Why is “Collaboration” a Dirty Word?
A friend who is a senior manager in a large corporation was grumbling over dinner about her upcoming work day. It was set to start with an 8 a.m. video conference (although her day officially begins at 9 a.m.) and contained four more meetings through the late afternoon. When I pressed her about whether all those meetings were really necessary, she offered up some weak tea about how gathering input from colleagues is central to solving problems and achieving results.
Collaboration has been one of the biggest buzzwords in the business world for the last three decades. From the Total Quality Management push of the 1990s to the no-cubicle environment fostered by today’s startups, collaboration has been key in building a more egalitarian workplace where individual contributions are valued and employees feel invested in the success of the whole.
But why has this most beautiful of buzzwords become a bad word?
Perhaps it’s because the growing dogpile of email, apps and video software that makes crowdsourcing easier than ever has also led to what researchers call “collaboration overload.” University professors have studied this phenomenon and warn that it results in stagnation, professional burnout and employee turnover. Here’s what they had to say in a recent article in Harvard Business Review:
“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.”
The research confirms what I’ve been saying for years. True collaboration cannot be accomplished without deliberation, decision-making and discipline. I believe there are five simple ingredients needed for frustration-free, results-oriented collaboration. So before you send out a calendar date for your next meeting, think about whether these basics apply.
- Define your collaboration activity. In their helpful primer on collaboration, global business consultants McKinsey & Co. remind us that “collaboration is not a panacea.” The answer to every problem within an organization isn’t always to get in the room hug it out. As they put it, “more collaboration is not necessarily better. Collaboration delivers substantial business value only when it is applied in the right situations and when the approach is appropriate to the challenge.” What are you trying to accomplish? Is it truly brainstorming an idea from scratch, or do you want to tackle a specific problem? Is a meeting the best way to accomplish your goal, or is it better to have employees think up ideas on their own and submit them to managers? Defining the activity helps you create the right context for finding solutions, whether that’s a 15-minute meeting or a daylong retreat.
- Define Your Outcome. This rule is deceptively simple, but it’s one that organizations often overlook. After all the jibber-jabber of brainstorming, a decision needs to be made. That’s the goal, right? Work toward it by working within the vision of what you want to accomplish.
- Pick the Right People. It seems like a no-brainer to round up your subject-matter experts to handle a problem, but in this era of “everybody in the pool,” collaboration has become large and messy. It reminds of an old riddle: What animal has 12 or more legs and no brain? A committee. In the McKinsey report, consultants warn that being overly inclusive leads to wasted time — and we all know wasted time is wasted money. Be judicious about who is involved in a project. Undoubtedly, some coworkers will feel left out, and they can always weigh in on the side. But a more targeted team will produce more meaningful results.
- Make a Decision. You can’t keep brainstorming forever. You must be confident in your choice and stick to your plan. That doesn’t mean you can’t tweak the process along the way. But it does mean that you must move forward.
- Launch Your Plan. This is the final step of successful collaboration, and it’s the underlying theme of everything we do at 48 Innovate. Create a timeline, put your plan into motion, assign responsibilities, hold the stakeholders accountable and follow up. We believe in 30-60-90 day checkpoints to make sure everything and everyone is on track.
The brilliant Florian Schneider, a Norweigan writer, filmmaker and professor, had some stinging words about collaboration. In his 2006 essay, he described the activity as “black holes within knowledge regimes.” He said collaboration “produces nothingness, opulence or ill-behavior. It does not happen for sentimental reasons, charity nor for the sake of efficiency, but for pure self interest.” Ouch. That’s pretty dark, and I prefer to dwell in the light. Collaboration doesn’t have to be a pejorative. It’s valuable. When done correctly, enriches the work life of employees and can help catapult a company from good to great. But you can’t just release the arm and hope to find your target. Follow the rules, get results and get on with it.
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