Collaborative Overload? Stop the Madness.

Is your week filled with meetings, huddles, stand-ups and project group get-togethers? Staff meetings, feedback meetings, customer meetings? For many of us, we spend so much of our work week speaking and listening and working toward consensus, that we have little or no time to do the work that needs to be done by ourselves, in deep thought. Planning, thinking, analyzing, writing . . . all short-changed or absent due to the proliferation of collaboration. That feels like collaborative overload.

Most of our clients are looking to integrate collaboration into their cultures in one way or another - higher performing teams, better external collaboration with customers and vendors, and better collaboration among diverse teams for innovation and alignment. If you want to improve your creativity, leverage your resources for better results and get more engagement from every member of your company, collaboration is a powerful tool, when used correctly. However, "collaboration" has become a buzzword that simply means "more meetings" in many organizations.

Apart from our series on Effective Meetings, where we have suggested regular, shorter meetings, only having the right people present, and keeping your agenda agile and focused, there are three key tools for keeping collaboration healthy and efficient:

1. Don't aim for consensus. Too many times we assume that the best way of making decisions in a collaborative way is to have everyone agree to everything. This uses enormous amounts of time, and is often impossible to achieve. Instead, get a majority to agree, and the rest of the group to be able to live with and support that decision. The assumption becomes agreement unless you raise a red flag that you think a decision is a deal-breaker for some reason. (Raise the red flag? You need to propose an alternative.)

2. Stop having status update meetings. Many of the meetings we do have end up being a process of going around the table and hearing what everyone has done. Most of this information could be better captured in a dashboard, project document or even the dreaded email update. Sending a short summary of progress made and any issues or challenges ahead of a meeting. This allows you to focus on what really requires discussion instead of spending collaborative time passively listening to status updates. Now your meeting will be short and focused.

3. Schedule appointments for thinking work. If you really want to make sure you have thinking time, find a time in your week when you are least likely to get meetings scheduled. Set up a meeting with yourself on your calendar to block that time for thinking, planning, reading, writing or other work you do best by yourself. Give yourself over a solid hour or more. Most of us just use "white space" in the calendar for that work, but white space can by taken up by other meetings as quickly as sending a calendar invite. Purposely blocking some white space into thinking meetings helps you and others keep that time sacred. You get time to step back and think deeply about the big picture, planning next steps and simply being creative about the work at hand.

Healthy collaborative environments require a balance between conversation and time to think, and no one will schedule your thinking time for you. If you are feeling collaborative overwhelm, notice how your time is being used today, and apply these three ideas to carve out time to think. Spend less time in meetings listening or pursuing perfect consensus. You might even find you are better at collaboration when you have had time to digest new ideas and come up with new solutions to contribute.