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When Collaboration Becomes Way Too Much of a Good Thing

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We’re sold on the benefits of team collaboration, at least in theory: Many heads are better than one. Diverse perspectives lead to better ideas. Cross-pollinating knowledge and lessons learned make us all smarter. Many hands make light work. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. And so on.

But sometimes (some would argue too much of the time), collaboration can lead to unnecessary frustration, slow down progress, dilute ideas, and rob us of our most valuable commodity, time.

My client Bill is a case in point. He’s part of a global IT project team, including members from New York, Boston, London, Germany, India and China. Naturally, real-time conversations are nearly impossible, or else incredibly inconvenient for some. Bill complains that he has virtually no time to get his real work done, since he feels forced to spend an inordinate amount of time either on teleconferences, IM, email, video and in rare cases, face to face, “collaborating” with team members on just about everything. “We are required to confer on every single topic,” he laments. “I could be getting so much more done if only I were allowed to have more time to myself. But I don’t dare speak up, because our company culture is all about being a great team player.”

As I read Collaboration without Punishment in the July/August edition of the Harvard Business Review, I thought about what advice I’d give to Bill and others facing the same challenges when a little too much collaboration leads to unintended consequences. Here are some tips, extracted in part from this terrific article by Rob Cross, Scott Taylor and Deb Zehner.

  • Determine whether you have a say in the matter. Do you only imagine that your participation in that meeting or email thread is mandatory, or are you really required to join in? Sometimes we assume that our presence is required, maybe because we feel that our knowledge or experience is indispensable, or because we believe that others need us to get their work done. If your presence is needed, can you provide insights or ideas another way, when it’s most efficient and convenient for you? E.g., can you share a link with sought-after information instead of having to review it out loud? Can you opt out of a review process if you feel that you don’t add any value? In any case, validate your assumptions before making a commitment to join.
  • Rethink how your team gets work done. Identify tasks or deliverables that can reasonably be done autonomously or in small groups. You may find that a greater number of in-depth conversations with only the right people can accelerate your progress far more than having less frequent meetings with dozens of people.  Does everyone need to weigh in on every decision, or can a subset of people make certain decisions on behalf of the team? Does every person need be thoroughly familiar with the detailed status report of every team member, or is a passing knowledge sufficient in most cases? Know when conversations are needed to move the work ahead, and have a well-orchestrated plan to get where you need to go by the end of the allotted time.
  • Be ruthless about assessing the ROI of your time spent. Take a look back at your calendar for the last several months and assess the extent to which the meetings you have attended (or led) have been useful and productive. Review your IM history to see how many and what kind of requests you have fielded or conversations you’ve participated in. Estimate how much time you typically spend reading or responding to non-essential emails. How many reports do you write that no one reads? Which of these activities tend to consistently move your work forward? Which can you reasonably pare down or stop altogether?  Reset expectations with colleagues, managers, clients or others to let them know why you need to scale down or pull back.
  • Beware the perils of being indispensable. Who doesn’t feel good about being the person everyone goes to for helping them to make valuable connections or find the right information? The trouble is, the more glowing your reputation as a “go-to” person, the less time you’ll have left for your core work, which inevitably means working longer hours.  And once people start counting on you, you may feel too guilty to say no the next time. If you want to live up to your helpful reputation without the burden of working more hours, try these tips: If you agree to help, insist on showing  people where to go so they can help themselves the next time. Ask that they share what they’ve learned from you with others who may need the same information, if appropriate.  Scale down the scope of your help to make it doable for you. E.g. “I’m not available to review your whole report, but I can show you where to find some really great examples.” Or: “I’m sorry that I’m unable to schedule time for a call to introduce you and Ann,  but I am happy to send an introductory email.”
  • Question the need for meetings. Insist on knowing the meeting objectives, agenda, and expectations for your participation so you can make a well-informed decision as to whether your presence is needed in real-time. In some cases, there may be easier and less time-consuming ways for you to share your ideas, experience or input without having to be present. If not, see whether it’s possible to participate in just part of the meeting, as long as you’re not offending or disrupting anyone by leaving early or joining late. Or it could be that someone else can make more valuable contributions than you.
  • Make the best use of meetings. When you do attend meetings, be an active contributor. Come prepared to discuss the topic at hand.  Ask thoughtful questions. Offer new ideas. Help colleagues solve problems. Seek help for addressing your own issues. If you’re going to commit the time to attend a meeting, be fully present to get the best ROI out of your meeting time. Even if you’re not the meeting leader, make sure that time is allocated to agree on clearly-defined actions and next steps before everyone says goodbye.
  • Maximize efficiency by using collaboration tools wisely. If your team still shares important documents primarily via email, it’s probably time to look at other virtual collaboration tools like Google Docs, Slack, Box, Skype for Business, or other apps or platforms that make it easy to access, review, edit or share team documents. When using email, agree on team protocols that can make it easy to determine whether a particular email requires urgent attention or action. If IM is an important communication channel for your team, establish boundaries and agree on expected levels of responsiveness. For example, is everyone expected to interrupt their meetings or work to respond to an IM if they’re at their desk?  Do team members  need to make sure their IM status is accurate at all times? By agreeing on the use of team collaboration tools, make sure you’re not inadvertently adding to the workload of team members.
  • Choose quality over quantity when it comes to making connections. Just as you want people to respect your time, the same applies when you’re seeking help or advice. Be clear about what you and the other stand to gain by making a connection, and be specific about your hoped-for outcomes when you set a time to meet. Follow up with agreed-upon actions, next steps, or insights you gleaned from the conversation. If the connection wasn’t as fruitful as you’d hoped, express appreciation for the time spent, and then move on. Chances are, the other person feels the same way.

The volume and diversity of collaborative demands is here to stay, say the authors of Collaboration without Burnout.  The ubiquity of virtual collaboration tools makes the temptation to collaborate hard to resist. Since relatively few organizations seem to be managing collaborative activity strategically, it falls to individuals to fight overload and reclaim their collaborative time.

Links

Team Charter Checklist – downloadable PDF by Guided Insights and West5 Consulting

Previous Communiques:

Successful Virtual Collaboration Takes a Lot More Than Just the Right Tools

Nine Hidden Assumptions That Can Kill Virtual Collaboration

Could You Be the Weak Link on Your Virtual Team?

Collaboration without Burnout in Harvard Business Review – January/February 2016, by Rob Cross, Scott Taylor and Deb Zehner

Collaborative Overload in Harvard Business Review – January/February 2016,by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant