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Why you need to be mindful of collaborating too much

3rd November 2016

 
We recently wrote a post on the four key areas we focus on for effective collaborative teamwork. Which you can read
here. So we understand the importance of collaboration. And therefore are not surprised to see just how far ‘collaboration’ has risen in popularity over the years.
 
However, collaboration where once was the golden child of the business world – and to many still is – seems now to be starting to show some cracks.
 
A great article in the Harvard Business Review – ‘Collaborative Overload’, helped to shine more light on the collaborative problem. Yet it is still a problem that no one really wants to recognise. Probably so – many argue – because collaboration has become so popular that it is now so deeply rooted in work, it would be difficult to change.
 
They say too much of anything is bad for you. Is this now what we’re seeing in the case of collaboration? That’s what we’ll try to answer in this post, by briefly going over:
 
– Why collaboration has risen in importance so much
– The problems with collaboration
– Thoughts on collaborating better
– What the future looks set to hold for collaboration
 
 
 

Why has collaboration risen in popularity so much over the years?

Collaboration is based on a very simple idea:

 

You can achieve things collectively that can’t be achieved individually.

 
Teamwork is therefore classed as being fundamental to organisational success. And this view, combined with factors such as:
 
– A more global workforce
– More use of remote and freelance talent
– Greater levels of connectivity – the abundance of collaborative tech tools
– A more cross-functional approach to work. Flatter, less hierarchical structures.
 
All have led to collaboration making up a huge part of an employee’s role – particularly if you are a knowledge worker.
 
It’s clear that collaboration’s rise is due to organisations trying to better leverage all of their skills and knowledge – their ‘corporate intelligence’ if you like. By getting employees to work together to share their knowledge and skills with others within the workforce.
 
Yet, just think of all the meetings you have to attend, the emails you have to answer, the phone calls you have to take, and all the times you are interrupted to be asked for your input. And now think of the time you actually spend doing real productive work. You should now start to see the imbalance that many are voicing their concerns with.
 
 
Let’s now look at bit further at some of the problems too much collaboration is causing.
 
 
 

The problems with collaboration

As we’ve already alluded to, overuse of collaboration has a detrimental effective on levels of productivity, efficiency and even creativity. And what with those being key ingredients for business success, clearly collaboration is now posing some difficulties.
 
 

Efficiency and productivity

It can be said that we’ve reached a point where it has basically become Collaboration Vs Efficiency. And in the fast paced, ever changing world of work. The need to respond quicker to changing business factors, and be faster to market, has turned efficiency into a priority. A priority that collaboration works against – by slowing things down.
 
The slowing down of work tends to be caused by the constant need for people to collaborate and sign off on projects. The main issue with this is how you’ll tend to find only a few key people that are the go to collaborators. Therefore, it is very easy for a slowdown in progress, as these collaborators often cause bottlenecks to occur.
 
 
 

Creativity

Collaborative overload is also impacting upon creativity. While we’re in no way undermining or doubting the importance of collaboration for creativity and innovation. It’s important to be mindful that alone time and individual thinking, is a crucial part of the creative process. This is something we also talk about in another post – ‘How to brainstorm, better’.
 
Essentially, there’s a danger – with excess collaboration – of falling into the practice of ‘groupthink’. Which can lead to poor decisions being made, and resulting in mundane work absent of any true creativity and innovation.
 
 
 

Not knowing how to collaborate well

Perhaps the biggest problem with collaboration is that no one really knows how to collaborate well. We all likely think we’re great collaborators. But the truth is not many have been taught the right skills, or truly know what collaboration is.
 
It’s always worth remembering that collaboration can be defined as:
 

A series of interactions between two or more people for a specific purpose or goal

 
People all to easily think they are collaborating. But really the chances are they’re either cooperating, coordinating, communicating or just holding a conversation.
 
That’s why there must always be a purpose and a goal when working with others. And so why there must be some output from collaboration – achieved in the most efficient way possible.
 
That leads us nicely onto how we can improve collaboration.
 
 
 

Improving collaboration

What is important to point out here is how key to success in the future of work is the practice of ‘Deep Work’.
 
Deep Work is a term coined by Cal Newport, found in his brilliant book:
 
Deep work: Rules for focussed success in a distracted world.
 
In a nutshell, ‘Deep work’ is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It is about how we have all become too distracted by constant emails, social media, meetings etc. It’s very much again arguing the case for less collaboration. Yet, importantly it does recognise the importance of collaboration.
 
Organisations and employees should take note of Cal Newport and his thoughts on Deep Work. As crucial to improving collaboration, is the need for behavioural change. Basically employees need to reduce the amount of collaboration they do.
 
Employees should put blockers in place. Such as simply making themselves unavailable from the organisations online messaging network. Or refuse to get involved with hands on collaboration, and instead simply point people to relevant resources and information.
 
Furthermore, employees should be given more autonomy to make decisions themselves. Therefore, avoiding the need to ask – collaborate with – others, which is often what slows work/output dramatically down.
 
To help achieve the above, organisations need to take more responsibility in ensuring collaboration is being done well. Educate, train and set boundaries for employees to follow. And to ensure employees take the appropriate actions, use a rewards scheme.
 
For too long, when it comes to collaboration, the success of individuals is what has always been rewarded. This can create the wrong type of collaboration. The type that individuals are only doing to be rewarded individually. Organisations should reward and celebrate the collaboration, not the individual success.
 
Like with most behaviour change required in the workplace, it’s all to do with a change in culture. We need to change the culture from ‘you can never collaborate too much’. To one of ‘collaborate just enough’.
 
 
 

What the future looks set to hold for collaboration

 
To be clear, collaboration is an important part of work. And we do not ever see it being removed. Instead, organisations will get a better grip on collaboration, chiefly though having a better understanding of it.
 
Organisations will therefore;
 
– Better train employees on how to be collaborative.
– Measure collaboration more successfully – and in doing so be able to identify any problem areas, avoiding overload.
– Balance the relationships between collaboration, productivity, efficiency and creativity – finding that sweat spot for success.
 
Ultimately, the future of work will remain a highly collaborative one. But organisations will realise that they need to dial down on the use of collaboration, if they are to get the most from their employees, and thrive as an organisation.
 
Employees are at near breaking point with collaborative overload. It’s no wonder UK productivity levels are so low. It’s time everyone stopped ignoring the problems with collaboration and faced up to them. Then the real – and better collaborative – work can begin.
 
Until next time…
 
Rima
 
 

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