Coach’s Corner Blog

Can You Collaborate Too Much?

October 26, 2016 by Leave a Comment

Key Collaborators

Knowledge has always been distributed, usually unevenly, across organizations. Senior leaders were the ones to pull the strands together to formulate key decisions.

Today, the availability of information and resources span the globe and demand more meetings and collaboration. This need is facilitated by many new tools and technologies, including:

  • Meeting management tools and discipline;
  • Videoconferencing;
  • Webinars;
  • Voicemail / Email;
  • GoToMeeting like tools for hosting communications that can support connections for up to thousands at a time.

This all has great promise, but there are risks as well. I have surveyed a worldwide investment banking group and they spent 40% of their time on email. A group of senior technical leaders spent 65% of their time in meetings – often doing email and texts at the same time.

In a Harvard Business Review article titled “Collaborative Overload“, the authors stated that employees spend around 80% of their time on meetings, email and the phone, “…leaving employees a little time for all of the critical work they must complete on their own.”

I’ve had many clients lament the time they must spend on evenings and weekends to keep up.

The good news is that all the communication tools available to us allow for the reality of “none of us is as smart as all of us” to come to fruition. But at what cost and for whom?

In the HBR article, it is pointed out that research across 300 organizations “…shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often lopsided. In most cases 25% to 35% of value added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees”. This is a remarkable finding, but it does reflect experiences I have found with many clients. A real imbalance is created when certain highly sought after individuals are consistently recruited for projects and many others are left out.

“A recent study by Ning Li, of the University of Iowa, shows a single “extra miler” – an employee who frequently contributes beyond the scope of his or her own role – can drive team performance more than all other members combined.” These top collaborators are capable and willing to help and once known for this, “they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance”.

There are several reasons these dynamic super collaborators see their involvement and the impact rise:

  1. These folks see their skills and knowledge expand rapidly. They see their functional / technical knowledge grow as it is applied, tested and examined.
  2. This is also a great opportunity to fine-tune their interpersonal and collaborative skills. The benefits of pattern recognition are very valuable to them as they develop.
  3. By immersion or osmosis, they become internal interpreters of what other groups or individuals are thinking or doing. They gain a great awareness of the current pulse of the organization and culture.

Success begets success if these extra milers are increasingly sought after across the organization. Their leaders become reluctant to limit their exposure as they see it as a legitimate opportunity for growth. But you must be careful what you wish for. As the demand for the super collaborators grows, there are unintended consequences:

  • It is very hard to dial back the demand for extra milers once their contributions become known. We always perform best when surrounded with the best talent, so these folks become increasingly sought after. If this gets out of hand, they can become an institutional bottleneck of sorts.
  • If the demand for their time becomes too excessive, the quality and productivity in their own role will diminish and potentially create a “slow leak” regarding their performance.
  • If a top collaborator is requested by too many others, the challenge of keeping up with the demands inevitably leads to burnout and employee turnover.

I have seen this happen with an international investment banking team I supported. As they came out of the depths of the recession of 2008, demand for their services took off. I was brought in to help assess why morale in the junior ranks of the team took a nose dive.

What I learned was that people were working incredible hours and often sleeping at the office. But the most talented staff and the ones most in demand across their sectors, seemed to be involved to a much greater extent than others. These top collaborators came to resent others who got to leave at more reasonable hours.

The outcome was that the schedulers within each sector took greater efforts to ensure that the work was spread around to create more equity and to stretch the folks that had been in less demand.

The key concern is that your top resources could gain a great deal of experience and provide great benefit to the team, but the risk of burnout or departure means companies must be prepared to overcome this risk. The authors of this article suggested:

  1. Encourage behavioral change: Help your top “extra milers” prioritize their time. Spread the work around better. Rethink all meetings and reports. Help them learn to say, “No”.
  2. Leverage technology like Slack and Chatter to create better internal communications. A health care business incubator I work with uses Slack to great effect. Also, think outside the box on where you locate folks, especially key contributors like this.
  3. Find ways to push decision making down to the lowest levels possible. Name some team members as “floaters” who are there to help as needed. Rotate the assignments to spread the learning.

The authors of this article also mentioned that being a top performer does not necessarily correlate with being a top collaborator. So, it is critical that you track the incidence of collaboration by key extra milers to ensure they are recognized for these contributions and rewarded accordingly.

Ask yourself:

  • Can I accurately say which of the team are extra milers and that they are recognized and rewarded for their contributions?
  • Does my organization have a way to track demand and commitments of our top collaborators to ensure they do not get overwhelmed?
  • Have I looked at how our business operates to ensure we can take advantage of these extra milers and manage the workflow in better and more efficient ways to support their contributions?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Filed Under Leadership Tools


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