Are you collaborated out?

puppyIf you aren’t collaborating on a project these days then I don’t know what you are doing with your day.  It is everywhere in media and advertising circles these days.

If we’re not partnering we’re collaborating.  If we’re not collaborating we’re playing as a team.  And if we’re not doing that at least then we’re probably barely on speaking terms.  Does no-one do anything on their own anymore?  (By the way, this was written with no collaboration at all so if you don’t like it you can blame me and me alone).

Team work is obviously a good thing, and an essential ingredient of the complex communications eco-system in which we all operate.  Matrix management is essential for most businesses these days, and working together to promote a single goal is crucial.

However, it sometimes seems that no organisation can take any steps without ensuring that loads of people have collaborated on a project.  We have a new almost religious belief in the wisdom of the crowd and any sense of healthy competition makes some people faint in their designer sports shoes.

Everyone has to at least give an impression of being collaborative.

Two things about this.

First not everyone thinks that large collaborations are the best way to achieve excellence.  Brilliantly creative people don’t always regard it as a big criteria for success.  Dave Trott, writing on the dangers of the wisdom of the crowd, points out that “a crowd is just other people.  And people can be wrong.  Just because there’s a lot of them doesn’t make them any less wrong.”  Picasso wasn’t known for working in a team.

Secondly, even if you accept that collaborating can get you much further with a project than mulling over it on your own, (after all Rhianna has worked worked worked recently to great effect with Drake), collaboration is not always a fair distribution of labour.  A study in HBR by Rob Cross, Reb Rebele and Adam Grant (they must have collaborated on it)  shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often extremely lopsided.  In most cases they say up to 35% of value-added collaboration comes from just 3-5% of people.  And those people, who are great at adding value, and generous with their time and energy, get drawn into more and more projects in a spiral of “escalating citizenship”.  This is great for a time but can backfire.  Helpful as they are they become bottle-necks.  People start delaying meetings because a particular all round collaboration-star isn’t available, or work won’t progress because they haven’t endorsed it.  Also they themselves become burnt out.  However flattering it is to be asked to contribute to 5 projects a week, as well as having to get on with their day job, no-one’s that good.  Often this goes unnoticed because those people are being called upon by different teams and being pulled in very different directions. And because they love being helpful they don’t ever say no.

The researchers give one example of a woman named Sharon who had a superb network of over 80 people who wanted her to be involved in projects.  But 40% of those people wanted more of her time, and Sharon was increasingly unable to cope, or to know how to say no, to protect her own work and work life balance.

Leaders need to be aware of how collaboration is operating across their business.  To make sure that it is not the default plan for every project, and to make sure that some of their brightest stars don’t get “collaborated out” so that they can’t add value where and when it is really needed.



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