Collaboration overload is degrading our organizations

Harvard Business Review has a must-read article on a phenomena that some of us have already started to notice:  Too much collaboration degrades an organization’s ability to get work done.  The rise of matrix organizational schemes, dual reporting structures, and the large amount of necessary teamwork that comes with complex projects means a deluge of emails and meeting requests.  And the amount of communication required scales up dramatically with the increase in folks who need to be consulted or informed.

According to data we have collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.

Certainly, we find much to applaud in these developments. However, when consumption of a valuable resource spikes that dramatically, it should also give us pause. Consider a typical week in your own organization. How much time do people spend in meetings, on the phone, and responding to e-mails? At many companies the proportion hovers around 80%, leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own. Performance suffers as they are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources, or attendance at a meeting. They take assignments home, and soon, according to a large body of evidence on stress, burnout and turnover become real risks.

In biomedical research the problem is particularly acute because scientists need big continuous blocks of time to get their lab work done — anything from 2-3 hours up to a full day of time spent in the lab might be required.  Toss a few high priority or mandatory meetings into the mix and you might block a whole day of work.  One subtle degradation I’ve seen in the last 10-15 years is the loss of “two experiment” days. More than a decade ago I remember bench researchers routinely doing an experiment in the morning, the results of which drove a second follow up experiment executed in the afternoon.  I rarely see that now.  Today one experiment with associated data analysis and electronic notebook entry creation seems to be all that can be squeezed into a typical work day.

But here’s the worse thing of all: the collaboration burden falls most heavily on top performers who get deluged with requests for help.  Many of the best workers are eager to assist, and will spend significant time helping someone else.  But that takes away from time to work on their own projects.  And help doesn’t count at the end of the year as much as making milestones.  In the worst case scenario, the best performers spend too much time getting too little credit, their own work slows, they get burned out, and they quit.

What’s more, research we’ve done across more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided. In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance. Their giving mindset and desire to help others quickly enhances their performance and reputation. As a recent study led 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 role—can drive team performance more than all the other members combined.

Unfortunately, there is a destructive feedback loop:

But this “escalating citizenship,” as the University of Oklahoma professor Mark Bolino calls it, only further fuels the demands placed on top collaborators. We find that what starts as a virtuous cycle soon turns vicious. Soon helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective. And more often than not, the volume and diversity of work they do to benefit others goes unnoticed, because the requests are coming from other units, varied offices, or even multiple companies. In fact, when we use network analysis to identify the strongest collaborators in organizations, leaders are typically surprised by at least half the names on their lists. In our quest to reap the rewards of collaboration, we have inadvertently created open markets for it without recognizing the costs.

The authors have some suggestions to help control the situation, most notably:

  • Focus on efficient activities like sharing information and social awareness, rather than expending precious work time.
  • Reward good collaborators, not just high individual performers.
  • Take a hard look at recurring meetings, team rosters and distribution lists.  Make sure they’re adding value.

Read the whole thing.


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