Too Much Collaboration

Earlier this year I shared a post called The Case for Collaboration in which I described my early experiences with teamwork and argued that business today is all about being able to work effectively with others. I ended the post with an opinion framed not by facts but by my experience. I wrote:

At this point in my career my ability to collaborate effectively is probably my single biggest skill. I rely on it more than my ability to create spreadsheets or alternatives analysis. It is more important to me than building a PowerPoint deck or reflective listening. Finding the right people and getting them aligned on a shared objective — it is more important than anything else.

Today, I read an article from the Harvard Business Review that both validated my view and suggested a significant cost to my being right, costs to both to me and the organizations that rely on my abilities.

The article, Collaborative Overload (HBR, January 2016) notes several interesting facts from its research:

  • “…over the past two decades, time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.”
  • At most companies, people spend 80% of time on collaborative tasks (meetings, phone, email)
  • “In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.”
  • “…roughly 20% of organizational “stars” don’t help; they hit their numbers (and earn kudos for it) but don’t amplify the success of their colleagues.”
  • “The lion’s share of collaborative work tends to fall on women.”

As I read the article, I felt better and better about the way that I consistently work to share my information, social network and time and worse and worse about the negative impacts that the article said my collaborative overload was having on me and my teams. The article said that I was setting myself up for burnout and there was a risk I could become an institutional bottleneck and so overtaxed as to become ineffective.

It’s hard to look in a mirror and not like what you see.

So, what to do about it? Given my value system, there’s approximately 0% chance that I will turn into a ‘door closed, don’t ask me, say no to everything’ person. But, thankfully, the authors suggested some concrete ideas for responding that don’t involve me not being me.

First, it suggests shifting from being a personal resource (investing my own time and energy in solving) to being both an informational resource (sharing knowledge and skills) and social resource (providing access and network). Both of those collaborative resources are more efficient and the good news is that I already try to do both of those things. But, it’s a reminder that I need to do it more and to be consciously stingy about where I deploy the scarcest of my resources, my time and energy.

Second, it suggests changing how I respond to requests, by thoughtfully triaging emails and meeting requests. That’s always easier said than done. Strangely, I find that when I am most exhausted I retreat into the comfort of “cleaning my email box”. And, anytime I do try to set up barriers or limits (checking email twice a day, creating quick ways to delegate or ignore) it never lasts for long. The problem is doing those tasks is simple and I’m good at it — and I feel guilty ignoring the constant demands hiding there.

Lastly, the article suggested ways to increase awareness on the need to recognize and reward individuals who manage to deliver results and help others deliver. Those employees, the article and related studies suggest, have the potential to contribute substantially more than their teammates, driving organizational performance at a time when collaboration is critical to success.

But only if they don’t burn themselves out first.

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