The Dark Side of Collaboration

Collaboration has been a buzzword of management gurus for the last 30 years. Countless articles have extolled the virtue of bringing together diverse perspectives and knowledge to solve problems and make decisions. Only recently have thought leaders begun to recognize the dangerous dark side of collaboration and the impact it is inadvertently having on the most generous employees.

It's no surprise how we got here. As organizations have shifted from vertical structures with tightly held command and control decision rights to flatter, more egalitarian and matrixed structures, the average employee's points of contact have grown exponentially. Add to that the dynamic and complex global marketplace that we're operating in today, and it's obvious why individuals need input from a broad range of colleagues to make the best decisions. And today's collaborative technologies - from Basecamp to Webex to Google docs - make it even easier to collaborate with colleagues all over the world.

So what's the problem? The problem is that in service of "collaboration", an awful lot of people have become expert at passing off their work to someone else. In fact, many organizations are just one big game of hot potato with expert players continually keeping work moving by holding meetings and engaging others without ever actually doing any work themselves.

Here are some common indicators that the collaborative culture in your organization isn't working:
  • There are innumerable cross-functional project teams working on initiatives. The teams spend significant amounts of time in meetings which produce minimal outcomes. Members of the teams are frustrated and privately complain that "this whole thing is a big waste of time". The same individuals get tapped again and again to be on these teams because they are known to be the few contributors who can move the ball forward.

  • Duplicative projects are constantly being initiated in different parts of the organization. When individuals over-rely on collaboration as their primary work strategy, they often neglect to take advantage of the other kinds of information resources available to them. It rarely occurs to them to search the company intranet or file-sharing platform for evidence of someone else trying to solve the same problem. In one organization, this problem was so common that they had to create a clearing house for all new projects in order to avoid rampant duplication of effort.
  • Meetings tend to be long (>60 min) and large (>10 people). Meetings proliferate because they are seen as the primary way to get work done. Individuals operate from the assumption that "we'll just get a bunch of smart people in a room and figure it out". Meeting invitations tend to feature a topic (e.g. Metrics) versus a statement of purpose (e.g. Decide how to measure our progress against the plan).
    • Teamwork is touted as a value and people are assessed on being collaborative / cooperative such that no one feels they can say "no" to any requests. A high value is placed on being responsive / inclusive and as a result, the default is to accept any and all meeting requests and to invite others "just in case" the topic is relevant.
    If the collaboration practices in your organization are working against you, it's time to push the reset button. When leaders incent and reward real collaboration, they can shift the culture back to one that works:
    • Reset the standard for how organizational time is consumed starting with your own. Hold meeting owners accountable for 1) framing the problem / conversation, 2) managing how the meeting unfolds and 3) documenting and distributing a recap of the outcomes

  • Role-model strategies for effective offline collaboration such as sending out a strawmodel for comment rather than simply holding meetings. It's well documented that editing is much easier to do well than creating from scratch so use your collaborators in that capacity.
  • Establish meeting free "think time" as a norm in the organization by picking certain times during the week where no meetings are scheduled. One organization established a weekly two hour work block when meetings are not allowed - thus emphasizing the importance of independent problem-solving and work time.
  • Adages such as "Two heads are better than one" and "Many hands make light work" persist because they are true. At the same time, too many hands just make a mess. Make sure that the collaboration in your organization isn't just a smokescreen allowing many to coast on the efforts of others.