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How to collaborate better by collaborating less

Not every project requires collaboration across teams.

How to collaborate better by collaborating less
[Photo: FabrikaCr/IStock]

“Hypercollaboration” is the latest iteration of team-building, Slack-laden workplaces. Depending on who you ask, this might mean companies who gather various specialists to innovate new products. It might also mean company departments reaching out to other departments to improve their existing products. Either way, it means more and bigger teams.

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These hypercollaborative efforts tend to run on digital platforms—whether it be Slack messages, Google calendars, or Trello Boards. But perhaps the answer to the burnout of all the different project management tools and team message boards isn’t to combine them all. You see, burnout doesn’t come from the inability to click around to access another app. Burnout occurs when an employee is overwhelmed by work demands. The movement toward connectivity and collaboration means more and more people are spending more time in meetings and answering messages than doing the actual work.

Collaborative overload has been quantified, studied, and found to be often wasteful—even sexist. So perhaps it’s time to find methods of optimizing collaboration, leading to less burnout and turnover for employees and better results for the business. Here are some ideas on how to do just that.

Use “all hands” sparingly

Don’t get me wrong. Digital canvases are a great way to organize the multitude of apps we use at work, especially if you hire contractors or bring in teams from other companies that have different project management apps they are accustomed to. Any collection of individuals who share work can always improve their collaboration, and apps such as Slack or Trello do an excellent job at keeping teams on task. However, that doesn’t mean they need to collaborate more frequently or on more things and have more “anytime, anywhere” access to each other’s projects.

My research while working with teams at Mars Inc. proved that to collaborate better, organizations and groups need to collaborate less on those things that matter most. Collaboration is just one way that work gets done. Teamwork is not a panacea. What’s more, my research showed it’s expensive, more time-consuming, and more prone to creating conflict than having an individual do the work. So choose collaboration carefully, hyper or not.

Big projects don’t always require big teamwork

The M&M’s retail group was confronting the challenge of too much collaboration. The leadership team asked me for help as they navigated a turnaround, attempted to fix several operational issues, while also striving to meet aggressive growth targets. They were flying the plane as they were (re-) building it. They felt overwhelmed.

I asked a simple question after we broke down the larger goals into work tasks: “Which work genuinely requires collaboration and which doesn’t?”

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You should collaborate when the extra cost and complexity of teamwork pay off and improve outcomes. If both the intricacy and the stakes of a task are high, then collaboration makes sense. But if the task at hand is something that isn’t more complex than what a specialist (or a couple) can handle on their own, then why add the extra cost for your company and the extra frustration for your employees?

Ask, “Who are the necessary collaborators?”

Once the Mars team identified the work that was high-stakes and complex, thus requiring collaboration, I asked another simple question: “Of all the work that requires collaboration, how much of it requires the total team to be involved, and how much can be done by subsets?”

The team began to identify work that small groups could tackle and work that individual team members could complete or delegate. It turns out that only four projects required everyone’s involvement.

Why less collaboration is better

With fewer (but higher-quality) collaborative projects, the team needed fewer meetings. Fewer meetings meant less time developing agendas and building presentations and fewer invitations clogging already packed in-boxes. The best part? The meetings that they did have felt essential and relevant to everyone attending them, meaning they did better work.

The M&M’s retail leadership team became better collaborators by collaborating less. Less collaboration cleared the calendar and mental space that allowed them to dig deeper for higher-quality work. The impact wasn’t only in dollars (though the business was more profitable than it had been in years.) Their engagement scores went up because employees were doing more meaningful collective work.

It might seem counterintuitive to think about how you can collaborate less. But when you collaborate in projects that truly matter the most, you’ll get much better results. Sure, you could opt for hypercollaboration, and maybe you can’t undo all the apps already put in place for it. But perhaps the best solution is to ask a few simple questions and have your team think about how they can best work together in a meaningful way.

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Carlos Valdes-Dapena is the founder and managing principal at Corporate Collaboration Resources.

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