Is there such a thing as too much collaboration?

Take a look at any modern business and you’ll see collaboration happening in every department in many different ways. But is there such a thing as too much collaboration?

According to data from the Harvard Business Review, over the last 20 years collaborative activities have increased by 50 per cent or more at many businesses. Now, many employees spend 80 per cent of their time participating in collaboration in various forms – in meetings, on the phone or responding to emails – but when is the work getting done?

In fact, the Harvard Business Review carried out research that takes this a step further, suggesting that 20 to 35 per cent of value-added collaborations come from just three to five per cent of employees. This implies that many employees are taking part in collaborative activities but not actually adding value to the process. Arguably, they are ‘hiding behind’ other members of their team.

These individuals who are bringing value to collaborations – identified in a University of Iowa study as ‘extra milers’ – could then struggle to complete their own work. 

Harvard Business Review identifies three types of collaborative resources that people are looking for when they work together: informational (knowledge and skills that can be passed on to another party), social (awareness, access or positions that can be utilised by another party), and personal (time and energy that is spent working on collaborative projects). The issue, they say, is that “personal resources are often the default demand when people want to collaborate”. Rather than requesting specifically that knowledge is passed on, or access is granted, people ask for hands-on assistance – even when they may not need it. As a result, an exchange that could have taken five minutes or less results in a 30-minute meeting that strains personal resources on both sides.

However, the issues with collaboration go further than just becoming a time drain. According to research by MIT’s Mark Klein and colleagues, collaboration may actually kill creativity instead of build it. They found that collaborative design processes (where specialists work together to come up with innovative solutions) generally “reduced creativity due to the tendency to incrementally modify known successful designs rather than explore radically different and potentially superior ones”.

Read more: Is collaboration stifling productivity?

So what’s the solution?

WebpageFX founder William Craig has an interesting idea: budget your collaborative time.

“Some companies that struggle with ‘collaboration overload’ have reigned in their wastefulness of time by literally budgeting for it,” he explains. “Within the course of a month, or even during a single major project, the involved parties will agree on a certain maximum amount of time to spend on collaboration – sitting down to face-to-face meetings and the like. For a medium-sized project, maybe it’s a few hours.

“Each meeting gets deducted from the total you agreed upon in advance, pie-chart-style. It’s mostly a psychological rather than a practical trick, but it might help you figure out which processes and projects require an all-hands-on-deck meeting and which ones can move to the next step with a quiet word at a co-worker’s desk.”

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