We might think of rich communication between workers, transparent information sharing, and non-hierarchical decision-making as being attributes of high-performing organizations.
In the new book Beyond Collaboration Overload, Rob Cross argues that in excess all of those things contribute to burnout and low performance. “We endure a volume, diversity, and velocity of collaborations that place an unprecedented tax on our time and brains,” writes Cross, a management professor at Babson College.
He rightly points out that how many of us actually spend our work days doesn’t align with what we’d say are our professional or personal priorities. We attend meetings we don’t really need to be in, we devote hours to unnecessarily complicated email exchanges, we meddle in decisions that would be better made without our involvement, we practice flavors of “servant leadership” that strip us of any proactive capacity.
Cross contends that 90% of leaders suffer collaboration overload, and that it’s possible to perform better, be happier, and reclaim 18% to 24% of our work time by fixing this problem. His remedy is what he calls “essential collaboration,” which “encompasses the importance of working together as well as the need to reduce collaboration to its essentials.” (p. 8.)
Beyond Collaboration Overload, whose findings are rooted in Cross’s work as a researcher and consultant, offers timely cautions about overdoing some of the connection and communication that are hallmarks of modern workplaces and thought-provoking analysis of what high-performing leaders do differently from the rest of us.
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Cross says we over-collaborate because:
- We want to help others.
- We get a sense of fulfillment from accomplishment when we intervene in projects.
- We like being influential or recognized for our expertise.
- We fear being labeled a poor performer or colleagues.
- We need to feel on top of all of the details, and in control.
- We want closure, and are uncomfortable with ambiguity.
- We fear missing out.
He suggests that we can address over-collaboration and reclaim our time by:
- Addressing those identity and fear triggers that lead us to do so. “Develop clarity on your North star objectives, focusing on what you truly care about—not society’s definition of success as a certain role or promotion or way of spending your time,” Cross writes. (p. 88)
- Establishing roles and structure that reflects priorities. He recommends blocking off time in your calendar for more-reflective work and stripping away meetings that don’t align with your objectives. Cross also suggests delegating work to less-overloaded people, and shaping expectations of others to make clear when they don’t need to come to you for approval or register face time.
- Resetting communications and workflow norms. Cross argues for cutting time allotted for meetings in half (though acknowledges meetings are sometimes better longer.) He suggests tactics for limiting time consumed by email, such as establishing maximum lengths, using bullet points rather than full-text paragraphs, removing unnecessary ccs, and discouraging replies.
Once we’ve reclaimed time and addressed over-collaboration, we create space to really thrive in our work and lives, investing in our performance and well-being. Cross describes this as an infinite loop: “If you are more efficient, you are better able to tap networks for performance and well-being. And if you are accomplishing things of greater substance and showing up at work differently, you are better able to push back on collaboration overload.” (p. 39)
Cross cites several main attributes of the highest-performing leaders:
- They mobilize a broad network of connections in their work. This is seemingly in conflict with the idea that we’re collaborating too much. “Often, bigger networks just provide more ways to get overloaded with collaboration,” Cross acknowledges (p. 8.) But he says that the highest-performing individuals tap diverse networks—bridging different expertise, locations, functions, cultures, points of view—early on in medium-horizon projects, which are happening now and unfold over a few months. They strategically solicit the views of other people to fill gaps in their knowledge, gain perspective, and serendipitously break out of narrow ideas. (Cross argues that networking also is important in the short-term, with half-formed “micro-moment” ideas that others might spark, and longer-term prospecting for opportunities.)
- They energize people, which results in attracting opportunities and talent. “The biggest predictor of success isn’t network size, charisma, sociability, a big vocabulary, or a winning smile,” Cross writes. “It’s whether people tend to walk away from you feeling more enthused, a little bit more excited about what you are up to (which is critical if they are your leaders or key stakeholders) and what they are up to (which is critical if they are your peers or people who report to you.)” (p. 169.) Communicating purpose and building trust are two ways to be an energizer.
- They pursue personal connections and outside interests that increase their physical and mental wellbeing. Strategies for this include maintaining physical health with others, such as joining a running club, and pursuing outside hobbies, volunteering, or spending time with family. The key is to not let work crowd out other activities that bring health, balance, and purpose.
To be sure:
- The book is filled with stories of people who suffer from the problems Cross diagnoses and the approaches that they used to remedy them. But in the book’s end notes, Cross explains that these are “composite, fictional examples.” Cross says that they “accurately represent the findings” he derived from real people in real companies, the specifics of which he can’t reveal because of confidentiality agreements and concern for privacy. The approach is effective for illustrating his points—but readers should be aware that Beyond Collaboration Overload is thus an interweaving of fiction and research.
- Cross occasionally throws out numbers that seem dubiously precise given the many variables that go into how we work, such as his contention that you can reclaim 18% to 24% of your time. (He says this estimate is based on research.)
- Cross’s argument is addressed most squarely at leaders and senior managers, who have control over how they and their times spend their time, as opposed to workers who suffer from the impact of over-collaboration.
- “The main reason for much of the unhappiness among executives, managers, and employees turns out to be not some exogenous factor like technology. Instead, paradoxically, it is collaboration itself—or, rather, the dysfunctional forms of collaboration that most of us fall into by default.” (p. 6)
- “On a deep and unwitting level, we don’t want to free up time. We created the overload, and we don’t want it to end.” (p. 25)
- “The most-efficient collaborators have an expansive tolerance for ambiguity.” (p. 62)
- “Serendipitous events make up a larger part of our success than most of us realize, and...the most-successful people benefit greatly from them.” (p. 140)
- “Good long-horizon collaborators make exploratory discussions with their networks routine. They embrace routines that systematically set up meetings to discuss how they could potentially work with others to achieve greater impact...They take time to have off-task conversations, and they constantly ask questions that are outside the scope of any particular project.” (p. 156)
- “High performers are seen as ‘idea people,’ when in fact their main asset is their receptivity.” (p. 157)
The bottom line is that Beyond Collaboration Overload convincingly argues that well-meaning attempts at transparency, communication, and collaboration can go awry when they consume too much of our energy. Cross offers useful tips for how to reclaim your time and a compelling vision of what healthy networking and collaboration look like.
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