacuum and throwing them over the wall to the business. No more sales and marketing making unrealistic promises to customers, then blaming the product guys for not delivering. No more engineers piling on expensive features that nobody wanted – because they were fun to build. No more squabbles between line of business and country presidents over who “owns” the customer.
Unfortunately but not unusually, this fiat was not backed by a rigorous effort to understand what value-added collaboration looks like and how it works. Twenty years later, I’m finding clients struggling with the sense that they need more collaborative cultures to sustain success in a complex, global business environment. They’re encouraging employees to collaborate and calling out collaboration in performance and reward systems. But they worry about unintended consequences – that this could spawn a flurry of unnecessary meetings, focus people on counting collaborative interactions (whether or not they’re productive), and just slow things down. So I was intrigued to see in the space of a month these two articles.
The Economist (January 23, 2016): The collaboration curse: The fashion for making employees collaborate has gone too far.
The columnist Schumpeter notes that in modern business, collaboration is next to godliness. The fashion makes some sense in that people can achieve things collectively that they cannot achieve individually. The problem is the cult of collaboration has reached its apogee in the arena where the value of uninterrupted concentration is at its height: knowledge work. Some estimate that knowledge workers spend 70-85% of their time in meetings or on calls, dealing with email and an avalanche of requests for input and advice. They spend so much time collaborating they have to do much of their own value-added work when they get home at night.
Schumpeter cites Cal Newport of Georgetown University who argues that “deep work” is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem. The insistence on collaboration leaves little time for focused work. Schumpeter concludes: Helping people to collaborate is a wonderful thing. Giving them time to think is even better.
The Harvard Business Review (January – February 2016): Collaborative Overload: Your most helpful employees are burning out. Here’s what to do about it.
The Economist story cites this article by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant, whose research over two decades shows time spent in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more. It further suggests that 20% to 35% of value-added collaboration comes from only 3% to 5% of employees. What starts as a virtuous circle turns vicious when the most helpful employees become bottlenecks: work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. They risk becoming so overtasked they’re no longer personally effective. Their contributions to the success of others go unnoticed and unrewarded. They burn out or check out.
A person’s time and energy are finite precious resources. Too often, a request for information that could be handled in a five-minute exchange or a point to a source turns into a 30-minute meeting or hands-on assistance in tracking it down. The authors suggest tools that can help identify people most at risk for collaborative overload, as well as ways to work with them to set stronger boundaries and make more efficient use of collaborative time. Technology and the design of physical space can play a role here.
They conclude that while collaboration is the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges, more isn’t always better. Leaders must learn to recognize, reward and promote the right kinds of collaborative work – tracking assists as well as goals. They must learn to efficiently distribute value-added collaborative work, or their top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply.
How does your executive team calibrate the collaboration compass?”