Collaboration in 4 Inches

Apple recently announced the introduction of the 4 inch iPhone SE – evidently in response to consumers saying they wanted something smaller now that the iPhone “5s” has been out for a couple of years. The head scratcher is that the “5s” series was a phone crafted because people wanted something bigger.  Yes, little Simba, evidently it is a circle of life.

Which brings us to collaboration. Like the iPhone, what is big now may need to go small. Just ask anyone who works in a corporate setting and they’ll tell you they collaborate their day away. From emails to meetings to responding to requests, employees are spending as much as 80% “cooperating” with others in the workplace. All of this leaves little time for the critical stuff that needs to get done.

Simply put, “too much teamwork exhausts employees and saps productivity” according to  Harvard Business Review authors Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant writing for HBR in their article Collaborative Overload (February 2016). Just how small should we go to get to a more manageable bandwidth of collaboration? The answer may be what’s the equivalent of 4 inches?

HBR’s article on Collaborative Overload sheds light on the topic which should make every organizational leader take pause before parceling out collaboration mantras.

Precious Personal Resources

The HBR authors make the distinction that in today’s working world, individuals tap into three different collaborative resources– informational, social and personal.

Informational resources refer to know-how and skills – that tacit knowledge that can be written down and forwarded along to others.  Social resources is attributed as “involving one’s awareness, access, and position in a network” which is purported to better promote collaboration (thus the social media frenzy). But, it’s the third category that has people shouting amen – personal resources. In other words, “my time and energy,” of which there’s precious little to go around. Seriously – very little.

To make the case, HBR authors Cross, Rebele and Grant say that those workplace individuals who are seen as the best sources of information (and as collaborators most in demand), actually have the “lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores.” Alas, that dissatisfaction was only a number listed on a report. Unfortunately, according to the authors, research shows that this type of disengagement results in those collaborators extraordinaire jumping ship and taking their tribal knowledge and network resources with them. And, if they don’t leave, they tend to influence others with their growing discontent. So what’s the solution to collaboration overload? Two words – go smaller.

Before expanding collaboration efforts, companies would do well to measure their current usage.  Employee surveys, or other tracking systems, can be used to quickly get a pulse on work volume including number of meetings, emails, requests from others and so on.  Once there’s a better idea of the propensity for collaboration overload, then companies can focus on encouraging teams to behave smarter by showing them how to filter and prioritize requests.

For example, if you have high output collaborators (who tend to burn out fastest) give them permission to say “no” (or only allocate half the time being requested). Even get them to “set stronger boundaries around information flow” as the HBR article suggests.  And, encourage your team to build in activities that energize rather than just filling their workload basket with exhausting endeavors. Activities like coaching others, spending dedicated time to be creative, or attending a training seminar can be seen by some as ways to refuel and reset personal resources.

If you’re you and not an organization, you can still break through the collaboration conundrum by modifying your own behavior (and you don’t need permission to do it). Learn to better prioritize, rethink how often you’re saying yes to requests (could be that “not now, but maybe later” will be enough to give you respite), and build in some activities that actually recharge your batteries.

When it comes to collaboration, the circle of life in today’s workplace may be pointing all in the direction of a little bit smaller… maybe not 4 inches, but smaller nonetheless.

Based on Harvard Business Review Collaborative Overload by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant; January-February 2016