How to thwart collaboration overload by working smarter

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Contributed by Rob Cross, professor of global leadership at Babson College, cofounder and research director of the Connected Commons business consortium, and author of Beyond Collaboration Overload: How to Work Smarter, Get Ahead, and Restore Your Well-Being.

What is dysfunctional collaboration?

The most common collaborative dysfunction is a product of too much collaboration driven either by an overly inclusive organizational culture, formal designs with too many reporting relationships, or excessively large spans of control formal structures that have either de-layered too much or gone to many dimensions in a matrix-based structure (eg, three accountability lines). These operating models can drive the collaborative footprint of roles to a level that is unsustainable. And this has gotten worse with the pandemic. 

Pre-pandemic, people were, on average, spending 85 percent or more of their time in collaborative activities—time spent on the phone, in meetings, on email and utilizing instant messaging. That number went up by 5 to 8 hours a week through the pandemic. No one is paying attention, though—leaders generally are just foisting more and more demands on overloaded people. This makes following some of the practices I discuss in the book to streamline collaboration critical for both performance and well-being.

Conversely, what is essential collaboration?

We see the successful people in our workplace—those in the top performance category and scoring higher on measures of career satisfaction and well-being—doing two critical things from a collaboration standpoint:

First, on the left side of the infinity loop (see image at left) they are taking actions that enable them to be more efficient than their peers by about one day per week. Then, critically, they are engaging with others differently to scale their work on two fronts: 

  1. They spend about 20 percent more time in exploration than average performers. Preserving time to explore possibilities with colleagues in different functions, locations, capability domains or even organizations. These “warm” relationships then prove to be critical when opportunities enable a person who has done this well to see a possibility and mobilize a network. This is a big deal from an entrepreneurial standpoint. These people are literally seeing innovative possibilities differently. 
  2. Such people also engage with others in ways that create their sense of purpose and energy. Across all of the work we find people that create energy or enthusiasm in networks is four times the predictor of a high performer. These people engage with others in ways that enable them to see possibilities, get enthused about the work, and understand the “why” in what they do. These are all critical to entrepreneurs as they are often problem-solving, and innovating. As a result, these people create networks that end up drawing in new opportunities, fueling greater creativity and providing more support. Of course the first things that fall away when an entrepreneur gets overloaded is exploration in the network’s early stage problem solving or engaging others in ways that energize them. So you start to see the importance of managing both sides of the infinity loop.

What are telltale signs that your company may be stuck in a dysfunctional collaboration rut?

Look at your calendar! Have you seen it stack up with meetings and then get even worse through COVID? Have you become reactive with your work, driven by others or are you proactive—and preserving time to pursue work you want to be doing? The most effective people are proactive in shaping their interactions; they block reflective time, calendar strategically, and engage more in collaborations that are fulfilling to them. They are also mindful of distractions—which are everywhere.

Ask yourself how long you can comfortably go before checking text or email. We often let ourselves think we need to be more and more reactive and responsive but that just results in more collaborations coming your way at a faster pace. Email begets email! 

Distractions add up more than we realize. The simple act of looking down at a text and back up can consume up to 64 seconds to get back on track. If we engage with someone to such a degree that we lose our train of thought it can take as long as 23 minutes to get back on track. Ask yourself how many such distractions you allow to happen each day and the cumulative time drain it imposes—and adjust it.

How can entrepreneurs guide teams away from dysfunctional collaboration?

Spend 30-60 minutes as a team and agree on what I call an “architecture of collaboration.” Create a table with the different collaboration modalities your team uses in the left hand column—email, phone calls, IM, collaborative spaces, etc. Then, have two other columns in this table:

  1. Norms the team wants to agree on.
  2. Behaviors the team wants to avoid because it drives excess collaboration. 

Make it a challenge to get five items in each box. You’ll be amazed by how much this helps establish team norms that improve efficiency of collaboration. 

For example, maybe agree that the team will not do email after 10pm at night. If you have to, then send it on a delay so that you’re not inspiring an “always on” culture with people responding at 10:02pm, 10:05pm and so on. People often overlook small things with email, because they cannot control all email. But if you can improve efficiency of the sphere that sends you the most email, you get about 60 percent of the problem! 

How can business owners gain back their collaboration time?

Business owners should focus on identifying one thing in each of the core domains—challenge beliefs, impose structure and alter behaviors—and be persistent with them. Also, take a moment to complete the online diagnostic that we make available in the book to quickly identify the practices that will have the greatest impact for you and your organization. It also provides a vehicle to diffuse these ideas into your teams. This was important pre-pandemic. But as we move into a hybrid form of work it has become critical for both people’s performance and well-being.

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