Are you over collaborating?
It feels good to be part of a team and collaboration is important. Don’t get me wrong, achieving synergies, solving wicked problems, and meeting customer expectations requires us to work outside of our silos and collaborate. It is uplifting knowing that others in our organisation are there to help us succeed, and vice versa. But can you have too much of a good thing?
Many leaders espouse the value and importance of collaboration across their organisation. And it is important. However, there is often an over reliance on the concept of collaboration when in reality we should be encouraging an attitude and behaviour of cooperation.
As social beings, we have a social bias or belief that collaboration is always better. However, many researchers and authors challenge this; as do I. Jake Breeden (2013) in his book Tipping Sacred Cows writes about the need to move from automatic collaboration to accountable collaboration. With “auto-collaboration” too many of us say yes to too many requests and accountability starts to fade. With too many people involved no one takes personal accountability – it is too easy to hide.
Research into 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20 to 35 percent of value-added collaborations come from only 3 to 5 percent of employees (Mankins, 2017). And the successful contribution from these individuals results in them being called upon to do more. In doing so, there is significantly less time for focused individual work, careful reflection, and sound decision making. These are the same individuals often working longer hours to deliver against all their obligations.
Data shows that during the past two decades, the amount of time employees spend engaged in “collaborative” work – in meetings, on phone calls or answering emails – has increased by about 50 percent.
Covid-19, and being forced to work in new ways, has exposed how thinly people are stretched across organisations. In order to stay connected with every team we are on, every project we contribute to and every network, community of practice that we participate in, we have experienced an explosion of online calls. This is the number one anxiety that has emerged from my work with teams over the last few months.
I could go on but I think you get the message. If you want to go deeper, Morten Hansen (2009) wrote an HBR article “When internal collaboration is bad for your company” as did Rob Cross (2016) “Collaboration Overload“.
How then to address the challenge of excessive collaboration
First, look at your organisation design, processes, and structures. All structures create silos and that is not always a bad thing. However, it is important to be intentional in identifying where organisation collaboration is really needed, and why. Design in these points of collaboration, protect them and don’t allow new ones to “pop up”. Go deep into your processes and identify those that cross organisational boundaries requiring units to work together. Points of interdependency are a great place to start.
Further, not all collaboration is the same and can be achieved in different ways. In their book on organisation design, Kates & Galbraith (2007) write about the continuum of Lateral Connections (see page 18 & 96). In summary, the more complicated the task the stronger the connection or type of collaboration is needed. Think of moving up a continuum from networks to team to integrative roles and finally the ubiquitous organisation matrix.
The second is a shift in our attitudes and behaviours towards collaboration. Here I want to touch on the difference between collaboration and co-operation.
Collaboration and Cooperation are two sides of the same coin, but they are different.
Collaboration happens when we work jointly with others, especially in an intellectual endeavour. This requires me making a conscious choice to reprioritise my time and work so that we can work together. I am thus giving something up for our collective benefit.
The definition of cooperation is to work together in a positive manner for a common purpose. As you can see, this is vaguer and may mean we work individually and yet still for a common purpose. Subtle difference, yet important.
At the core is the ability to control your own agenda and priorities. Collaboration requires a constant state of interdependence whilst co-operation is a continual shift between being independent and dependent (Spencer, 2016). We should encourage a friendly willingness to share information and help each other without being called upon to then attend meetings, workshops, join the project team etc.
So what can I do….
Too often we want to be helpful, and so try to squeeze support into our schedules when really, we just want to get the pressing things on our to-do list done.
- Make an audit of all the collaborations you are a part of. A good way is to check how many and how often you are in meetings organised by others. Then, be critical as to why you are attending and the value this brings to the work.
- Make teams, especially project teams temporary. Whilst it might feel good, only collaborate when not doing so would be detrimental to the organisation.
- Revisit and stay aligned with the big picture. If the context or big picture changes, maybe you are no longer needed or even the team is no longer needed.
- Know when your time is up and have the courage to step off a project. “My work here is done”!
- Disconnect and turn off notifications. Technology makes it much easier, if not too easy, for others to reach us. Give yourself the solitude and time to focus on your complex, slow thinking work.
- Refuse to accept invitations to any meetings where the purpose of the meeting and why you need to attend have been clearly specified.
- Learn to say no, redirect people to others who can help or commit to come back and help when you have time available.
Breeden, J. (2013). Tipping sacred cows: kick the bad work habits that masquerade as virtues. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint.
Cross, R., Taylor, S., & Zehner, D. E. B. (2018). Collaboration without Burnout. Harvard Business Review, (August 2018), 134–138.
Hansen, M. T. (2009). When lnternal Collaboration is bad for Your Company. Harvard Business Review, April, 82–88.
Kates, A., & Galbraith, J. (2007). Designing Your Organization: Using the STAR Model to Solve 5 Critical Design Challenges.
Mankins, M. (2017). Collaboration Overload Is a Symptom of a Deeper Organizational Problem. Harvard Business Review, 1–6.