‘Collaborative Overload’ – A Response

There are countless stories of conversations that did not happen, but should have.  Coworkers unknowingly doing duplicate work, as well as seemingly unsolvable challenges whose answer is less than a skip, jump or hop away.  Often times the greatest value a good consultant can provide is to talk with a broader range of the company than is usually involved in such matters and then present these ‘new’ insights to leadership.  An entertaining spin of this is the CBS show Undercover Boss, where owners discover first-hand how far detached they are from different areas of their business, often despite the best of intentions.

It is from this perspective that I wish to respond to Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant’s recent piece in Harvard Business Review, Collaborative Overload.  Over the past couple years, I have had the pleasure of speaking with each and derived significant inspiration and reassurance from their research.  This piece aims to resurrect important points that we share in common but seem to be lost among echoes by readers (e.g. ‘collaboration leads to burnout’, and ‘collaboration curse‘) that have taken their most recent work as a statement that enough is enough when it comes to collaboration.

At the heart of Cross, Rebele and Grant’s piece is the need to more effectively manage teamwork, so much so that they call for the establishment of a Chief Collaboration Officer.

Types of Collaboration

Part of the challenge lies in the all-encompassing term “collaboration.” Cross, Rebele and Grant present three types of collaborative resources: informational, social and personal.  The first two are more easily shared and thus scalable, whereas the third, an individual’s time is a limited resource.  At times individuals can be overloaded by one of these collaborative resources and simultaneously in need of another.

The proliferation of communication technologies has made it easier to extend our demands onto a wider array of colleagues, whether that is through copying them on emails or meeting invites and this has certainly resulted in a disproportionate collaboration requests falling upon those “known for being both capable and willing to help.”

Social business consultant Catherine Shinners makes a similar point in her reaction, Something’s On Overload, But It’s Not Collaboration, stating the problem may be better characterized as “inquiry overload” and “meeting overload.”

By clearly distinguishing between the collaboration types it becomes easier to identify which might be overloading and which might be lacking.

Uneven Collaboration

The primary concern of the article is the distribution of collaboration within the organization. Their description of the lopsided nature of collaborative work has been most often cited via the statistic that,

in most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.

And yet the flip side of this observation is that a significant chunk of the workforce is not going the extra mile contributing beyond the scope of his or her own role.

Take a look at their In Demand, Yet Disengaged chart that illustrates the correlation between colleagues in high demand and their engagement or career satisfaction. The top right quadrant shows those most acutely suffering from collaborative overload but the top left quadrant shows those that are considered an effective source of information yet in low demand from colleagues. The top left quadrant (knowledgeable and not overloaded) appears to have more individuals than the top right quadrant (knowledgeable and overloaded) and if more people were aware of those in the top left quadrant, then the top right would not be as overloaded.

To further illustrate the need to redistribute the work, the authors present the example of ‘Vernell,’ the top collaborator at one of the organizations the authors worked with highlights the organizational challenge of information and social resources that are not accessible or transparent.

…only 18% of the requesters said they needed more personal access to him to achieve their business goals; the rest were content with the informational and social resources he was providing.

Vernell is serving as a bridge to other information and contacts.  Colleagues were reaching out to Vernell because they didn’t know who else to reach out to, and he had become a bottleneck as more and more colleagues realized that he could effectively direct them to what they needed.

The tension highlighted throughout the Collaborative Overload piece is that by default manner in which colleagues are asking to collaborate drains on personal resources when information or social ones would suffice. The authors list several solutions to the challenge of redistributing the work including:

  • Encourage Behavioral Change
  • Leverage technology and physical space to make informational and social resources more accessible and transparent.
  • Consider Structural Changes
  • Reward Effective Collaboration

I will focus the remainder of this response on the second suggestion, where my experience best positions me to add to the conversation.

Proximity by Design

Early in the article, the authors lament,

…when people want to collaborate… [i]nstead of asking for specific informational or social resources – or better yet, searching in existing repositories such as reports or knowledge libraries – people ask for hands-on assistance they may not even need.

This inclination towards repositories and databases to store and search for information is found in their suggestion to use open discussion threads available in Slack and Salesforce.com’s Chatter.  However, in my opinion this gives a false sense of the degree of interactivity. Drawing from Kerstin Sailer’s work on removing walls in work settings, it is important remembering that Seeing is Not Interacting.  Such open channels give the sense of universal access, but without substantive interaction informational resources will not extend beyond their existing spheres.  Ben Waber has similarly shown that both face-to-face and digital communications follow the Allen Curve which shows that the further away people are the less likely we are to speak with them, “engineers who shared a physical space were 20% more likely to stay in touch digitally than those who worked elsewhere.” (Workspaces that Move).  Bringing these insights together leads one to question whether such open discussion threads will lead to new productive relationships beyond the transactional exchange of information.

People want real relationships and engagement with others around them, not just to be bombarded with questions or demands when they are considered useful and then out of sight out of mind. Cross, Rebele and Grant’s research shows that:

60% wanted to spend less time responding to ad hoc collaboration requests, 40% wanted to spend more time training, coaching, and mentoring.

Communication technologies can facilitate transactional exchanges but are often followed by quick getaways, quite at odds with the more substantial engagement we seek.  We think we are doing each other a favor by being direct in our inquiry and not wasting the other person’s time.  Meanwhile, were we to meet in person it would seem rude to not make small talk and yet it is precisely this small talk that opens the possibility for relationships to develop.

A second approach Cross, Rebele and Grant  suggest to building relationships among employees is to colocate them,

to rethink desk or office placement… to facilitate brief and impromptu face-to-face collaborations, resulting in a more efficient exchange of resources.

This is likely to lead to deeper relationships but they will remain geographically localized and new bottlenecks will emerge as interaction patterns settle following the reshuffling.  These sorts of exchanges can be, and should be, encouraged across the office in a more
systematic way without relying solely on office layout.

collaboration overload visualWhile the focus in Collaborative Overload is on the overloaded, one solution may be more sustentative and deep engagement between the colleagues requesting information.

If the overburdened collaborator is often introducing the inquirer to a better suited person to provide assistance, there is need for better network weaving, making auxiliary paths to reduce the bottleneck and stress. To ease the overloaded, further interaction among clusters of employees can actually defuse the pressure placed on overburdened staff by surfacing the wealth of untapped internal resources.

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