The Downside of Collaboration
The mere mention of keeping up with overflowing email, constant meetings, and time-sucking conference calls makes many of us groan and roll our eyes. How did we all get so busy?
A major culprit is the sharp rise in cross-functional collaboration over the past several years. Today, it’s often not enough to just put your head down and work in one department for one boss. Demands can come at you daily from other functional areas of the company — marketing, R&D, finance — sometimes from colleagues you barely know, both within the U.S. and overseas in other time zones. And if you work in an open-plan office, your colleagues will often walk around starting impromptu discussions (when it’s convenient for them, not necessarily you). It can be overwhelming.
Yet collaboration has long been touted as a key to success. Steve Jobs is credited with saying, “Great things in business are never done by one person, they’re done by a team of people.” Virgin’s Richard Branson recently told Inc., “The fundamental driver of our success at Virgin has, and will always be, our people working together.” Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison has stated, “There is no such thing as a self-made man.” And one can go back further for many old chestnuts about teamwork.
Cross-functional collaboration is now deeply ingrained in the American knowledge economy. According to Rob Cross, a professor of global leadership at Babson College, “The collaborative intensity of work has exploded over the past decade.” He attributes this to the increased complexity of products and services, globalization, email proliferation, and the adoption of collaborative tools and social media. Cross also links the phenomenon to the rise of matrix-based organizational structures, which replace traditional hierarchical management with dual lines of reporting. Employees answer to both a functional manager and a product manager.
Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard agrees: “With globalization, with technology, with all sorts of changes in the workplace … you need multiple perspectives.” As a result, there are many more tasks that require teams, she says. She notes that even a small domestic firm today may be “sourcing things from Indonesia or China,” which entails a better grasp of international, legal, and regulatory issues than was necessary in the past. Harnessing collective knowledge becomes increasingly important.
And collaboration can yield unparalleled business results, according to Cross. “There’s just a range of things [about collaboration] that are undeniably positive.” Among these he cites employees’ ability to obtain information and expertise, which he says is better now than at any point in business history. He highlights the power of being able to reach out to others and engage laterally, “in ways that help organizations either holistically respond to a client request, or find new ways of integrating capabilities that [might] yield a new product offering, a new drug compound.”
Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell believes that collaboration has increased in response to a need for greater flexibility by businesses. The alternative to collaboration is rules and processes, he says, and “the problem is those rules don’t allow you to change what you are doing. They’re very rigid.” That system may work well when putting together a car on a production line, for example: each worker has his or her specific assigned responsibility. But for a different type of work in which a company needs to adjust swiftly to changing conditions, collaboration is the way to go.
Being Emailed to Death
The three experts agree, though, that the collaborative structure can have serious down sides, and must be implemented with careful planning and thought. For example, says Bidwell, the matrix organization “slows things down a lot. You get great decisions, but they take forever to make.” The reason is that unlike in the traditional hierarchy where there’s one decision maker, you have “messy lines of reporting.” A lot of time is spent swapping information and getting everybody on board.
Cross shares the opinion that a collaborative organizational structure can be a drain on people’s time and resources: people can be “emailed to death and meetinged to death.” He cites a statistic that most knowledge workers and leaders spend 85 percent or more of each week on email, meetings and on the phone, which suggests there’s little time left over to perform individualized tasks.
Moreover, it’s both the volume of work and the diversity of it that is slowing people down, he says. Juggling demands from people in different functional areas — including areas you may not be very knowledgeable about — means constantly switching gears. He quoted a cognitive psychologist who said that simply looking down at a text and looking back up entails a 64-second cognitive loss while you get up to speed on what you were thinking about. Imagine what this means, Cross says, when someone is answering messages only tangentially related to their job, or working in an open-space environment where people are continually stopping by.
Another serious impediment to productive collaboration is that the most talented employees can often become overburdened and dissatisfied because their input is so much in demand. This phenomenon was discussed in the 2016 Harvard Business Review article “Collaborative Overload,“ co-authored by Cross along with Reb Rebele and Wharton management professor Adam Grant. Looking at data from over 300 organizations, the authors found that up to one-third of value-added collaborations are typically generated by only a fraction (3 percent-5 percent) of employees. The authors write, “Helpful employees [soon] become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective.”
Cross, Rebele and Grant also write that many companies don’t adequately reward collaborative efforts because performance evaluations are based on an older model of individual achievement. Bidwell agrees that this often creates problems, and Rothbard calls it a “mixed message” that can be “confusing and frustrating” for employees.
There’s also evidence to suggest that women’s collaborative contributions are rewarded even less than men’s because we unconsciously expect women to be helpful by nature. Cross, Rebele and Grant cite a 2005 experiment by NYU psychology professors Madeline Heilman and Julie Chen which found that when a man stayed late to help colleagues, he earned 14 percent higher ratings than a woman who did the same. When neither helped, the woman was rated 12 percent lower than the man.
Rothbard mentions that there has been parallel research on so-called “office housekeeping” — taking notes at meetings, following up with people, doing the birthday cake in the break room — which shows that women often are automatically expected to perform these types of tasks and are penalized when they don’t.
Cross notes that some organizations are making efforts to address the imbalance between collaborative work and individual performance appraisals. “You see some professional services firms focusing much more on collaborative efforts … and not just on the individual from a rainmaker standpoint.” Other kinds of companies, too, are making efforts to compensate people based on revenue they enable others to generate. “That’s happening more and more out there, whether it be formal compensation schemes or informal mechanisms.”
Changing Collaborative Habits
Cross is researching ways that individuals can manage collaboration better and avoid burnout. He has interviewed over 200 people to identify how efficient collaborators get the greatest return in the shortest amount of time. One approach is that they impose structure in their own work. “They tend to do things like strategically calendaring, or blocking time, to be sure that they’re progressing toward their North Star and not getting drawn into things where either they don’t add unique value or that are not important to them.”
If asked for an hour of their time, the effective collaborator may give 30 minutes instead, with a stated or unstated hard stop. And, he says, if the individual gets caught up in a lengthy disagreement on email, they’re more likely to jump off and use a phone call or meeting to cut to the chase. Effective collaborators also selectively shift decision rights away from themselves. “They create alternative go-to people so the things they were good at five years ago aren’t tracking with them over time.”
Perhaps harder to change are the ways we make the collaborative burden harder on ourselves without realizing it: what Cross calls identity-based drivers of overload. Some people can’t resist jumping in because they love to help. Unfortunately, it comes back in the form of an avalanche of work. “You become the path of least resistance, and over time you get more and more demands coming at you.” Such individuals need to realize that saying yes to one thing always means saying no to something else, including time at home with one’s family, Cross says.
Other individuals may over-collaborate because they have a need to be recognized as the expert on certain topics. They gain satisfaction by having others defer to their knowledge. According to Cross, these people have difficulty “backing away and letting others own things.”
At the organizational level, Rothbard says companies need to do more than just throw people from different departments into a room (real or virtual) and expect them to come up with great ideas and results. For example, it’s valuable to include individuals who can “translate” across functional areas to help bridge potential silos. Companies can develop these individuals by creating “rotations,” a la medical school, through which entry-level employees spend time in different parts of the company, getting to understand various kinds of work and also building networks with the people who do it.
She notes that GE became well-known for using this rotation technique. Although it was mostly aimed toward developing people’s leadership potential, she says it also “allowed people to have knowledge of GE’s very large and sprawling product environment.”
Another important technique, in Rothbard’s view, is to allow an opportunity for team members to get to know one another. A busy team leader might think, “Oh, we’re just wasting time,” but it can yield serendipitous information that can spark connections and creativity. For instance, it may turn out that a marketing manager studied engineering as an undergraduate, or another individual had personal experience with a type of financial product the team wants to create.
Like many things, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do collaboration. You can’t just say no to people all the time, says Cross: you’ll end up being marginalized. Cross-functional collaboration is here to stay for the foreseeable future. But there are ways that people and organizations can learn do it well.